The first clear recollection I have of going to the movies was with my mother going to the Ambassador Theatre on Saratoga Avenue in Brooklyn. I was three or four years old when I went to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The Ambassador was right next to the IRT elevated line, and the theater shook when the trains went by, but it got so we ignored it. The same thing was true from our apartment. The trains went by in the distance, but the sound was a lot less loud than it was at the Ambassador. I would look out across my street to where Kings Highway began, and I could see the elevated line and the trains going by and endless rows of buildings housing two million Brooklynites in the general direction of the Atlantic Ocean, which was beyond the horizon.
A few years later my father took me to see a double feature of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man — the original Universal films, but I was more frightened by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When the queen turned into the witch I was terrified, and got out of my seat and crouched down behind the seat in front of me. My mother coaxed me back into my seat and that was the scariest experience I’ve had at the movies. Years later when I was, say, eight or nine, when my father took me to see the Universal horror movies, I was badly upset by The Invisible Man removing the bandages from his head, with apparently nothing under them. That was spooky but the witch was worse.
I remember the smell of the Ambassador Theatre, and it was not that of popcorn. What dominates in my memory is the smell of the printed programs. These were white paper pamphlets, printed with blue ink. It wasn’t necessarily a bad smell, but it wasn’t good. We could pick up one of those programs, and it would tell us what was playing for the next week or two and so we could take a part of the theater home with us – a sensation refreshed with the nose close to the page.
I was an attentive filmgoer, and when I went to the kids’ matinees at the Ambassador on Saturdays, it was disturbingly chaotic. The kids could go crazy – behavior that would be repeated by another generation at rock concerts. There were overweight matrons employed to keep order wearing white uniforms and armed with flashlights. Somebody was dropping popcorn from the balcony (I never sat in the balcony), and a matron decided I was throwing popcorn into the air. She barked at me and threatened to throw me out of the theater. It’s not a good feeling to be falsely accused. I don’t remember the film I but I remember the injustice, more poignant than any injustice on the screen.
We would see15 cartoons and then a couple of features and other shorts. We would see Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny cartoons followed by a Three Stooges comedy or George O’Hanlon in Behind the Eight Ball, or, oddly enough, a Robert Benchley short. I remember Robert Benchley talking about The Sex Life of the Polyp, followed by a double feature. The Ambassador Theatre was babysitting for us for the whole afternoon. When we got out of the theater the sun was so bright that the kids were blinded; a moment of being shocked by the blazing real world.
My favorite treats were Necco Wafers. They were packaged in cylinders containing featureless coins, or more exactly the slugs meant to fool a parking meter. The type I preferred was the alleged chocolate with a sweet and mild flavor that was a pale tan color. The wafers tasted, felt, and looked like chalk. I could also buy Necco Wafers in a package of assorted flavors, but invariably it was the ersatz chocolate flavor I liked the best. All the Necco flavors were pale in color and the flavors were pale. I think today I’d find them to be disgusting .
Another treat was Black Crows, which were a gummy-like confection. The best part of the Black Crows was finishing the candy and then blowing into the box. It was a cardboard box with cracks where the air could escape, and when I blew into it there was a shrill loud annoying squeaking sound, like a baby crying. I can tell you by recent experience that they’ve done something to boxes like these to prevent boxes the squeaking.
And then there was blowing spitballs. If I got myself a Coke, I’d be compelled to wad the straw wrapper into a spit ball and shoot it to see how far it would go, or maybe even to hit some other kid, usually a friend. I did enjoy this, so maybe the matron was justified. I was getting caught but for the wrong crime. Such is justice. I’ve heard that most of the people serving time in prison are there for the wrong crime.
Catty-cornered from the Ambassador, under the EL (I think at Saratoga and Livonia Avenue; I have to look this up on Google maps), there was a theater called the People’s Cinema. The People’s Cinema had no air-conditioning but had a couple of big fans near the screen with streamers tied onto them to prove they were working in a vain attempt to convince you that there was some cooling effect during the hot and humid Brooklyn summers. They played triple features, which were often Monogram and Republic films, and they would show serials too. It was there that I saw The Mad Ghoul with George Zucco, and also a movie called Winter Wonderland (I can’t remember if it was a Republic or a Monogram feature). It introduced a decent song, “Winter Wonderland,” which became a standard.