Cowboys, Cartoons, Candy and More...

Memories of Movie Magic
by Ed Orzechowski
[Life After 50, The Springfield Republican April 7, 2008]

Maybe it’s the fog of nostalgia, but it seems to me that going to the movies was a lot more fun when I was a kid growing up in Northampton.  While today’s multi-screen “cineplexes” are little more than assembly-line black boxes outfitted with sound systems on steroids, movie theaters used to have unique character.

A half century ago, “Hamp” (never “Noho”!) was still a blue-collar community, a factory town that happened to include a college.  But it offered three independent movie houses: The Calvin, The Academy of Music, and The Plaza.

When I was little, my mother brought me to The Calvin, on King Street, because that’s where the Disney pictures were.  From my kid’s perspective, The Calvin was also the most glamorous, featuring a magical marquee with hundreds of flashing yellow light bulbs that continually encircled the feature titles—a touch of Hollywood in Hamp.  The Academy, on upper Main, was a close second.  The Plaza, in a brick building on Pleasant Street, had an attractive vertical sign running down the side of the block.  But for some unexplained reason, my mother dubbed it “The Bug House.”  So we never went there.

Beneath the blinking marquee of The Calvin was a self-contained booth inhabited by a courteous young woman.  After you gave her a dollar, she handed you a ticket through a little hole in the front window of her tiny dwelling, then dispensed coins that rolled into a metal cup—money to be used at the next stop, inside the lobby.

There, tantalizingly at kid’s eye level, was a brightly lit survival center that provided essentials for the upcoming three-hour tour before the silver screen—the popcorn machine, a miniature volcano erupting irresistibly-scented morsels—and the candy counter, a cornucopia of sugar rations under glass.  Arranged in neat rows on shelves were staples like Dots and Crows, Necco Wafers, Raisinets, Hershey Bars, and more.  Two of my all-time favorites were Switzer’s black licorice—a chewy strip of tire tread wrapped in cellophane—and Chuckles, an assortment of five happily-colored jellies. 

Just a couple of nickels or dimes from the ticket lady’s metal cup bought enough goodies to last through the previews, a Movietone Newsreel, a color cartoon, and a double feature.

Among my earliest movie memories is Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, a Disney classic that rivals any of today’s computer animation.  Who could forget that wart-nosed witch offering Snow White the shiny poisoned apple, or those merry little guys singing “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off to Work We Go”?

There were also the antics of a hoard of other cartoon characters at The Calvin—Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Popeye the Sailor Man with Olive Oyl, Swee’Pea and Bluto, Walter Lantz’s Woody Woodpecker in “Color by TECHNICOLOR,” and, of course, tons of Westerns with six-shooters like The Cisco Kid, Roy Rogers, and Hopalong Cassidy, the only good guy who dressed in black.

In my later more “mature” teenage years, I gravitated toward The Academy, with its distinctive music hall architecture, stage, and opera boxes where no one was ever allowed to sit.  Before showtime, the screen at The Academy was concealed behind a curtain which dramatically drew aside as the film began, revealing the image through a second see-through curtain, which then also opened.

Because Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was a sellout at The Academy for weeks in 1960, I sat on the stairs of the upper balcony to watch Anthony Perkins terrorize his female guest at the Bates Motel in that unforgettable shower scene.  The blood swirling down the drain in that black-and-white film surpassed the impact of any modern gory special effects.

Another black-and-white classic I experienced at The Academy was To Kill a Mockingbird, for which, fittingly, Gregory Peck won his Academy Award.

But besides the movies, another feature attraction for me at The Academy was the fact that my high school sweetheart (the girl I would eventually marry) worked behind the candy counter.  Gail had been hired by the kindly Mr. Boyd, a manager devoted to preserving The Academy, and who allowed this lovesick teen to slip into the theater to join Gail when she was off duty—a chance to watch a free movie together, her head on my shoulder, my arm cleverly draped over the back of her chair until long after it fell asleep.  How good could it get?

Now the movies were more fun than ever.  And candy was less important.