Going to the Theater Commando

As the third of seven, I was one of the “big kids”. My younger sister is still in therapy over the fact that as four of seven, she never graduated into being one of he “big kids”, but that can be another discussion. Being one of the big kids meant responsibility for the younger ones, particularly when the whole group was doing something as seven with two.

My father met several Hollywood lobbyists who provided him with tickets for the whole family for the opening of the film Ben Hur in Washington, DC. At the time, the film industry had found a public that was willing to pay premium prices to see films that ran for nearly four hours as long as there was a nice intermission somewhere near the middle of the film. There were a series of these lengthy films that had settings in biblical times and featured swords, spears, chariots, divine presence and Charleton Heston. The whole genre pretty much ended when Elizabeth Taylor had the lead role in Cleopatra and at the beginning of one scene there is a rear view of a nude Ms. Taylor (or a body double) disappearing into her bath tub. The lesson here appears to be that the movie going public will pay extra for inspiration but cheap thrills should be cheap.

My whole family was making preparation to spend an entire Saturday afternoon with the splendor of ancient Rome at the Warner Theater in the heart of DC. When I say the heart of DC, I mean the heart of DC. The Warner was one of those theaters that was built to house movies or live stage shows. There were several balcony levels that required film viewers to watch the entire film looking down on the screen instead of having their neck leaned back to see the top of the screen. It was also within sight of the White House. The Warner was the theater that President Kennedy would go to when he ducked the Secret Service to sneak out to see a movie, or at least that is the legend, and it would have been no problem for him to walk the block to the movie and stroll back still munching his popcorn. This was also one of those art deco theaters that was gilded and blinged. The balcony facades were carved or at least given the appearance of carvings, drapes hung at all the entrances, everything was carpeted. This was a stately theater in an important neighborhood that was reinvented about 20 years ago.

From my point of view at the time, there had to be some kind of mistake. Saturday afternoons were not an appropriate time for putting on a coat and tie and there is just no way that going to a movie requires that kind dressing up. I can only imagine how much detail I added to my list of complaints when the whole plan was explained to me. My parents dressed the littlest of seven, while the big kids supervised the progress of those in between while I grumbled about a wasted Saturday afternoon. Soon enough we were all presentable and loaded into the car (a fire engine red and black Pontiac station wagon!) for the trip into the city and an afternoon at the movies.

What a scene! Washington's elite in their finery! The furs and diamonds were out and prominent. I do not remember seeing many other kids in attendance but that may well be that other things seemed more important. This definitely was not like going to the neighborhood movie house to see a Saturday matinee. There would be no popcorn throwing during this one.

From my point of view, the film dragged a little before intermission, but my favorite films were still westerns, lots of riding and shooting to keep me on the edge of my seat. Some of these characters rode horses, but they had such funny looking rigging it was hard to think that they could rope much of anything, but the Roman's outfits would have been improved if they had added chaps to those little skirts they wore. The highlight was the big battle at sea that ended a life of slavery for Heston before they got back to a bunch of pontificating about being powerful or noble or proud or something that did not seem as exciting as catapulting fire balls at other ships.

The intermission! Time to stretch and check out the sweets. I believe we were in the upstairs lobby and concession area surrounded by the powerful of Washington. I think all of the big kids were pretty much checking out the scene and wishing that there were more kids and fewer minks, when everything seemed to slow down. I am not sure who noticed first, but whoever it was made a rather unusual sound that got all of us looking. My youngest sister was demonstrating her failing interest in the film by showing off her skill at somersaults. In this crowd, she should not have had enough room to finish even one complete roll but each time her head reached the top of the tight ball she formed, more people stepped back to let the spectacle play out. With each roll, her skirt would flop back toward her ears and everyone could see that when she was getting ready for the movie, she had neglected to select underwear for the occasion.

My mother turned quite red and moved with the speed that only a mother that shade of red can accomplish to gather up my sister and keep her head high and skirt low. My father did his best to look stern and hide the snicker that was bubbling inside. My other siblings immediately began explaining that it was obviously my fault that proper dress had not been observed because I was placed in charge of that chore. I guess it did not help that I was the one that thought the whole thing was a little bit funny.

Over the years, this story has become a way for my family to show that I was the least reliable of the big kids. I always get the blame for the show that was the highlight of intermission at the Washington opening of Ben Hur. In my defense, I have always insisted that I was raised to believe that a gentleman never asks a lady what she has on under her skirt and would certainly not consider lifting her skirt to check. This usually falls on deaf ears. The real problem is that I think most of us are just a bit jealous because she is the only one who has had the opportunity to moon the elite and powerful of DC.

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