By Ed Staskus
The last summer we lived in the jam-packed immigrant neighborhood around Eddy Rd. was the last year my friends and I took Cleveland’s Rapid Transit downtown every Saturday to mess around and go to the movies. It was 20-some years after the city-owned bus and train system, what everybody called CTS, got rolling. It was 1963. The news was all about civil rights and Vietnam, two issues we barely knew anything about and cared about even less. What we cared about were slot cars, riding our bikes, and summer camp.
Stevie Wonder released his first live album, “The 12 Year Old Genius.” We were all 12 and 13 years old. None of us were geniuses, not by a long shot, although some of us went on to be able to think more or less clearly.
Push-button telephones were new, 1st class postage cost 5 cents, and President John Kennedy visited West Berlin, delivering his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. We went around calling each other Berliners and saluting Nazi-style. All of us had voted for JFK in a mock election at St. George’s Catholic School. Our nuns told us to stop saluting and focus on JFK’s good deeds, but they need not have. He was young energetic handsome while Richard Nixon had been shifty old with a five o’clock shadow.
The Rapid Transit was a light rail system, what we simply called the train. Tens of millions of riders rode it every year, especially on Saturdays, when it seemed like all of them were riding it at once. We had to stand most of the time. Even when we got a seat, we had to give it up to pregnant women, crippled men, and old folks. Standing and swaying and holding on to a pole didn’t matter. We had ants in our pants for roaming around downtown and seeing a big-time movie.
All we had known in our earlier years was the Shaw-Hayden Theater, which we could walk to. They showed monster movies, cowboy movies, and space adventure movies on Saturday afternoons. Cartoons and a double bill cost 50 cents. We ignored the newsreels. Popcorn cost 15 cents, and since we were chronically short on hard cash, we brought our own in paper bags hidden under our jackets. Sometimes we stopped at Mary’s Sweet Shoppe and bought penny candy.
There was a playground behind the neighborhood fire station with Saturday Sandbox contests, but we never went, being too old for sandboxes. There were dances at the Shaw Pool every Saturday night, but we never went to those either, being too young to care about girls.
Before the matinee there was a drawing for prizes. One of my friends won two thousand sheets of paper on a winter afternoon. He was beside himself hauling the reams home in the snow. He complained about frostbite, but he was a whiner at school and in our scout troop, so we ignored him. The theater was big, more than a thousand seats. We usually went early so we could sit in the front row, stretching our legs out, horsing around, kicking each other.
Going downtown we barnstormed from where we lived off St. Clair Ave. down East 128th St. to Shaw Ave. to Hayden Ave. and followed an unnamed unmapped foot path to the CTS Windermere station. We scrambled up the embankment, crossed the tracks at the rear of the station, and waited on the platform for the downtown bound train. Windermere was the end of the line for the Red Line.
When the rails rolled into home plate, we dusted ourselves off and ran upstairs out of the station, running through the Terminal Tower lobby and bursting outside, rain or shine. We made tracks around Public Square until we were tired. We liked walking to the movies on one of the three main avenues, which were Prospect, Euclid, and Superior. Our parents warned us about staying away from Prospect Ave., where there were prostitutes, smut stores, and burlesque houses. It was because of their words of wisdom that we took Prospect Ave. to East 14th St. most of the time, although we never talked to the whores and never went into the sketchy bars and clubs. We weren’t interested in smut and besides we didn’t have the money to pay for cheap thrills. All the money we had, we hoarded for the train, the movie, and snacks.
There were five theaters clustered between East 14th and East 17th. Four of them faced Euclid Ave. while one faced East 14th St. The three blocks were known as Playhouse Square, although none of us knew that. We didn’t pay attention to signs unless they had something to do with food or the movies. All of us had our own money, cobbled together from stingy allowances, paper routes, altar boy service at weddings, and even thievery, if push came to shove and our Saturday was threatened.
The Ohio and State theaters were built by New York City plutocrat Marcus Loew in the early 1920s, followed by Charles Platt’s Hanna Theater. It was named for Mark Hanna, Cleveland’s big-time wheeler-dealer senator in Washington. The Pompeiian-style Allen Theater opened a few months later.
The last theater opened at the end of the next year in the Keith Building, the tallest skyscraper in the city. The biggest electric sign in the world was fabricated and turned on the night of the Palace Theater’s opening. The movie house was billed as the “Showplace of the World.” The opening night entertainment was headlined by a famous mimic. Everybody said it was “the swankiest theater in the country.”
It wasn’t swank anymore when we started going to matinees, but we didn’t notice. It had wide seats and a gigantic screen and that was all that mattered. The movies cost 75 cents and we were glad to pay it. It was where we saw “Son of Flubber” and afterwards pretended to defy gravity like Fred MacMurray. We saw “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and laughed until we cried. We loved stories about buried treasure. It was perpetual motion and shouting. Ethel Merman was the most likable loudmouth we ever heard. We saw it three times and it seemed new every time.
We saw “Cleopatra,” but agreed afterwards that Elizabeth Taylor wanted to be first fiddle so bad we got sick of her. “Why is she even in the movie?” we wondered. Rex Harrison and Richard Burton were more like it. Thousands of Romans with swords and spears fighting among themselves was even more like it. Swords and sandals in banshee mode were what we had paid to see.
We wanted to see “Psycho” but weren’t allowed to buy tickets. We were warned it was too intense and inappropriate for boys our age. We were offended, but when we heard what it was about, we asked each other what all the fuss was. It sounded like a sicko stabbing people, which was right up our alley. We had all seen plenty of horror movies, like “Carousel of Souls” and “Village of the Damned.”
When “The Raven” was playing we saw it right away, even though none of us knew Edgar Allen Poe from the Man in the Moon. There’s a black bird. There’s a tapping at the door. The night is dark and howling. When the door is opened there’s nobody there.
“Watch your back,” we yelled at the screen.
The Big Three in the movie were Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre, even though Peter Lorre was a midget. He had a sinister voice, hooded eyes, and a dodgy way about him, which made up for his lack of height. Vincent Price was disappointing, even though he was the tallest. He spoke and acted like a sissy Gentleman Jim, even though he was supposed to be a big bad magician. In the end the whole business was disappointing. It was more funny than scary, and once we realized how it was going, we enjoyed it for the laughs. The Big Three turned out to be the Three Stooges in disguise.
We took a chance and asked for our money back, which we hardly ever did, but a grouch in a blue suit ushered us out and told us where to go.
We heard about “Seven Wonders of the World” on the radio, on WERE-AM, before we ever saw it on the marquee of the Palace Theater. We didn’t go see it, even though we saw it on the marquee week after week and even though it was in Cinerama. We saw everything in Cinerama, anyway, since we always sat in the front row. A wide screen made a bad movie twice as good.
Our own hometown was where we went to see the wonders of the world. We wandered around in the Flats amazed, stargazing up at the steel plants, looking down on the greasy Cuyahoga River, watching the up and down bridges go up and down as freighters hauling ore slowly made their way upstream. Six years later the river caught on fire, flames and plumes of black smoke turning day to night. We walked along the shoreline of Lake Erie where fishermen pulled perch and walleye out of the dirty water.
We snuck into Municipal Stadium, called The Mistake on the Lake, whenever we knew the fire-balling lefty Sam McDowell was pitching. He was 20 years old and tall as a tree. Hardly anybody went to see the middle to back of the pack team and we often had most of the 81, 000 seat stadium to ourselves, whooping and hollering it up. When ushers asked to see our ticket stubs, we hemmed and hawed and changed sections. Whenever we ended up in the bleachers there were never any ushers to roust us. If it was hot, we pulled our shirts off. We threw popcorn to the pigeons and pebbles at them when they stooped over their free goodies.
The movies were magic to us. They were like a dreamland in waking life. It didn’t matter if the story was real or unreal. We were dazzled by the moving images and the music. It was disorienting coming out of the dark auditorium after a matinee into bright sunlight, like after a midday nap when dreams come fast and furious.
The weekend before our summer vacation was done and we had to go back to school we saw our last movie at the Ohio Theater. It was “Lord of the Flies” and was about boys our age who were marooned on a desert island. We thought we were experts about everybody like us and didn’t know anybody who ever did what they did. We suspected movies were some kind of art form but didn’t like grown-ups making up art about us. We appreciated great trash but not great art. We wrote it off as highfalutin science fiction.
Going home on the train we saw a fight break out. Two men had been talking, then shouting, then shoving each other in the aisle, until one of them pulled a knife and stabbed the other one in the arm. Real blood gushed and stained his clothes. A real woman screamed. Two real men grabbed the knifer and held him down, while another man took his tie off and tied a tourniquet on the upper arm of the stabbed man. When we got to Windermere there were police cars and an ambulance there. We watched, fascinated, until a policeman told us to “break it up and go home.”
We went home more marveled breathless than any movie had ever made us.
John Kennedy was shot and killed that fall, which put a pall over everything. A fire broke out in the Ohio Theater the following year and the other theaters were hit by vandalism. All of them closed between the summers of 1968 and 1969 except the Hanna. We were juniors and seniors at St. Joseph’s High School, and the only pictures we went to were at the LaSalle Theater in our North Collinwood neighborhood. But by then when we went to the movies, we were more interested in our girlfriends than whatever was playing, although we found out horror movies were the way to go.
There was never any doubt about what to do with your hands when you were out with your main squeeze and the scary parts started.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”