Working for the Century Circuit Theaters had its perks. For example, family members could go to the movies for free. That easy access to the world of make believe was the impetus for my beliefs. I was, (a) going to replace Dale Evans as Roy Roger’s wife, (b) swim alongside Esther Williams, (c) join the Lone Ranger and Tonto as they cleared the West of injustice and (d) live in the jungle with Tarzan, Jane, Boy and Cheetah.
The darkened vault of plush red velvet seats, the dim lights that bounced off the walls from crystal and gold chandeliers, the thick carpets that held whispers as soft and heavy as the drapes that covered the magic screen, was my cocoon. In the transcendent quiet before the movie began I waited, eyes closed, for the sound of music, which heralded the start of the show.
Saturday afternoons were reserved for the children’s movies and so on most every Saturday, my mother and I would walk down Greenpoint Avenue to the theater. I was allowed to walk right past the ticket booth and enter the lobby directly. The smells of popcorn and disinfectant were pervasive. I was always in a state of wiggly impatience knowing I would soon be joining the lives of my heroes and heroines. Mother would send me off with some spare change, a long pearl tipped hatpin and the admonishments to, (1) find Amy, the theater matron, (2) sit by myself, and, (3) if anyone, man or woman, sat down next to me to have my hatpin ready for an assault.
I would dutifully locate Amy who would help me to find a single seat in an uncrowded aisle. Amy was an older, gray haired, slightly overweight woman who wore sturdy shoes and a starched dark uniform with a white lace collar. She carried her flashlight with authority. Amy knew about my hatpin and was in complete, unspoken agreement with my mother. Her job was to watch over the patrons of the “house” making sure that nothing untoward happened. This was her territory and she was protective of the moviegoers and the theater with a fierce sense of ownership.
One responsibility Amy took very seriously was to clear the rows at the finish of each movie. There were always kids who would hunker down trying to hide under the seats to see the movie one more time. Amy was vigilant and rarely did a pint sized movie scofflaw escape her eagle eye. But I had special status; after all, my Dad was an employee of Century Circuit Theaters. I had no need to hide. I had the privilege of sitting upright in my seat to watch Roy, or Esther, the Lone Ranger or Tarzan as many times as I wanted. In my secret life I had plans for all of them.
I intended to marry Roy Rogers and live in Texas. We would have a log cabin with a fireplace. I would be outside practicing my aim by shooting at tin cans. Roy, in his checkered shirt and his lasso would be in the corral practicing rope tricks. Bullet would be stretched out on the porch. None of my plans included Dale. I didn’t wish her harm; I just preferred to dismiss her. She wasn’t right for him. Even now I can’t put my finger on it, but there was something off about her. Perhaps she was too nice. Actually, I didn’t even like her horse. The horse on which I would ride off into the sunset, (with Roy and Trigger leading the way), would be a large black stallion. His mane and tail would fly in the wind and Roy would look back at me with admiration in his Cherokee eyes. He’d wait for me to catch up and then the two of us would head for the hills. And, we’d never, ever sing “Happy Trails To You.”
My plans for Esther and me were very important and life changing. I, who was entirely uncomfortable in water higher than my knees, I who would not even put my head underwater in the kiddy pool and forget about the ocean, wanted to swim with Esther Williams. Waves terrified me and I wouldn’t trust anyone to hold me up as they tried to teach me to swim. I knew though in my heart of hearts that if there were anyone I could trust in the water, it would be Esther. I was amazed by her aquatic abilities. She could smile underwater as bubbles billowed up from her nose and her eyes stayed opened all the time and her red lipstick was always perfect. Anyone who could stay underwater for twenty minutes without panicking had my vote. She was graceful and beautiful and brave. She hadn’t an ounce of fear of that alien, suffocating element called water. If she would teach me I would be as comfortable as a mermaid and my life would change forever.
The only problem with Esther’s movies was that I had to, I was compelled to help her breathe. I probably spent hours in that movie theater helping Esther to not drown. I would sit in my aisle seat audibly gasping and breathing for her as she bubbled and smiled and turned effortlessly. I’m sure that I was only a few minutes away from hyperventilating when Amy would come to my rescue, tap me on the shoulder and ask if I was all right. I was fine and within minutes I was back in the water wearing a shiny one-piece bathing suit and a flowered bathing cap as I swam alongside my friend and mentor.
If the truth were told, the Lone Ranger was actually secondary in my fantasy life. I remember that my attention was on Tonto, not the “Masked Man”. The mystique of the Native American seemed to over-shadow the hero. The Lone Ranger movies never got interesting for me until Tonto was in the scene. It was Tonto who helped the “Masked Man” to survive. He was the scout who knew the ways of the mountains and deserts. If I ever got lost in the wilds of the Southwest it would be Tonto who I would want to come looking for me. He would find me. He was the tall, dark and quiet man, the invaluable true friend of the Lone Ranger. If there was a gunfight Tonto would have stepped in front of him and taken the bullet. The long dark hair, the buckskin clothes and the bareback riding were far more appealing to me than the masked hero ever was. I knew that if Tonto had sat down next to me in the movie theater I would have eloped with him to live in a tepee and be his woman. The long, pearl tipped hatpin would have been on the floor to be swept up with the sticky remnants of spilled soda and popcorn.
Of all the Tarzans there were, I was particularly enamored of Lex Barker. He was my favorite untamed, jungle dwelling hero. Late in the afternoon when the children’s movies were finished, Amy would call our home from the office and my mother would walk back to Greenpoint Avenue to collect “Girl”, Boys heretofore-unknown sister. Images of the exciting, romantic and sexy Lex Barker inhabited my dreams. (Who says little girls don’t respond to bare chests and leopard spotted loincloths?). Chimps and lions, gorillas and drum music, snakes and lush jungle waterfalls engaged my nights after those Saturday afternoon movies with Tarzan.
During the week I developed a new persona, a new family. As I climbed the jungle gyms in the concrete playground, as I stood on the swings madly reaching for the tops of imaginary vines, I told my playmates that my parents were not really my parents. I told them that they were only the people that my real parents, Tarzan and Jane, had sent me to live with here in Sunnyside, Queens. I was in Queens, New York to go to school. Deep, dark mysterious Africa didn’t have any schools. Of course I missed my real parents terribly. I even missed my older brother, Boy, and our pet chimpanzee, Cheetah, but I knew that as soon as I finished my education I would be returned to our thatched tree top house high above the jungle floor. I would swing down on the thick, green vines and ride on the backs of elephants. I would swim under waterfalls in crystal clear lagoons and I would fight the cruel, bad guys who try to destroy our world. Did my playmates believe me? Maybe, who knows? Did I believe me? Of course not, but I wanted to…desperately.
The movies on Greenpoint Avenue honed my appetite for “play acting”. It was the place where heroes won and mean ruthless people got what they deserved. My sense of justice was developed in those movies and between them, my family and all the books I devoured I became me.
Life puts us through some strange turns. I lived in Texas, south Texas right along the border of Mexico for three decades. In Texas, cowboys are vaqueros who occasionally wear checkered shirts just like Roy. I still am impressed with ten-gallon hats and when I see people riding horses it knocks me for a loop. For many years my “Bullet” was an old, arthritic, chocolate Lab named Sugar.
There were no rocky outcroppings, no mountains, and no crystal streams. There were bougainvilleas and frangipani and oleander and palm trees. It was not the Texas I saw in my childhood movies, but it was the Texas where I lived. The Native Americans there are Chiapan or Mayan, perhaps Chirakawa Apache and that was good enough for me. Tonto lives in their DNA.
Other than the humidity and the lush vegetation there was no Tarzan in south Texas and no thatched-roof tree house. The closest chimpanzees lived in the zoo along with Tantor the Elephant and there were no vines on which to swing. However there were drums and hot music and old rivers that wind lazily through the landscape and hide alligators. Overhead and in the ebony and mesquite trees I saw the passage flights of exotic, brightly plumed birds. In the salty marsh flats roseate spoonbills and herons built nests among the cacti. The night and early morning was often loud with screech owl calls and chachalacas and green parrots. It wasn’t Africa, but it came close to being some faraway exotic land.
The Gulf of Mexico was where I sometimes swam although I still don’t like waves or ocean flotsam and jetsam. I prefer hotel pools or the one that is now in my backyard in Nevada. Pools are where I am most comfortable swimming with memories of Esther by my side. I float on my back and try to gracefully do the backstroke. Although it embarrasses me to say it, I often pretend that there is music playing and I am wearing bright red lipstick.
When I go to the movies these days I go with my own present day hero who, at my suggestion, wears his long gray hair tied in a low ponytail, (an homage to Tonto). There is no longer the need to sit in the aisle seat with lots of room to escape. I haven’t seen that hatpin for a very long time, though if I look for it I can probably find it among the artifacts left of my mother’s life.
The movie theater still smells like popcorn and disinfectant but now there is nothing that spare change can buy, and a pimply-faced kid who takes your ticket and points you in the direction of the theater where your movie is playing has replaced Amy the vigilant matron. But if you get there early enough, and the theater is lit only from the sconces along the side, and the seats are not yet filled, there is a hushed almost reverent tone that is almost palpable. Soon the show will start and the screen will come alive. The music swells and the illusion begins.
After all this time, I still have a crush on Roy and Tonto and Tarzan. Though I have never learned to swim like Esther, the child in me is braver than I used to be and I can put my head under water when necessary. Sometimes I even open my eyes.
Charlene Moskal is a Teaching Artist with the Poetry Promise Organization, Las Vegas, Nevada. She has been published in numerous anthologies, print magazines, and online including, “Calyx”, “Gyroscope” and “Humana Obscura”. Her first chapbook is “One Bare Foot” (Zeitgeist Press) with a second, “Leavings From My Table”, from Finishing Line Press, October release, 2022.