Saturday at the Movies in Depression-era Hartford


By Walter E. Smith

(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Fall 2005

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Each Saturday morning was a boisterous joy for me when I was a boy back in the 1930s in Hartford, Connecticut, as I woke with the thought of going to the Daly Theatre and seeing a cowboy movie. I never knew what the movies were until 1936 when an older friend named Jack McCaughy, who lived in an adjacent apartment, suggested to his mother and mine that we go one afternoon. My mother thought I, at age six, was too young for movies, but she reluctantly agreed to let me go.

In those days of the Depression, everyone we knew was poor. We lived in a building that contained six apartments and was similar to a dozen others on Bedford Street between Mather Street and Albany Avenue. The neighborhood might euphemistically be called cosmopolitan: It was composed mostly of Jewish, Italian, Irish, and Polish families. I grew up cracking ice in the gutters in the winter, setting rat traps beneath ash-sheds in the summer, and trying to snitch candy from Ray’s Drug Store. But on those Saturdays, a fidgety, corn-haired boy whispered his morning prayers while his thoughts wandered to cowboys and funny pictures. After a nervous breakfast, followed by interminable, pointless distractions, my mother produced a thin Mercury dime in my hand, issued a barrage of cautions, then kissed me quickly as I fled from the flat. And then I was free to roam.

My peregrinations usually started about 9 a.m. At the south end of Bedford Street were two huge lots, one on each side of the street, where the grass grew wild and we played baseball and football. A series of partially broken concrete posts lined each lot, probably vestiges of former fences. I could never jump these posts because they were too tall, so I contented myself with whacking them with a stick. At the corner of Bedford Street and Albany Avenue stood the Deerfield Tavern, whose swinging barroom doors and sawdust floor fascinated me. When they weren’t chased away by the police, the older boys shined shoes in front of the tavern for a nickel and always hoped that a drunk would get a shine and given then a large tip. As I passed by, the heavy stale odor of beer permeated the air, and I stopped to peer under the doors but could not see any cowboys. All I could hear was two cleaning men swear at each other.

Heading downtown on Albany Avenue, I came to Brook Street, which was one of the few streets left with shiny granite sidewalks. They were ideal for playing “sidewalks poison” because they weren’t as wide as the new ones being put in by the WPA. Next I’d approach Udolf’s Tailor Shop and stop to look at the window dummies. Occasionally I’d observe Mr. Udolf feverishly sewing or manipulating one of his machines. The New Method Laundry stood near the end of Albany Avenue. It was an impressive four-story building composed of green painted stones that appeared to have come from a medieval castle. Its main attraction was its side alley where periodically gushes of white steam shot out, then rose softly like lazy clouds and evaporated. Most of the time I beat the steam in a race to the street.

A railroad tunnel ran beneath Albany Avenue and Main Street just before they merged at an intersection with High Street. Pedestrians were protected from the 50-foot drop to the tracks by a spear fence to the right of the sidewalk, whose terminating points were decorated with scrolls like the curls in Arabian shoes. Behind the fence was a stone ledge formed in three semicircles of equal proportion that spanned the top of the tunnel. Walking this ledge was a challenge that no boy could decline. I would shinny up the fence and jump onto the ledge at its widest point. Then I’d peer down at the tracks below, rise, and begin walking. Climbing back over the fence was easy, and my heart throbbed widely as I examined my accomplishment from the safety of the sidewalk. It’s good that mothers don’t know too much about the activities of their boys.

There was a large horse trough on Main Street that stood beside the small park wedged between Main Street and Albany Avenue above the railroad tunnel. The park contained a few benches, dry shrubs, lean trees, yellow grass, and empty liquor bottles, and was populated by unshaven men who sat around in frail, worn suits and talked or stared into nothing or slept in the sun with peculiar smiles on their faces.

In deference to one of my mother’s many edicts, I observed the stoplight, looked both ways to be certain the cars had stopped, then raced across High Street, bounded onto the sidewalk, and paused before the large window of the White Tower Restaurant. There was always a man with a white cap standing behind the window grilling hot dogs or hamburgers beneath a noisy ventilator. The men in the restaurant looked like the same ones in the park. They sat on stools at the counter nervously rubbing their faces or glancing suspiciously about while lines of smoke rose from the heavy white mugs of coffee. I stood there for minutes inhaling the delicious smells.

Finally I arrived at the Daly Theatre (also known as the Scratch-House in local vernacular). Above the theater and adjacent stores, bed-sheets, rugs, and blankets dangled from apartment windows, and generally there were several breasty women who leaned on the windowsills with folded arms and spoke loudly to each other in broken English.

The box office was a telephone-booth enclosure in the middle of the entryway, and by the time I arrived a dozen or more fidgety children were usually lined up. The showcases on either side of the box office contained glossy prints of scenes from the current movies. The cowboy prints were always to the right of the box office. The other showcase held prints of the second movie, which invariably was a musical. These were of little interest to me, since they showed men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns, who were only dancing, singing, or kissing.

At 10 a.m., the grey coiled woman in the box office suddenly came alive and removed the cardboard stopper in the lower glass opening; in a flash the line was gone. I approached the box office and tossed my dime through the opening onto a small metal plate. The woman pushed a button that created a grinding, whirring sound, and a yellow ticket appeared in the left slot. I extracted it and entered the theater.

A few feet behind the box office, wall-to-wall doors opened into the lobby, whose white octagonal tile floor reminded me of our bathroom. Inside, to the right, there was a stairway to the balcony followed by the candy counter behind which a banana-haired woman sat reading. If I had extra money, I would select several pieces of candy and hand a coin to the woman. It was uncanny how she would deposit the coin into a tiny tray and return the proper change to me without once looking up from her reading. The ticket-taker wore zebra trousers and looked like W.C. Fields. He stood by a square box mumbling to himself with an unlit, half-smoked yellow cigarette pasted to his lips. A final set of glass doors, which were scarlet-draped to obscure the outside light, led into the theater.

The front row was bustling with activity. Most of the children claimed their seats by placing a jacket or sweater on them and began to run about exploring the theater. The walls were unadorned, the floor was solid concrete, and the seats were hard wooden boards. The screen had several tears and numerous spots on it, the stamps of boys’ disapproval of scenes in past movies. The juicy smell of fresh popcorn rolled down the center aisle, but for the most part the smell of the Daly Theatre was not unlike that of the Deerfield Tavern.

By 10:25, several rows of children were in the theater and many of the bums from the park were filling the back rows. I turned in my seat and saw that the projection room was lighted and two men were scurrying about. Suddenly the Movietone news leaped out of the screen and the overhead light went out. We jetted out of our seats, screamed and shouted, did a jig in the pit, hugged each other, and did some somersaults on the railing. Some of the more daring boys threw their caps and jackets into the darkness and then spent much of the next hour searching for them. The pandemonium lasted for about five minutes, and no one I’d estimated ever received a more vociferous and stirring reception than did Lowell Thomas, whose voiced ushered in the movies on those Saturday mornings.

The news was followed by the coming attractions, then by a short comedy. My favorite cowboy was Bob Steele. His pictures were all action with little talking, no singing, or kissing of girls. Following the cowboy movie, the weekly serial was shown. “Flash Gordon” with Buster Crabbe was the most interesting one, although my favorite was a jungle-type serial that featured a Tarzan character who had a horse and dog for companions. If an animated cartoon followed the serial, another thunderous explosion echoed throughout the theater. And if the cartoon were in Technicolor the eruption was increased by another 60 decibels and sent the man in the zebra trousers flying down the center aisle to heap admonitions upon our deaf ears because the noise roused the unshaven men in the back rows, causing them to drop their whiskey bottles.

During the second feature, if my interest waned, I’d play “tag” or “scatter” with the boys, some of whom seemed to act as if the theater were a fulltime playground. Or I’d go upstairs to the nearly deserted balcony and scratch my initials on the black-painted windows. Sometimes I’d walk to the top of the balcony where the projection room was wedged between the roof and floor and peer through the slits in its side. Two men usually stood there talking, laughing, smoking, and drinking coffee. At the tinkling of a bell, which signaled the end of a reel, both men went into action. They’d ignite the darkened projector. When a second bell sounded, one man closed his projector’s shutter while the other opened his, and the switch of reels and projections occurred in the blink of an eye.

The balcony was also fun for tossing paper through the projected move beam, watching it streak about like some luminous bird, or for sitting near grownups who were kissing and carrying on. Best of all was to race to a drinking fountain, return with a swollen mouth, and walk along the balcony’s railing; spotting a bald man or a sleeping bum, release the shower and dash away to another part of the theater, crumbling into a seat with laughter. We seldom accomplished it, though, because the very contemplation of our act would cause us to erupt with laughter and we’d spew out the water before we reached the railing.

Another fun-filled act was to sneak up on a sleeping drunk, extract an empty bottle from his vicinity (only a fifth would do), and roll it down an aisle where it would gain momentum and increase in noise until if finally turned off course and crashed against the iron legs of a seat. Immediate expulsion from the theater and a lecture by a policeman was the punishment for these crimes, although the spewing of water was also accompanied by a spanking from the victim if he managed to catch you.

By now it was after 3 p.m., and I knew I should not stay any longer. I’d go into the lobby and study the advertisements for coming attractions, listen to the voices I could still hear from the film inside, and wish I were as lucky as those people just entering. The walk home was always a slow and sad one.

Read Smith’s second story, “In a Neighborhood, A Boy’s World,” Winter 2005/2006

Walter E. Smith is a retired executive from the aerospace and national defense industry and the author of bibliographies of Joseph Conrad (1979), Charles Dickens (2 volumes, 1982-3), the Bronte Sisters (1991), Elizabeth Gaskell (1998), and Anthony Trollope (2003).



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