We had such great response to looking back that we’re going to keep at for this week’s column. While the nostalgia may be focused on Royal Oak, I’m betting there is bit of a universal appeal to this week’s column on movie theaters and youthful embarrassment.
A Youthful Incendiary Incident
I was heartened that the premise of the previous column was embraced by more than a few nostalgists. A lot of splendid memories were resurrected and revisited. It brought to mind stories based in uptown Royal Oak that still make me cringe and laugh today.
I had mentioned Neisner's, the five and dime store located on the corner of Fifth and Washington (most recently the site of the ). Neisner's always seemed like the slightly balding, less successful uncle compared with the brighter, larger Kresge store located almost exactly across the street. But it had character and cheaper merchandise.
Comments on our most recent column included the recollection of the smell of the wood floor, the candy counter and the soda fountain counter. Neisner’s was where I had my first job after my newspaper route, and as a 14-year-old freshman, I was paid $1.25 per hour to be stock boy and cleanup kid. I learned a lot at that job, including how to hide out in the basement of this 1920s-or-so-era building. All of the inexpensive stock, from candy to school supplies to cosmetics and women’s unmentionable clothing items, were stacked from floor to ceiling.
I had recently received my first kiss from a young lass, who was vastly prettier than I deserved. Since I was in love (until I saw her holding hands with a sophomore), I inscribed her initials on the end of every stock shelving unit with bold black strokes, provided by my stock-boy grease pencil. I wonder if they are still down there.
Lovely young ladies resulted in another Neisner’s incident that left an indelible and rather warm memory. Shortly after work one winter night, I was scheduled to meet fellow ninth-graders Peggy Ridenour, Judy Fons and pal Jerry McEntee to sip Cokes or hot chocolates at the counter. Both these gals were out of my league, and I wasn’t even a very good wingman for babe-magnet Jerry.
I tried to compensate by being a risk taker, and on that night, it meant standing outside and waiting for my friends as I smoked a Kool cigarette I had borrowed. It was a frigid January night, and they didn’t even notice I was smoking as they hustled past me into the store. I was only a couple puffs into the cig, so I neatly put it out against the brick wall and stuck it into the pocket of my very brand-new, insulated nylon parka with a fake fur trimmed hood.
In a late '60s Royal Oak family of six, you were lucky to ever get a new coat, and this was indeed my first new coat ever. It was a Christmas bonanza.
I sidled up next to Judy on one of the green leather spinning stools at the 12-seat counter, and before I could order or join the conversation, she turned to me and said, “I smell something burning.”
Yes, she did. Seconds later, my brand-new Christmas coat exploded into flames. I’m guessing this was pre-fire-retardant, because the conflagration looked like I was going to become one of those unexplained spontaneous combustion stories. Fortunately, Jerry whipped me out of my coat like we were doing a vaudeville act, bumped the door open with his rear end and threw the blazing jacket into a pile of snow, where it melted like the wicked witch of the west.
To this day, Judy still can’t control her laughter whenever remembering that story. Of course, I had to sprint the eight blocks home, coatless, and face the parental music with yet another "Mom and Dad, you won’t believe what happened to me" story.
Ah, youth, how did we survive it?
Royal Oak's Movie Theater History
Another very cool part about growing up in Royal Oak was that our uptown had not one but three movie theaters. There was the upscale and large and the least expensive (now the Main Art Theatre), both of which still stand today, even if not in the exact same form as in my youth.
I spent more time at the Washington Theatre, which was right in the middle of the price structure with double features priced from 25 cents to 35 cents.
The back of the Washington Theatre lives on in the stage and house of the Baldwin Theatre. I miss that marquee and the long walk past the ticket takers, down the aisle to the popcorn and refreshments, before deciding whether to head upstairs to the balcony for mayhem or the main floor to watch a can’t-miss movie such as Sink the Bismarck!
Those of us who were Catholic had to contend with the Legion of Decency’s movie rating system. Our parents would open up the Michigan Catholic to see whether the movie we wanted to see was rated A-I through A-III, B or C — for condemned. My parents wouldn’t let us see any movie that earned above an A-I, which means I saw a lot of Disney flicks.
I’m not sure how it happened, but for a school friend’s eighth birthday party, a group of 10 of us unsuspecting youths attended The Blob, starring a very young Steve McQueen, at the Main. Fifty years later, I still have nightmares about the scene in the movie where the unstoppable blob came through the vents of the movie theater and devoured the unwitting moviegoers. I still keep an eye on any vent in movie theaters I visit.
While today’s theaters, with stadium seating in luxurious chairs and high-definition pictures with lifelike sound, are wonderful (and expensive), I’m not sure anything can replace sitting through previews, two movies with cartoon intermissions and wondering whether that cute girl might notice you if you throw enough popcorn at her.
What were your memories of theaters and uptown stories? We love to hear them!
Many thanks to the for its contributions to this column. We look forward to an upcoming visit to the museum and reporting back.
It’s Monday, let’s go!
Gerry Boylan is the author of two books, Getting There, a novel, and Gerry Tales, a collection of short stories. Both are available at Amazon.com. In addition, they are available for download for Kindle and Nook at Smashwords.com, Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.