Sweet Movie Memories

I know why I still get off on the Oxford Theatre,

I said to myself lining up there the other day.

I can remember those Saturday afternoons: Chronicle Herald paper route done, hockey sticks and ball gloves stowed away.

Maybe, if it was the junior high years, we’d have finished gently tormenting the waitresses over milkshakes at the Ardmore Tea Room.

In my memory, though, this was always the best part of the wondrous day.

My dad, who used to gallop as a kid through the streets of Glace Bay after watching his hero Tom Mix on the big screen, took me to my first Saturday afternoon matinee.

There, sinking into deep chairs that left my feet dangling above the sticky floor, I gaped upwards as the curtain rose and I shovelled mitt-fulls of popcorn from a cardboard box bearing a scary clown face into my mouth.

In a year or two, I would push through our front door, then, as big-finned cars cruised by, make for the corner of Oxford Street and Quinpool Road.

My buddies knew not to keep me waiting.

At that point, we were boys who no longer believed in Santa Claus getting our first taste of liberation.

But you can over-analyze these things. To understand our eagerness, perhaps all you had to know was that for 35 cents a patron got to see a double, or even triple, feature.

Usually, they were interspersed with one of those old cliffhanger movie serials — Could Flash Gordon get to Dale Arden before Ming the Merciless? Would the King of the Rocketmen be able to pull out of that death spiral? — that inspired my dad’s generation.

When the Oxford matinee ended, no flashlight-wielding usher materialized to put the run on you. If you wanted, you got to watch the whole thing all over again.

That also probably appealed to lads like me who could trace their ancestral lineage to the Highlands of Scotland, where bargain hunters have been known to roam.

At one point, I recall, my allowance was a whopping 50 cents a week, meaning that after paying admission I had enough money for a small box of popcorn.

It was a lesson for life that, thanks to the generosity of friends, I always had my fill of Orange Crush, licorice and even the occasional hot dog during those long, leisurely afternoons.

Getting there early, we had a chance to watch everyone file in: the kids we went to school with, the tough guys a year or two older who we feared and the girls our own age to whom we seldom dared talk.

Instead, in this dark place by and large devoid of adult supervision, we talked to each other.

We yelled insults and challenges at Vincent Price, Steve Reeves, Buster Crabbe and Tony Curtis up on the big screen.

During intermission, the curtain went up. The manager — a grave, bespectacled man in a suit — took the stage to hand out prizes from some sort of draw.

My memory is that spit balls and popcorn flew.

Behind our hands, we feigned flatulence as the manager sternly scanned the crowd looking for the offenders.

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. With two television stations on the air in Halifax, we hadn’t seen many movies. Not one of us had heard of irony.

So we unconditionally loved most everything we saw.

There was horror: Godzilla flicks from Japan, vampire movies from the fabled Hammer Studio in London, B-movies in which an errant atom bomb caused insect life to grow freakishly large, reflecting, I suppose, the Cold War fears of the moment.

The combination of offerings, which changed weekly, might include a Western or a goofy slapstick comedy starring the Three Stooges, pop-eyed Don Knotts or Lewis and Martin before their big falling out.

Often, we were treated to badly dubbed period pieces of the muscle man, swashbuckler or knight-and-castle variety.

There were a lot of movies that seemed to have no other purpose than to give Elvis Presley or Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon the opportunity to sing on screen.

Nothing was first run. A fair bit of what we watched was actually in black and white.

A lot of it, if we thought about it at all, seemed like the kind of stuff our parents probably grew up on.

We were so overjoyed to be there that nobody ever asked to see the grumpy looking manager.

A woman was in charge at the Oxford the other day when I laid down a small fortune to see Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last lead role in a movie.

Otherwise, so much hasn’t changed in the half century or so I’ve been coming here.

In spite of a facelift a couple of years back, the men’s bathroom is still a cramped after-thought; the arced concession stand still offers real butter for the popcorn.

To my ears, the exit to Oxford Street — which a friend taught himself to walk into backwards through the departing crowd, like Michael Jackson moonwalking, to get in free — still seems to make the same old noise.

The new owners, Cineplex Odeon Corp., know a good thing when they see one. Rather than turn it into a multiplex, they kept the Oxford a single-screen theatre, which makes it a rare thing these days.

I consider myself lucky to have it.

A few of the guys I used to come to the Oxford with have left this Earth. Some I’ve just never heard of again. Probably I never will.

That is just the way things go. Life moves on. None of us can do anything about that.

What I can do is return to the Oxford Theatre, which is the best place to watch movies that I know of.

I can pay my money, walk up the steps and look around.

Then, I can sit down in a big plush chair, shove some popcorn into my mouth and look up at that single screen with the wide eyes of a 10-year-old and wait for the magic to begin.