Wednesday, April 27, 2016
The Forbidden Fruits of the Fine Arts Plaza
While exploring the archives of Cincinnati's daily newspaper, THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER, a few days ago, I made an autobiographic discovery that put a chapter of my life - or, more specifically, the life of the world around me - into sharper focus.
When I was a child, my neighborhood movie theater was called The Plaza - some of you may remember that I dedicated the first issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG to that theater, with an inside back cover photo and a brief memoir. As I knew it, the Plaza differed from the photo above with the addition of an overhanging V-shaped marquee underpinned with orange-yellow light bulbs that reminded me of the bubbles in ginger ale. This was where I saw my first movie (THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, at the age of three or four), where I attended my first movie unescorted (FRANKENSTEIN 1970, when I was probably six - as unimaginable as this might seem to parents today), and where I would experience a number of my biggest movie-going eurekas (most Hammer and Toho films, THE TRIP, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, SPIRITS OF THE DEAD). I can still remember the gut punch of walking past the theater one day and seeing the words THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED on the marquee, not realizing this was the name of the new attraction and fearing that this temple of dreams was about to meet the wrecker's ball.
However, in the midst of the years when it was my great privilege to gain my cinematic education at the Plaza, I can also recall a mysterious period when it became closed to me - a period that, it now seems, I didn't fully comprehend at the time. It's important to remember that my first independent movie-going years were in the early- to mid-1960s, so there was a lot of important stuff in the zeitgeist competing for my attention - not only weekend matinee tickets at the Plaza, but also the Silver Age of Marvel comics, MAD magazine, miscellaneous paperback books, and all the great music that were being played on WSAI Top 40 radio. Nevertheless, I have a clear memory of walking past the Plaza one day and discovering that it had changed. In memory, it seemed to me that it had been closed for awhile, but the newspaper ads do not support this. But something about the theater's exterior had changed, and as I peered through the windows on the familiar swinging doors, I saw that the lobby - formerly decked out with framed posters for the coming attractions - was now displaying framed works of art, and the concession stand area had been simplified to promote one thing: coffee. The admission prices listed above the cashier's box no longer included "35 cents - Children") because children plainly were no longer being admitted. The feature being shown that particular week, I remember, starred Brigitte Bardot.
So I had a recollection that, at some unidentified point in my childhood, the Plaza had become a smut palace. It certainly would have been in keeping with my neighborhood of Norwood, Ohio, at that time, where I obtained my reading material at the Ault Book Store, just up the street from the Plaza on Montgomery Road ("the pike," we called it), near the Elm Avenue intersection. "Ault" was just one letter shy of "adult" with good reason; it seemed to specialize in nudie and fetish publications and was always being raided and closed down for selling pornographic material. Whenever I went in, the lady behind the counter, who resembled (and may well be) this lady...
... told me where the comics spinner racks were and to keep my eyes "straight ahead" until I reached them. You've got to wonder why they didn't keep the comics nearer the front door, but it wasn't my shop to design and this way of doing things worked wonders for my peripheral vision. What I am saying is that my childhood felt somehow surrounded by intimations of the forbidden, so I accepted matters a little too quickly when these fingered fogs of contamination and defilement seemed to seize hold of the Plaza. I remember getting to a point where I walked past the Plaza with my eyes "straight ahead," but with my young imagination riotous with daydreams of the kind of films that might be playing there.
But, as I say, the newspapers contest my memory - besides, I was only seven years old at this time, so what did I know?
Well, I apparently knew enough to know that the Plaza was bringing me ever closer to the Tim Lucas I would grow up to be when it played host to a couple of unforgettable matinee shows just before it metamorphosed into something else. On the weekend of November 29-December 1, as the rest of the world seemed to stand still in the wake of President Kennedy's assassination, I saw two pivotal films at the Plaza: Roger Corman's X - THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES and Georges Franju's THE HORROR CHAMBER OF DR FAUSTUS, aka EYES WITHOUT A FACE. Last year, I recorded Blu-ray audio commentaries for both of them.
What I find so fascinating about this uncovered information is that I could not have been born farther outside the reach of Italian cinema, yet my neighborhood theater - a place that better gauged the local tastes with showings of THUNDER ROAD, HOOTENANNY HOOT and KISSIN' COUSINS - took a brief page in time to present to the natives the works of Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Risi, Camerini... during which time I absorbed it passively, as a child with acute intuitions will do with forbidden fruit. Each time I walked past my former home away from home, feeling shunned by its Adults Only policy, did I determine in the depths of my DNA to grow into the kind of adult who would be accepted there, belong there?
Sometime in 1964, we moved from one Norwood school district that was quite near the Plaza to West Norwood, which was more of a walk. That said, it was a walk I took frequently, and had to take frequently because the Plaza became less diligent about its newspaper advertising, forcing me to walk to the theater, admission money tight in fist, at least until its marquee came into readable view. If it wasn't horror, science fiction, rock 'n' roll or Jerry Lewis, I would sometimes turn around and head back to the Puls Pharmacy, where I could put that money toward a malted milk or a few comic books. There was a year to come when we lived outside Norwood for a year, and I remember saying goodbye to the Plaza was the hardest thing about that separation - my mother could never settle anywhere for long, so I knew better than to make friends from whom I'd sooner or later have to part. There were also periods, following our return, when the Plaza closed and reopened for mysterious reasons. By 1968, my allowance had risen to the point where I worked up the courage to ask the managers if I might buy the poster for a certain film once it had finished its engagement. I didn't get an immediate yes, but I persisted until I bought the poster for Hammer's THE LOST CONTINENT for all of 75 cents. I'm glad to say I still have it, and a couple of others, which I held onto as an enduring, tangible connection between myself and this long-gone place that somehow presented me with the landscape, if not the meaning, of my life.
Posted by Tim Lucas at Wednesday, April 27, 2016