Neil Simon On Playwriting XII

September 19, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10

Interviewed by James Lipton

In the first production (of Jake’s Women), a couple of years ago, there were a lot of things wrong. It was miscast, I had a director I was unfamiliar with who didn’t really understand my process. We opened with a play that was about a sixty-two on a possible grade of a hundred. I brought the play up to about a seventy-eight. As we got toward the end of the run, just prior to going to New York, I thought, you can’t get by in New York with a seventy-eight. You need at least a ninety-six or ninety-seven. So, I said to everyone, Let’s just pull it. And we did. I thought it was dead forever, because I’d put so much into it and wasn’t able to save it. Two years later I took another crack at it and did a major rewrite in which . . . I had Jake speak to the audience. The play took a whole new turn. I thought it was finally up in the ninety-percent bracket.

(I)n the case of  . . . The Gingerbread Lady, which was a flawed play, the producer was going to put up a closing notice in Boston. Maureen Stapleton, who was starring in the play, came to me and said, If you close this play I’ll never speak to you again . . . . It needs work but don’t walk away from it! I thought, What a reasonable thing to say, because all it amounted to was more of my time. The producer said he wanted to close, to save me “from the slings and arrows of the critics in New York.” I said, I can take the slings and arrows. I’ve had enough success up to now. I’ll learn from this one. What finally made up my mind after reading three terrible reviews in Boston was that while waiting at the airport for my plane, I picked up The Christian Science Monitorand the review was a letter addressed to me. It said, Dear Neil Simon, I know you’re probably going to want to close this play, but I beg of you, don’t do it. This is potentially the best play you have written. You’re going into a whole new genre, a whole new mode of writing. Don’t abandon it. So, I called the producer and said, Please don’t close the play. Let’s run in Boston and see what happens. Then I didn’t want to get on a plane and arrive in New York an hour later; I wanted a four-hour trip on a train so I could start the rewrite. By the time I got to New York I had rewritten fifteen pages of the play. I stayed in New York for a week and came back with about thirty-five new pages. And we went to work. The play was never a major success, but we did have a year’s run and sold it to the movies. Maureen Stapleton won the Tony Award, and Marsha Mason, who played the lead in the film version, got an Oscar nomination.

Maybe the plays matured because I matured. I do want to be taken more seriously, yet I want to hear the laughter in the theater. The laughs are very often the same gratification to the audience as letting themselves cry. They’re interchangeable emotions.

If you’d like to read what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

Part XIII of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


Dramadoodle

July 19, 2010

“Ideas emerge from plays—not the other way around.”

Sam Shepard, born November 5, 1943

The above quote is from the introduction by Ross Wetzsteon to the paperback edition of “Sam Shepard: Fool For Love and Other Plays,” published in 1984 by Bantam Books. In the essay, Wetzsteon sets up the Shepard line above by first quoting thus: “I would have . . . a picture, and just start from there.” This impulse to visualize, Shepard went on, “is mistakenly called an idea by those who have never experienced it . . . . I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard the line, ‘where did the idea for the play come from?’ I never can answer it because it seems totally ass backwards.” Then Wetzsteon goes on to expand the idea by using more comments from Shepard and others. He begins with the playwright himself.  “. . . once it goes off into the so-called meaning of it, then it’s lost, it’s gone away.” Asked to “explain” one of his plays, he says simply, “I think explanation destroys it and makes it less than it is.” Or, in the words of Jacques Levy, who directed several of Shepard’s early plays: “Sam is more interested in doing something to audiences than in saying something to them.”

Next Wetzsteon asks what is this “something” he’s trying to “do”? He again quotes Levy who describes what Shepard is not trying to do: he says it, “has no relationship to the purging of emotions through identification or total involvement”; he then calls metaphor to the rescue: ” . . . it is more like the way changing a room’s temperature does something to the people in it.” Others say that Shepard’s genius lies not so much in helping us understand what we don’t know as it is in making us feel what we know all too well. “Symptoms,” Shepard has said, are “things that show on the outside what the inside might be up to. “It’s probably more to the point to say that he provides us not with the symptoms but with the disease itself, not with the outside but with the inside, not with ideas but with the feelings that are their source.

According to Wetzsteon, there’s a quality in Shepard’s work that can only be conveyed by referring to dreams, the feeling that we have entered a world at once beyond rational comprehension and yet utterly familiar. “I feel something here that’s going on that’s deeply mysterious,” Shepard has said of the way he approaches a play. I know that it’s true, but I can’t put my finger on it.” “The fantastic thing about theater,” he has said elsewhere, “is that it can make something be seen that’s invisible, and that’s where my interest in theater is—that you can be watching the thing happening with actors and costumes and light and set and language, and even plot, and something emerges from beyond that, and that’s the image part that I’m looking for, that sort of added dimension.”

This “something”—this added dimension—is what Sam Shepard gives me in his early plays like Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, and especially his one-act play, Action. The following blurb is from the October, 2004, University of Maryland at Baltimore County production of Action as staged by the UBMC Theatre Department (as are the two production photographs). “Action takes the audience right into the living room of a post-apocalyptic holiday. Liza, Lupe, Jeep and Shooter are trapped in a cold, isolated cabin after a mysterious “crisis.” Time has passed since the days of mass-media and indoor plumbing and they are struggling to pull off a holiday meal. Limited food, an uncertain future and overwhelming boredom begin to take their toll with disturbing and absurd results. In this hilarious marriage between the realistic and bizarre, Shepard offers a stirring look at the unplugged American mind.”

Action, which is included in this collection of Shepard plays by Ross Welzsteon, sure did something to me when I first saw it 25 or 30 years ago. It is a perfect example of his approach to play writing as stated in his introductory quotes. Back then, I attended a local production of the play and was powerfully moved by the experience. But I came away with no idea what it was that triggered my strong emotional reaction. I couldn’t even figure out what the play was about, and certainly had no idea how he had pulled those feelings out of me. That intrigued me and I spent many days after the performance thinking about the play and talking to people about it. Even to this day, when I find someone willing to listen, I do that. At some point along the way, though, I finally realized that what the play is “about” isn’t important, aside from the fact that it exists to somehow involve me in the playwright’s creative process, which is manifest in how, after all these years, the work continues to intrigue and mystify me—as do the best so-called “classic” plays such as Death of a Salesman and Our Town which have the same effect on me, albeit in less intensive doses.

What I take away from this is that it’s a huge mistake to try to figure out what Shepard’s best work is “about.” Try to dissect a Shepard play and you drain away its life force—you kill the power of it, in the same way you destroy the effect of a perfect joke if you have to explain the punchline.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.


Photo Quote

January 9, 2010

“When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way

they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.”

Robert Frank, born 1924

Copyright © 2010 Robert Frank.


Photo Quote

December 5, 2009

“Photography doesn’t teach you to express your

emotions, it teaches you to see.

Berenice Abbott, 1898-1991

New York Public Library Archives

From Here To Eternity

September 28, 2009

Classic Scenes from Classic Films

Kerr-Lancaster-Kiss

If I were asked to pick a perfect movie I’d quickly name From Here to Eternity, starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. The 1953 drama was adapted from the best selling novel by James Jones, screenplay by Daniel Taradash, and directed by Fred Zinnemann. I consider this film cinema gold from start to finish, but for the sake of brevity I’ll focus only on the relationship between the Lancaster and Kerr characters. Sergeant Warden and Karen Holmes’ love affair is the spine of the story and is introduced and developed by screenwriter Taradash in two perfect scenes, both of which come in the first twenty minutes of the film. Neither of them involve sand, sea or sex — at least not graphic sex.

Of course, anyone who knows anything about vintage movies is familiar with the erotic scene of Sergeant Warden and Karen kissing on the beach, the one with the wave breaking over their bodies. It’s an iconic film image, and the video is very popular on YouTube, even with people who have never seen the movie. Unlike couples in most movies, this wet duo enmeshed in a torrid embrace did not meet “cute.” You might even say they met “ugly,” or at least not very “pretty.” For me, their first scene together, which comes about ten minutes after the opening credits, is sexier than the beach scene by at least a factor of ten. No blatant fireworks, but there are sparks, a subtle display of sexual tension, mixed with an interesting undercurrent of dislike, even distrust. In that short scene there is strong attraction but also implicit conflict between the characters, and conflict, as we know, is the lifeblood of drama. For me, at least in dramatic terms, conflict is sexy. The smoldering and somewhat sarcastic banter between Karen and Warden in the scene foreshadows adultery to come. Karen, we quickly learn, is married to Warden’s commanding officer.

I’ve transcribed the two scenes by using a combination of Daniel Taradash’s second draft script, which I found on the Internet, and the movie. Both scenes as shot differ somewhat from the script, and I’ll point out how the first one is changed after we read it. In that first scene we discover Sergeant Warden in front of the company supply room talking to Leva, the supply clerk (as played by Mickey Shaughnessy in a great character rendering). They watch as Karen arrives in the area looking for her husband.

LONG SHOT KAREN HOLMES FROM WARDEN AND LEVA’S ANGLE as she walks toward them. She is at a considerable distance. Karen is about thirty. She wears a sweater and skirt. She is aware the men are studying her.

MEDIUM CLOSE SHOT WARDEN AND LEVA watching Karen.

LEVA : Shooish! — her and them sweaters.

LONG SHOT KAREN FROM WARDEN AND LEVA’S POV as she continues toward them. Warden’s and Lava’s voices, loud at first, get softer and softer the nearer Karen gets to camera. At end of the shot, as she is only a few yards away, they are practically whispering.

WARDEN’S VOICE: I’ll bet she’s colder than an iceberg . . .

LEVA’S VOICE: Not her, Top, she knows the score like I been tellin you.

WARDEN’S VOICE: (sarcastic) Is that right?

LEVA’S VOICE: Listen, not around here, but I was back at Fort Bliss with Holmes. I heard plenty about this lady then. Plenty.

WARDEN’S VOICE: You did, huh?

LEVA’S VOICE: Okay, not me — but I know some of them she played ‘round with, so don’t tell me.

WARDEN’S VOICE: I ain’t tellin you. You’re tellin me.

Karen stops a few paces from camera.

KAREN: Good morning, Sergeant.

WARDEN: Morning, ma’am.

MEDIUM SHOT. Lava watches, listens avidly but discreetly in background. During the dialogue, Karen seems irritated by Warden, who looks at her coolly, appraisingly, physically.

KAREN: I’m looking for my husband.

WARDEN: Captain Holmes just went in town, ma’am. On business.

KAREN: Oh. He was to have left some things for me; do you know anything about them?

WARDEN: No I don’t, ma’am. Anything I can do for you?

KAREN: No, thanks.

WARDEN: I’d be glad to help. Ma’am.

She makes a slight move to go, then pauses.

KAREN: My husband’s been telling me a lot about you, Sergeant. He says you’re very efficient.

WARDEN: Yes, ma’am.

KAREN: What is it that makes you so efficient, Sergeant?

WARDEN: I was born smart, ma’am.

Karen laughs suddenly, quietly.

KAREN: I love that. Well goodbye, Sergeant.

Karen turns and walks back toward her car. Warden and Leva watch her. When she is out of earshot Leva speaks.

LEVA: Man, she sure is one, ain’t she?

WARDEN: One what?

LEVA: One woman.

WARDEN: (unconvincingly): I’ve seen better.

As performed, the first scene in the movie between Karen and Warden differs only slightly from the Daniel Taradash second draft script. Most of the tweaks involve a word change here and there, changes that perfectly sharpen and clarify the dialogue between the characters. The first scene is an excellent example of what experts agree are the three things an effective dramatic scene should do: Advance the story, develop (deepen) character, and establish (and/or deepen) conflict. I would add a fourth thing. A good scene should also “entertain.” The entertaining aspect may be the result of the quality of the writing or the performances or, as in this case, a combination of both. In From Here To Eternity I believe we’ve given all four elements in just about every scene throughout the movie — and that, in my opinion, is what makes it a great film.

SceneKerr-Lancaster two between Sergeant Warden and Karen also has several departures from the draft script. These changes are more extensive. In fact, several lines of dialogue are cut from the end of the second draft version. I’ll talk a bit more about that after we’ve read the scene as filmed, which comes at about the twenty minute point in the movie:

EXT. BACK PORCH OF HOLMES’ HOUSE. DAY. MEDIUM CLOSE SHOT WARDEN standing outside in the rain. He wears a GI rain hat and coat. He pauses, then knocks briskly on the door of the screened porch. Karen opens the kitchen door onto the porch. She is in shorts and a blouse.

KAREN: Well, if it isn’t Sergeant Warden. You better step inside or you’ll get wet.

INT. PORCH OFF KITCHEN – DAY MEDIUM SHOT She opens the screen door and he steps onto the porch. He removes his rain hat, shaking off the raindrops.

WARDEN: I am wet.

KAREN: If you’re looking for the captain, he isn’t here.

WARDEN: (taking the long chance) And if I’m not looking for him?

KAREN: (unsmiling) He still isn’t here.

WARDEN: (quickly) Well, I’m looking for him. Do you know where he is?

KAREN: I haven’t the slightest idea. Perhaps he’s in town on business. That’s the way you put it the other day, isn’t it?

WARDEN: (fishes in his pocket, brings out papers) I got some papers it’s important for him to sign.

KAREN: (turns) I’ll try phoning him at the Club. Maybe he’s there.

WARDEN: Don’t do that. I never like to disturb a man when he’s drinking. I could use a drink my self. Aren’t you going to ask me in?

Karen finally smiles, faintly. She goes into the kitchen, leaving the door open. Warden follows her.

INT. KITCHEN HOLMES HOUSE – DAY MEDIUM SHOT The kitchen is small and undistinguished.

KAREN: (gestures): The liquor’s there, Sergeant — in the cabinet.

Warden takes a whisky bottle from the cabinet and pours a straight, stiff drink, puts the bottle on the table. He puts the papers down and drinks. Karen leans against the sink counter.

KAREN: You’re taking an awful chance, you know. My maid is liable to be home any time.

WARDEN: No she won’t. Thursday’s her day off.

KAREN: You think of everything, don’t you, Sergeant?

WARDEN: I try. In my position you have to.

KAREN: (goes to table and picks up the papers) Are these really important?

WARDEN: Yes. But not important they get signed today. Tomorrow’s okay.

Karen suddenly, deliberately, rips the papers in half, then crumbles and throws them into the wastebasket.

WARDEN: I got copies at the office, so it won’t be much work to fix them up.

Warden’s control has begun to affect Karen’s now. She is losing her poise.

KAREN: That’s what I like about you, Sergeant. You have confidence. It’s also what I dislike about you.

WARDEN: It’s not confidence, ma’am. It’s honesty. I just hate to see a beautiful woman goin all to waste.

He moves close to Karen, is on the verge of embracing her. Greatly tempted but greatly disturbed, she turns away. During her monologue she pours herself a drink. Her tone is no longer brittle. It is bitter.

KAREN: Waste, did you say, Sergeant? Now that’s a subject I might tell you something about. I know several kinds of waste, Sergeant. You’re probably not even remotely aware of some of them. Would you like to hear? For instance — what about the house without a child? There’s one sort for you. Then there’s another. (Karen takes a drink) You’re doing fine, Sergeant. My husband’s off somewhere, it’s raining outside, and we’re both drinking now. But you’ve probably got one thing wrong. The lady herself. The lady’s not what she seems. She’s a washout, if you know what I mean. And I’m sure you know what I mean.

WARDEN: You gonna cry?

KAREN: (turning away): Not if I can help it.

Warden takes a drink and puts the glass down on the table, hard enough for her to hear.

KAREN (turning back to him): What are you doing?

WARDEN I’m leaving. Isn’t that what you want?

KAREN (slowly) I don’t know, Sergeant. I don’t know.

They stare squarely at each other, both puzzled and a little afraid of their emotions. This is something neither had counted on. He goes to her and they kiss. Music up. The camera pulls back and out the window, into the rain.

FADE OUT

Now that’s one sexy scene, the sexiest in the movie, in my opinion. It’s much more erotic than that sea-soaked episode on the beach, the one that everyone remembers. Toggling back and forth between the second draft script and my tape of the movie was a revelation. I came to appreciate even more the writing skills involved, but also the contributions to the project that Kerr and Lancaster make — how subtly the nuance of facial expression, gesture, and body language communicate and reinforce emotions only hinted at on the page.

And remember that section of dialogue KerrLancaster2I mentioned that was cut from the second scene — removed either by the screenwriter in a later draft, or perhaps by the director as he shot the movie? In the Daniel Taradash second draft there was no kiss. In its place there is the following exchange, which comes after Karen says, “I don’t know, Sergeant. I don’t know.”

WARDEN: I know a beach near Diamond Head. Nobody ever goes there. The cars on the highway pass above and they never know it’s there. You feel like you used to feel when you were a kid, hiding by yourself in a cave, watching the others hunting you.

Karen turns, goes to the sink, puts the whisky bottle back in the cabinet.

KAREN: Maybe . . . why not?

WARDEN: How about Payday?

KAREN: You don’t have to spend money on me, Sergeant.

WARDEN: I just like to have some on me when I take out a woman. Can you get away?

KAREN: Maybe.

Warden grins. He goes to the door to the porch, pauses there.

WARDEN: I’ll be in Kuhio Park. Say, nine o’clock. Payday.

Karen leans back against the sink, watches him go out to the porch. A moment later the sound of the door is heard as he leaves. She turns on the faucet, starts to rinse the glasses they have used. Suddenly she turns the faucet on full force, watches it pound into the sink.

FADE OUT.

What is wrong with this second draft version of the scene? A more apt question is, What’s right with it? Take the blatant symbolism of the faucet water pounding into the sink, that’s downright corny. And the dialogue is too explicit, from Warden’s crude planning of their first “date” and it’s useless (to the audience) details. It’s all pure exposition that lacks even a suggestion of emotional nuance. Nothing is left for us to think about. Worse still, we feel nothing. We have been talked down to, led by the hand (nose) so that every thing is made perfectly (awfully) clear. Basically, we are disrespected and our intelligence is demeaned. We are insulted by being given TOO MUCH DIRECT INFORMATION.

You don’t have to be a professional screenwriter to figure out which of the two versions of that second scene between Karen and Sergeant Warden is best. It’s simple. The cuts and word changes made by the screenwriter and/or the director, enables us to connect to the story in a personal way. The same is true for the complete film. Throughout we are shown, not just told. We are allowed to feel our way into figuring it out for ourselves. The filmmakers permit us to collaborate in the creative process, and that’s what makes these two scenes — and the rest of the movie, all of which is treated with the same artful craft — so powerful. As I say, it’s a perfect film.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

If you have a classic scene from a classic movie that you’d like to share with the world, write it up (500-1,000 words) and send it along to jimscartoons@aol.com. I’d like to consider it for publication on the blog. Failing that, I’d at least like to know what you think of my choice in this case, pro or con.


Down The Ocean

July 3, 2009

Insulting Remarks from a First-Time Visitor

PostCd

“Ocean City, Maryland, is one of the three ugliest places on the face of the earth. The other two are that strip mall-strewn stretch of Ritchie Highway between Baltimore and Glen Burnie — and Glen Burnie itself.”

Those words were uttered, I’m ashamed to say, by an old buddy of mine one recent Sunday afternoon as we crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on our way back to Baltimore. We were returning home after spending what I had thought were three delightful days over the Fourth of July weekend at my favorite beach resort. The weather during our stay in Ocean City had been ideal: sunshiny days with a haze-free and cloudless deep blue sky; warm ocean water, alive with gentle breakers, perfect for swimming; and cool, sea-breeze nights which induced deep and restful sleep.

It was the end of Mort’s first visit there and I had innocently asked him to sum up the experience. I figured that with his fresh eyes he could offer some special insight into the appeal of the place — besides the obvious attraction of sand and sea, of course. I’m too close to the subject to be objective because, along with thousands of other Marylanders who have spent their summers there for generations, I feel an irrational and uncritical love for that city by the Atlantic. And I assumed that Mort, too, would respond to it in a positive way. I hoped that his comments would explain, or at least justify, the emotions I felt.

“The buildings in Ocean City are a string of discarded matchboxes,” Mort continued, “tied together with telephone wires and power lines. Have you ever in your life seen so many telephone poles? And all those gross cables running off in every direction? The jumble and smell of the place bring to mind old clothes on a wash line, middle of the night television advertising slogans, rancid tuna fish salad, loud next door neighbors arguing endlessly through humid city nights. Ocean City is so ugly that a sort of negative beauty slithers into it — anything that honky-tonk becomes interesting by the very depth of its bland bad taste.”

I should explain that Mort has led a sheltered life. Until that trip to the ocean he had never traveled outside the Baltimore city limits — so, naturally, his points of reference are rather limited. But those very limits lend an innocence and purity to his remarks. He has an uncanny knack for describing familiar things in new and often surprising ways. His slightly bent perspective allows light to strike areas that would otherwise — perhaps should — remain in darkness. “You’re missing the point,” Mort, I said. “The ocean is the thing. The rest is just icing.”

“The town is ultimately more interesting than the sea,” he replied, “because of what it tells you about human nature. The ocean is just a beautiful sideshow. After a while it’s boring to look at something so endlessly perfect. When that happens it’s fun to turn from God’s handiwork and contemplate what the paws of humans have wrought. And when you look at Ocean City — I mean really see it — it quickly becomes clear that 99 percent of what has been created there is truly tacky.”

“It’s a family resort, Mort — not the Taj Mahal. It was designed as a place to vacation in, not to stand back from and admire.”

“The fact is, Ocean City was ‘designed’ and built by businessmen with one motive only: pure profit. That explains the shoddy matchstick construction, the dime store aesthetics, the unplanned sprawl. The whole town is a great example of what greed can create when it’s given total control of local zoning laws.”

“Well, it may not be perfect in your opinion, Mort, but millions of people love Ocean City just the way it is.”

“In the first place, even calling it a ‘city’ is incorrect. Real cities have storm drains.”

“What?”

“Didn’t notice, huh? Whenever it rains the streets fill up with water and stay that way for hours after the storm has passed. Driving the Coastal Highway then is like fording a stream — lengthwise.”

“You’re right, Mort,” I said. It pains me to confess this, but, by the time I pulled up in front of Mort’s row house in East Baltimore I had been swayed — to some degree at least — by his argument. For the first time in my life I was seeing Ocean City with a less than loving eye. It was depressing.

We said our good-byes and Mort, as usual, had to have the last word. As he left my car he looked back over his shoulder. “There was one thing I did love about O. C., though.” Mort paused, but when I refused to bite he continued. “I thought all those beautiful, nearly naked young girls were fantastic! They alone would have been worth the trip — that is, if they’d had had anything on their little sun-fried minds besides the perfect tan.”

As is turned out, my Mort-induced funk was short-lived. Once he removed his gear from my car and mounted the white marble steps to his front door, my indiscriminate love for Ocean City began to revive and surge within me. By the time I had driven to the end of the block and turned onto Eastern Avenue, I was planning my next trip down to the ocean for the next weekend—without Mort.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

The original version of this small fiction, slightly longer and with a few word changes, was published in the Baltimore Evening Sun on August 2, 1979. It was one of a series of pieces I wrote at the time featuring the acerbic character “Mort,” my imaginary East Baltimore friend. In those days I was in an H. L. Mencken phase, strongly influenced by (stealing from) the Master. I discovered that the character served me well when I wanted to be critical and/or acidly humorous about any subject that popped into to my mind. And the best part was that I could shift resulting recrimination to my fictional alter ego. Mort the character was a handy writing tool indeed.


Double Future

October 29, 2008

One Saturday morning in 1944, when I was seven years old, my half-sister took me shopping at Cross Street Market in South Baltimore. By the time we got back out onto South Charles Street, she had the handles of two large cloth bags of fresh meat and vegetables in one hand, and was struggling to control me with the other. I had stopped in my tracks and was looking up at the Garden Theater marquee across the street, testing my new reading skills: “Double Future,” I said. “What’s that?”

“It’s ‘feature,’ not ‘future,'” my sister said. “It means you get two movies for the price of one.” It was common in those days for a country boy my age, new to the big city, to be ignorant in such worldly matters. My family had moved to Baltimore from Virginia the year before so that my father, a carpenter, could find work in the shipyards. “What’s a movie?” I asked. Pulling me along toward Hanover Street and home, my sister explained as best she could. To keep me moving, she promised to take me soon to see my first “moving picture show.”

I can’t remember if my sister kept that promise, but someone must have, because I’ve been going to movies ever since. In subsequent years I saw many shows at that very same Garden Theater. One Saturday morning show at the Garden stands out in my mind. It was 1950 or ’51, I was 13 or 14, and by then, of course, I had been allowed to attend movies alone for some time. I was sitting where I always did, in the very last row with my back against the wall. (I could never understand why many of the kids crowded close to the front of the theater—some so near the screen that they had to look straight up to see the distorted images moving in the light.) The newsreel was on. Pictures of tanks going into combat over hilly terrain; soldiers, their rifles at the ready, running alongside the metal monsters. I don’t remember the exact words, but the narrator was saying something like: “On May 15, U. S. tanks crossed the 38th Parallel and penetrated 13 miles into North Korea.” Music swelled, then died. More pictures, the camera keeping well back from the action, detached. The film showed men being wounded and killed, but from so far away it was oddly glorious and didn’t look to be at all painful.

I had joined the line in front of the theater at 9 o’clock that morning, and the box office began selling tickets at 10. The newsreel began minutes after I was seated, and we kids were on good behavior during it. But when the Technicolor cartoon flashed on the screen, we let go, responding to the animated antics with hand clapping, screaming and stamping feet. We hooted the villain—Bluto—and cheered the exploits of the hero—Popeye. Some of the kids left their seats and ran up and down the aisles. Spitballs, like fireflies, traced beautiful arcs through the projected light.

After the cartoon, a technical hitch caused a delay while the projectionist tried to get the weekly serial installment of “Captain America” started. We quickly grew restless again, yelling, firing cap pistols, and popping air-filled popcorn bags. Again we stamped our feet, this time in unison, louder and louder, until it sounded like a herd of angry elephants in a Tarzan movie crossing a wooden bridge. When the harried man in the projection booth finally got the film going, he turned the sound up to compete with our noise. We called him and raised him. After several noise level exchanges, the clamor became deafening. Then, suddenly, the screen went black and the soundtrack silent. The house lights came up and the squat, serious-looking theater manager marched down the aisle to the stage. He raised his arms and yelled, “Just hold it!” The screaming and stamping of feet quickly diminished to an angry murmur. The manager smiled. “Now, here’s how it’s gonna be,” he said. “The movie is over . . . ” A few kids started yelling again, but without much support they quickly dropped it. The manager continued, “The movie will be over—unless things get under control around here.” He looked slowly around the theater, concentrating his glare on each one of us individually it seemed. “The law is clear,” he said. “I don’t have to show no movie to no unruly mob.” The murmur of young voices now included quite a few clear “Yes sirs.” The manager smiled and signaled the projectionist, and the rest of the program was screened without further trouble.

We enjoyed the serial and the two-reel comedy—”Joe Dokes Behind the Eight Ball,” if I remember correctly—and we soon became absorbed in the main feature. It was “Breakthrough,” a war drama that followed the development of a group of infantrymen from basic training through the Allied invasion of France. Like the newsreel, it had a narrator (Frank Lovejoy, one of the stars of the move itself), and, as young recruits ran an obstacle course, he was saying, “It was not just another training exercise. Whatever was coming, we knew it was going to be big—with a capital ‘B’.”

Lovejoy was a tough sergeant who helped a young officer—Lieutenant Mallory, played by John Agar—adjust to the problems of combat command. I was drawn in. The movie was like music to me, it bypassed my rational mind and acted directly on my emotions, and I became lost in the romantic vision of men at war. Even when the camera came in close on the make-believe wounded and dying men, there was nothing gory about it—no blood. The young men lying in the arms of their buddies and reciting their last words were heroic figures.

When the movie ended and the theater lights came up, I stayed scrunched in my seat, legs hugged to my chest, chin resting on my knees, watching the credits roll. All around me, kids stood and stretched and yawned and greeted each other, then began filing toward the exits. I remained staring intently at the screen, reading the names of each person who helped make the movie. And I was trying to decide if I should stay to see the entire program a second time.

Double Future was originally published, in a slightly different form and under a slightly different title (and without these illustrations), in the Baltimore Sunday Sun Magazine on February 1, 1981.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.