GILBERTINE & THE EXCHANGE (Volume One) — Chapter 7, Part 3: “The Old Town Fox,” 15 July 1964

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That Wednesday, Mum had a meeting with Rev. Farnsworth that would take up much of the day, but Avice invited me to come with her and Charlie to see a Barbara Steele double feature of Black Sunday and Castle of Blood at the Fox Theatre in downtown Old Town.

At Chadbourne snd Sixth, the Fox actually wasn’t too far from St. Cyprian’s. She’d been built in 1928, like the ABC Edgbaston – at that point, similarity between the two broke down. She’d initially been called “The Fox New Danzig,” a name she kept for over 20 years.[1] After she became an independent cinema, she was simply known as “The Fox.”

She retained traces of her grandeur, but the new owners couldn’t maintain her the wsy the studio had, and she began falling apart. It seemed the old girl’s best days were behind her as, one by one, cinema chains with more modern, shinier, technically up-to-date – and, dare I say, cleaner – theatres pursued the suburban sprawl, monopolizing screening of more recent mainstream movies. In 1964, The Fox could only get Doctor Strangelove —although the film did come with a 30-day area exclusive on one of the biggest box-office draws of the year.

Still, it was the exception that proved the rule.

Instead, The Fox, where once Tyrone Power & Linda Darnell,

Richard Widmark, Sonja Henie, Carmen Miranda, Don Ameche,

 

 

 

 

Betty Grable,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and Shirley Temple

 

 

 

had enthralled the masses, was now home to horror, monster and science fiction movies, and beach party/ski party/whatever party flicks – actually any rock flick not starring Elvis.

Any subtitled foreign film that somehow managed to find its way to this portion of the hinterlands was invariably dumped at the Fox. As for any film like Leather Boys, Teenage Strangler or Kitten with a Whip aroint thou straight to screen Siberia, sirrah – off with you to The Fox.

 

This meant that, with a possible exception of when she ran foreign films, nearly all adults in the area snubbed The Fox, but she was a Mecca for any kid eight to eighteen who could walk, ride, crawl or otherwise find his or her way there.

 

 

 

True, the Aladdin Drive-in, a gaudily neon-lit passion pit in what had once been a field on the far side of South Street, just outside the former “city limits,” siphoned off a few of these films, especially during summer. But a drive-in had little allure for someone not old enough to drive; besides The Aladdin screened far too many “second runs” of “mainstream” films, while The Fox not only ran the films we liked more consistently, but it ran the newest and best ones too.

Not that the Fox couldn’t be a “passion pit,” in its own odd way. None of the houselights over the seats in the rear of the main auditorium, under the balcony, had worked since Blackboard Jungle.

Everyone now called this area “Amorous Acres” (it did have another alliterative title as well, ending in the word “Flats” – but we never said it if an adult might be within earshot, though we did often call it “The Flats” for short). It was now used exclusively for necking, petting, groping, making-out, and heaven knew what else, and unofficially off limits to anyone under 15, a restriction strictly enforced by its regular inhabitants.

 

 

The rest of the auditorium’s downstairs was for “nice,” i.e., proper, dating couples, as well as for various and sundry groups of girls and bands of boys, the latter generally on the prowl for the former.

But if you were a kid under 15 – especially if you were male and under 15 – your unofficial private preserve – your very own exclusive nirvana – was the balcony.

Avice was the only adult, to my knowledge, who joined her kids up there.

 

The faux rococo décor that festooned the rest of the theatre might be limited to a sextet of sconces, the paint might be peeling, the smell might be musty, some seats might be wobbly and the wall hangings might have dust particles that had embedded themselves during Harry Truman’s final inauguration – particles that some suspected were all that still held them together.

But, if you were tall enough to see over the edge of the seat in front of you, there was never an impeded view in the balcony, no matter where you sat. Every speaker seemed aimed straight at you, not the audience below. It was a wonderful place for people who – what a concept – might actually want to see and hear the movie.

We were there, Charlie and me, Avice in-between, a protective arm around each of us, in case we needed to cringe, or look away.[2]

But, both films had been banned in the UK (luckily, Mum hadn’t asked what we were seeing) and I intended to savor every frame of this forbidden fruit, not suspecting for a second the impact that Black Sunday would have on me in the weeks and months to come, or what this cinema would come to mean to me.

 

END NOTES

[1] There was apparently an East Coast community that had already been named “Liberty Heights,” of which the town fathers out here were unaware, and the Fox organization kept the name “Fox New Danzig” for administrative clarity, though the “New Danzig” portion of the name was relegated to small print after 1943. In 1949, the courts issued decisions holding that, under the anti-trust laws, movie studios and cinema chains couldn’t be owned by the same company, requiring the studios to divest themselves of their cinema chains. A company called “Fox West Coast Theaters” picked up most of Fox’s cinemas, but not all – and one they didn’t was The Fox New Danzig, The new owners dropped the “New Danzig” portion of the name entirely, leaving – after an abortive bit of litigation – just “The Fox” as the cinema’s name.

[2] If our 1964 Impala was a boat, then the 1959 Imperial Avice drove had to be the Queen Mary. It was huge – so was the sound of its “highway hi-fi,” which Avice played at concert volume as she drove to Old Town, warbling along all the way.

 

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