Guest Columnist

The hard road to Saturday matinees

Under the early morning sun, the historic State Theater looms over Washington, Iowa’s downtown district. It is the oldest continuiously used theater in the world. (Washington Evening Journal Archives)
Under the early morning sun, the historic State Theater looms over Washington, Iowa’s downtown district. It is the oldest continuiously used theater in the world. (Washington Evening Journal Archives)
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In the pre-television days of my childhood nothing surpassed the excitement of attending Saturday matinees at Guthrie Center’s Garden Theater. I watched wide-eyed as Tarzan wrestled with giant jungle spiders, Hopalong Cassidy dueled with whiskered bad guys in black hats, and the antics of Abbot and Costello left us practically rolling in the aisles.

But attendance at the joy of my life presented a problem: I needed to coax a dime from my frugal father. In a routine repeated week-after-week, I first asked my mother, “Can I go to the movie this afternoon?”

“Sure,” she replied. “Just go by your father’s shop and get a dime.”

Mom made it sound so easy. It wasn’t.

Asking Dad for movie money became more of a plot than a request. My fifth-grade brother, Gary, would be making a similar appeal, so I schemed to arrive at Dad’s auto repair business before my talkative sibling, known to most as “Gabby.”

As the weekly ritual continued, I took a deep breath, mustered courage, and asked, “Dad, can I have ten cents to go to the movie?”

“Why d’ya wanna do that for?” he responded on cue.

Dad never attended movies, so perhaps he didn’t understand his eight-year-old son practically lived for the excitement of a Saturday matinee.

“Mom said it was OK,” I replied in citing what I hoped was a higher authority.

Agonizingly slow movements of my father followed.

He dipped his greasy hands in a pan of gasoline solvent, dried them with a gray rag, and, finally, reached for the bib pocket of his blue denim overalls. He unsnapped the pocket and drew a leather covered change purse from deep within. The purse had slots for pennies, nickels, dimes, and awesome quarters I never touched.

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Dad slid a combination of nickels or pennies from their vaults and slapped them into my outstretched, quivering palm. I understood my father didn’t approve of such frivolous expenditures, as he saw it, but I accepted the humiliation of begging to once again take a front-row seat at the Garden Theater.

I dreamed of getting a bonus nickel for popcorn like many of my friends. But I knew better than to push my luck. I took the coins and ran.

And then the lifeblood of my existence came to a halt. No more movies. When Ted Allen, the theater owner, raised ticket prices, Dad raised the roof.

The difference between ten cents and twelve seemed like two pennies to me. But to Dad it was a gigantic, twenty-percent increase.

“I’m not gonna pay that kinda money for no movie,” he bellowed.

The boycott hit hard. Gabby and I sat on our front porch watching with long faces as friends skipped and laughed on their way to the Garden Theater.

Time passed. And then, as always, Mom came to the rescue. “I think I can scrape up enough money for one of you to go to the movie, but not enough for both. You’ll have to take turns. One can go one week and the other the next. But whoever goes must agree to tell the other all about it. OK?”

Gabby and I smiled and eagerly nodded. We would have agreed to anything to return to the Garden Theater.

Mom pulled a dime and two pennies from her apron pocket. “Gary, you’re the oldest. You can go first.”

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And so we were back in action. I waited on our porch looking for Gabby to return and tell me all the details of a Roy Rogers thriller.

And he did, in a longer and more exciting version than any movie I’d ever seen. I sat spellbound as my older, daring-do brother spun a dazzling story with forbidden words, including Roy Rogers holding a rustler at gunpoint and warning, “One false move you (expletive) and I’ll blow your (expletive) head off!”

I knew Roy Rogers didn’t talk like that, and if Mom overheard Gabby, he would get his mouth washed out with soap. But I delighted in listening to my brother’s yarn and fearless use of manly words.

The following week I excitedly took my turn at the movies. I tried my best to remember every detail of a Gene Autry film to pass along to Gabby. But I didn’t have the imagination of my older brother, and certainly not his vocabulary. My report only lasted a few minutes.

“Is that all?” Gabby complained.

“Yeah, it’s all I can remember. Mr. Autry sang some songs, kissed his girlfriend, and caught some bank robbers. That’s about it.”

The next week Gabby returned from a Tarzan movie and told how the king of the apes swung through the jungle saying naughty words while fighting off giant, flesh-eating plants. Once again I listened with enthralled attention.

As another Saturday approached, I had second thoughts about taking my turn at the movies. Gabby’s imaginative accounts were far more fun than anything I might witness.

“Mom,” I said. “Gabby’s older. I think he should go to the movies every time.” And then recalling what our mother said to me too often, I added, “My turn will come.”

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Mom smiled. “Oh, sweetheart,” she gushed. “That’s so thoughtful. I’m so proud of you.”

And so Gabby attended the Saturday matinees while I waited at home for his exaggerated stories, always told in the most colorful terms.

After several months and some maternal intervention, Dad finally gave in and I returned to Saturday matinees. But it wasn’t the same. No movie lived up to Gabby’s fanciful tales.

• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. He has written two books: “Apron Strings,” a humorous memoir of an Iowa upbringing, and “Lillian’s Legacy,” the true story of a supposedly unsolved murder in a small Iowa town. Comments: cmckibbi@calpoly.edu

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