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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

No. 70 The Island "Showhouse"

Jimmy Styron was my father’s closest friend as a young man. Beyond that, what I know most about him is that he loved the actress Marlene Dietrich. More to the point, he loved the characters portrayed by the German starlet who was a queen of American cinema throughout the decades of the thirties and forties. He waited anxiously for her movies to come to the local theater, and when they did arrive he was there to watch almost every showing.

So it was that for one special Saturday night feature, Jimmy Styron with several of his friends, including my father, enjoyed a Marlene Dietrich movie together, leaving their wives and children at home. Such male bonding was not uncommon among married men and fathers of that era. This evening they sat together and watched as the character played by one of their favorite actresses came to an untimely end in the film’s finale. Jimmy was visibly upset as he walked home to the westard after the movie along with his friends. My father recalled that “he just kept looking down, shaking his head and asking, why did she have to die?”

Daddy and the others assumed that Jimmy’s depressed mood would wane as the night drew on, but this time their friend carried the movie with him well into the evening. The next morning word reached my father that when his friend got home, still fretting the movie’s outcome and needing an outlet for his disappointment, Jimmy Styron systematically pulled out his family’s best china, and “broke every dish in his house!”

This is just one of the dramas in which the small wooden theater on Harkers Island played a starring role.

If the Island ever had a “downtown,” a “business section,” or a “main street,” it was at the intersection of what are now the Island & Old Ferry Dock Roads. On the southwest corner was Fillmore’s Store, across the main road on northwest side was Henry’s Store, and on the northeast corner was Garfield’s store. A mere stone’s throw away were Henry’s Fish House, the Post Office, R J’s gas station and Charlie Davis’ store- eventually replaced by Billy’s. “

The Charity Theater on Harkers Island
Amid this beehive of commercial activity was the center of social and cultural life for the whole Island. It was on the southeast corner of the crossroads and was known officially as the “Charity Theater.”Actually, we seldom if ever called it that. Some of the time it was called the just the “theater,” but most often it was the “showhouse.”

It got its official name from an early civic organization on the Island, the “Charitable Brotherhood.” The group organized soon after the arrival of the newcomers from the Banks at the turn of the century as an ad-hoc support group for members and their families. One of its services was to collect an assessment from subscribers to support a member’s family at his passing. But its most lasting contribution was the building of a lodge, that later became a theater, where the people of the Island could watch the parade of movies that film producers began to turn out in the decade of the 1920's.

Before there was the internet, cable or broadcast television, or even a radio in every home, there was the “silver screen.” For more than half a century that stretched from the “roaring” twenties to the mid-seventies, it was on movie screens, both inside and outdoors, that most Americans  found their entertainment, and with that a sense of national community. Newsreels, cartoons, and feature-length dramas from New York and Hollywood provided a common cultural experience for anyone who could afford the cost of admission. Despite it’s relative isolation on what was sometimes described as “the edge of civilization,” Harkers Island was no different from other small towns and villages when it came to the movies.

Admission was still only 25¢ through the mid-sixties. Soft drinks, candy bars & popcorn all cost a dime, and a pickle (dill or sour) could be had for only a nickel. A center seating section, of perhaps as many as eight seats and twenty rows was flanked by “couples seats” on both sides. Many a first-date was had in those side seats, and the arms of both boys and men began to rest around the shoulder beside them not long after the lights went down. Because everyone there knew everyone else, and the setting was so intimate, it was not unusual to overhear comments and conversations among the patrons throughout the show.

Tandem projectors concealed behind a raised balcony were operated by teenage boys who found a way to combine an evening at the showhouse with a part-time job. My brother, Ralph, was one of those, and the experience left him with a love of movies that spanned a lifetime. He eventually acquired a collection of both Beta and VHS tapes that filled several large boxes, and was accessed daily as he picked out his preferred evening entertainment.

As a concession to work schedules and the lack of week-night patrons, normally there were only three showings a week. One title would run on Thursday and Friday evenings, and another would be highlighted on Saturday night. This meant that on most weeks we had access to two feature films, even if it was months and sometimes years after they had shown in larger towns on the mainland. But that never mattered to us, as the “showhouse” experience of being part of the crowd was many times more important than the movie itself.

The advent of cable and then of VCRs eventually led to the demise of  many small town movie theaters, including the one on the Island. By the late 80's it sat both empty and abandoned, and was eventually demolished. But even after a home was built on the spot, most Islanders are still prone to describe that area and even give directions referring to “where the showhouse used to be.”

Several generations after Jimmy Styron walked out of the front door so incensed that he took out his frustration on plates and saucers, many others can still recall the wonderful experience of going out to a movie when and where everybody knew your name.

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