FIVE THOUSAND years from now, when future archaeologists are picking and scraping among the shards and midden heaps, attempting to piece together the mosaic of the rich, full life led by 20th Century man, they will come across many a mystery that is impenetrable even to those who lived through it. A cracked fragment of a Little Orphan Annie Ovaltine Shake-Up Mug, a Shirley Temple Cream Pitcher, a heavily corroded Tom Mix Lucky Horseshoe Ring, an incomplete set of Gilbert Roland - Pola Negri simulated sterling-silver teaspoons with embossed autographs -all these and more will undoubtedly be key items in a file marked: Inexplicable religious artifacts found in great numbers.; no known relation to the philosophical currents of the time. But we know butter, don't we?
Not long ago, in a shabby diner in New England, I sat down on a cold, rainy morning to a bowl of soggy Wheaties and found myself suddenly and for no reason thinking of Rochelle Hudson. Rochelle Hudson! She had not entered my conscious musings since the age of eight. The sound of traffic roaring by on the Maine Turnpike reminded Me that reality was only a hundred yards away. As I spooned up the cereal that Jack Armstrong ate and Hudson High won its football games for, 1 cast Rochelle from my mind. Instantly she was replaced by Warner Oland, the original and definitive Charlie (Than. He grinned at me from under his homburg. Enigmatically, and disappeared. There stood Judge Hardy, about to have a man-to-man talk with Mickey Rooney. With the thump of a football, roly-poly Jack Oakie (wearing a white sweater with a big block "C") picked up his megaphone and started a locomotive cheer as Tom Brown, his arm in a sling, and June Preiser clinging to his jersey, trotted out onto the gridiron - Center College six points behind and only four seconds left in the game! The crowd roared, blending with the sound of a huge diesel bellowing- by on its way to Boston.
I was yanked back to the now Momentarily as a plate of toast clanked down next to my coffee. But I couldn't fight it. Without reason or rhyme, the film unwound in my subconscious, picking up the tempo of the thundering traffic on the 'Turnpike as Jimmy Cagney, his Maserati in flames, roared past the immense grandstands at Indianapolis, the mob screaming for blood, his oil line broken, his faithful mechanic, Frank McHugh, dying of burns in the cockpit next to him. The checkered flag fell as Jimmy, goggles streaming with gasoline, a thin ironical smile on his lips, swerved old number 13 into the pits. Arid out stepped Alan Hale, rugged, silver-haired, beaming, in the full-dress uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounties. With him, riding easy in the saddle, was Dick Form. A string of Malemute dogs howled with excitement as they headed into the great forest after another fugitive from justice.
With an enormous wrench of will power, I struggled to interrupt this ridiculous montage of fantasies that continued to crowd irresistibly in upon me. I tried to concentrate on my road map as I finished the Wheaties, but the harder I stared at the red lines, the more they seemed to resemble Pat O'Brien in the uniform of a Navy thief, barking out orders to Wallace Beery. What the hell is this? I am a grown-up, hard-hitting, contemporary man, and I have no time for such transient, imbecilic ruminations!
I swished my plastic spoon around the bottom of the bowl to scoop up the last few spongy flakes, and it was at that instant that I knew. It was the bowl itself that had caused Rochelle Hudson and the others to make their unscheduled guest appearance! I stared hard at it. It was a bowl of remarkably aggressive ugliness, made of a distinctive type of dark-green glass, embossed with swollen lumps and sworls representing the fruits of the vine and the abundance of nature a bowl that had but one meaning. I peered at it long and hard. Yes, there was no mistake. It was genuine a mint-condition, vintage movie dish-night premium gift bowl.
I glanced the length of the lunch counter at the proprietor, who lounged listlessly next to the coffee urn watching the rain fall outside on his gravel driveway. We were alone. I spoke.
"Excuse me, but what kind of a bowl is this?" He looked up.
"What do you mean, what kind of bowl? Glass."
"Yeah, I know it's glass. But where did you get it?"
"Whattaya mean? Are you an inspector?"
I never knew there were cereal-bowl inspectors working the Maine Turnpike.
"No, it's just that you don't see bowls like this very often." He looked back out at the rain and I knew that our conversation was at an end.
I stirred my coffee and examined the green glass monstrosity lovingly. Faintly I heard Myrna Loy's mocking voice twitting William Powell over the strains of a Beatles record in the diner's kitchen.
I reflected that in attics and cellars and kitchen cupboards throughout the length and breadth of America, there must he uncounted thousands of such remnants, bits and pieces of movie dish-night deluxe dinnerware sets, some green glass, many blood-red, others a clanging, pearlescent orange, but all united in universal ugliness - ugliness unfettered, unrestrained by effete taste, as direct and uncluttered as a Johnny Weissmuller scenario. The kind of ugliness so distilled that it shines with the golden, radiant light of the pure in heart and the simple of mind; ugliness so stark and clean that it becomes beautiful in its clarity. The purveyors of such beauty, have never had it easy in this or any other age. And Leopold Doppler was no exception.
Leopold Doppler! My God, I even remembered his name. But how could I forget it? I gazed mistily into the depths of the glass receptacle in front of me, and the images of a fateful night began to emerge from the milky film that lined the bottom. The night of the Orpheum gravy boat riot! Eerily, faintly, the radio in the kitchen began to play Artie Shaw's Begin the Beguine, and the story slowly came back to me in all its Byzantine grandeur.
Mr. Doppler operated the Orpheum Theater, a tiny bastion of dreams and fantasies in Hammond, Indiana, a flickering spark of human aspiration in the howling darkness of the great American Midwest, where I festered and grew as a youth. Even now the name "Orpheum" sends tiny shivers of anticipation and excitement up the ventilation pipes of my soul. High priest of our celluloid tabernacle, Mr. Doppler was a mythological figure, rarely seen as a real person. His name, however, always stood at the head of the program throwaways that landed on the porch every Monday afternoon, outlining die Orpheum's schedule of mirages for the following week. In Roman letters surrounded by cherubs blowing trumpets and a kind of Egyptian architectural arch festooned with grapes and tiny cornucopias and presided over by a pair of blurred Greco-Zanuck tragedy-comedy masks, would appear the proclamation:
LEOPOLD DOPPLER PRESENTS
This smudgy, dog-eared schedule was kept next to every icebox in the county, for ready reference and to settle arguments of a theological nature. Mr, Doppler was in direct communion with Dennis Morgan and he had a personal hand in the affairs of Roy Rogers. Hollywood was a mysterious thing in those clays, even more so than today, and for good reason: It was more mysterious. People read Photoplay and Screen Romances and other dream journals as seriously as today they digest The New Republic, Time and The Realist and other contemporary almanacs. One time, I remember, my Aunt Clara lapped the entire field at Christmas by giving my grandmother a two-year subscription to Real Screen Tales.
So night after night the faithful would gather, bearing sacks of Butterfinger bars and salami sandwiches, to huddle together in the darkness, cradled in Mr. Doppler's gum-encrusted seats, their eyes wick with longing and lit with the pure light of total belief before the flickering image of Ginger Rogers, dressed in a sequin-covered gown and swirling endlessly atop a piano as wasp-waisted Fred Astaire, flicking an ivory cane carelessly and spinning his tall silk hat, sang, in a squeaky voice, The Carioca. In the darkness the sound of girdles creaking in desire and the snapping of Wrigley's Spearmint provided a soft but subtle counterpoint to Sam Goldwyn's hissing sound tracks.
Outside those sacred doors crouched the pale gray wolf of reality and the Depression. On the skyline, the dark, sullen hulks of the steel mills lay silent and smokeless, ancient volcanoes that had burned themselves out, while the natives roamed the empty streets and told wondrous tales of a time when the skies had been lit by the fires of the steel crucibles, when there had been something that had occupied them all, called "work."
At Saturday matinees the congregation consisted entirely of kids. The carved Moorish doors of the Orpheum were flung wide at ten A.M. to the moiling rabble who came to spend the entire day and weekend if possible watching three cowboy pictures featuring such luminaries as Bob Steele and Ken Maynard galloping endlessly over the back lots of dusty Los Angeles real estate, firing countless rounds of blank cartridges, the sound track turned up to deafening volume. The thunder of movie horses, the screams and grunts of the wounded and dying mingled with an unrelenting uproar at the popcorn machine and the occasional outbreak of a fistfight in the balcony, and the incessant two-way traffic up and down the snarled aisles to the plumbing facilities. The muffled curses of the ushers clubbing the more violent into submission provided those of us who were there with an accurate foretaste of life to come. More than one kid, caught up in the inchoate intricacies of a Monogram picture cowboy plotline, found himself torn between answering an urgent call of nature or missing the final defeat of the treacherous sheep ranchers. It almost invariably went one way. Many a kid had to skulk damply clown back alleys on the way home, in total darkness to avoid public humiliation, his corduroy knickers squishing limply as he crept from garage to garage, from chicken house to thicken house, hoping against hope that the spanking breeze from the lake would dehydrate him in time.
Clamped in his seat for nine solid hours till well past seven, or just before the greasy love stuff came on - a kid swirled in a maelstrom of excitement and convulsive passion that has left a lasting mark on all who sat in attendance. There are countless men today, and not a few women, who have what they euphemistically call "bad knees" resulting from a malady just recently diagnosed as triple-feature paralysis; a knee permanently assuming a lambent I. shape, with concomitant bruises and contusions resulting from being propped against the top of the seat ahead, accompanied by permanent numbness in the upper buttocks. It is incurable, and its symptoms are unmistakable.
Strategically spaced between the cowboy epics were episodes of Flash Gordon and Superman serials to quell the troops between rounds of gunfire and volleys of guitar playing. Rage poured in waves from the audience the instant Gene Autry put down his six guns and took up his Sears-Roebuck melody box to sing Red River Valley through his noble Roman nose. It was an intransigently antisenti-mental crowd. Luckily for Autry, he worked in the pre-switchblade era, but there were other means to vent aggression on the beaded screen. As the first notes from his steel guitar rolled out over the throng, a shower of bottle caps and chocolate-covered raisins arched through the flickering beans of light that cut the darkness above our heads. The ushers leaped forward at the ready, but by then the gunfire had resumed on screen, and blessed violence had stilled the mob.
A colossal high point came along after the third running of Thunder over the Prairie, starring Johnny Mack Brown. The lights would go tip in the house, illuminating a scene of carnage and juvenile debauchery unrivaled in the most decadent day of the Roman downfall. Knee-deep in Baby Ruth wrappers, sated with popcorn, jaws aching from a six-hour session of bubble-gum chewing. We sat holding our ticket stub, waiting for the fateful drawing. On stage was wheeled a chicken-wire drum filled with torn tickets, and behind a silver, bullet-shaped microphone appeared the slight but commanding, black-clad, balding figure of the legendary Mr. Doppler himself. In person.
Behind him was piled the loot for that day: Chicago roller-bearing roller skates, Hack Wilson Model fielders' mitts: Daisy air rifles endorsed personally by Red Ryder and complete with direction-finding compass in the stock and handy sundial for telling time under difficult trail conditions; and the grand prize a Columbia bicycle with balloon tires and two-tone iridescent paint job.
Doppler grabbed his audience hard and fast with Ins opening line, the instinct of a showman blazing through:
"Shut up in the balcony!"
We scrunched forward in our teetery seats, Hershey bars clasped dripping between unheeding fingers. Ticket stubs held at the ready, we waited for our number to be called. Two ushers on stage spun the drum and a volunteer usually a pimply-faced lout from the first two or three rows pulled out the tickets while Mr. Doppler, milking each drawn number for all it was worth, built the drama of expectancy and chance as surely and skillfully as only a true dramatist can.
At long last came the drawing for the grand prize. The house lights dimmed and went out. Wheeled center-stage in the brilliant blue-white vaudeville spot, it stood alone and coldly inaccessible. A vast hush fell on the huddled throng, broken only by the soft, muted squishing of Mary Janes being pulverized by loose milk teeth. The drum spun and slowed and finally stopped. Doppler raised his hand imperiously in the way that mighty Casey must have done, quelling the multitude as the crucial moment approached. Absolute silence as the volunteer's grubby claw fished among the ticket stubs-searclng for his own, no doubt finally drawing from the chicken-wire cage a tiny orange fleck of torn paper. He solemnly handed it to the usher, who ceremoniously presented it to Mr. Doppler. The sun stood still in the firmament.
Mr. Doppler gazed for a moment at the stub and then looked meaningfully out over the audience and back again to the stub. His voice, ringing with feedback, intoned:
"The winning number is . . . D . . ."
A pregnant pause. We hunched forward as one man, scats creaking in unison. All our tickets began with D!
"D . . . Seven . . ."
Muffled groans, anguished outcries, seats slammed angrily in isolated spots. Doppler raised his eyes menacingly. Again silence.
"D . Seven . . Oh .
More screams and thumps. My palm itched sweatily. I was still in tlte running. This could be the week!
Mr. Doppler continued, pretending to have difficulty in reading the number.
"D . . . Seven . . . Oh . . Let's see. This is Dee-seven-oh-three . . ." The audience, now in a state of frenzy, scattered wails of lament. The thud of bodies falling amid popcorn cartons as Doppler closed with a smashing finish, his voice climbing to a crescendo.
I sank back into my seat as a high, thin squeak came from somewhere near the EXIT sign to the left of the popcorn stand. A great roar of hatred arose among the defeated as a tiny, limp figure, carried down the aisle by jubilant companions, rushed toward the stage, yipping as they came. My God! It was a girl!
Muttered obscenities in the darkness.
The mob was now in an angry mood at this ugly turn of events. A girl! Bruner next to me half rose in his cockpit, fist poised to hurl the remains of a taffy apple on stage in a statement of defiance. The sharp bark of an usher in the aisle caught him in mid-air:
The flashlight beam froze him, taffy apple cocked, jaw set. He sat, sheepishly.
On stage it was all anticlimax, and Mr. Doppler knew it. Quickly wrapping up the ceremony, lie hustled the bicycle, kids and ushers off stage, and darkness fell. Again the beating surf of crackling paper wrappings, and the steady crunch-crunch-crunch of mastication picked up in tempo, blending into the fanfare of bugles superimposed on the opening credits and the classic REPUBLIC PICTURES PRESENTS, as we prepared for the first volley of the fourth feature of the afternoon.
The Longest Day wore on, time completely obliterated, the outside world a dim memory, no day, no night, just the thunder of the pursued and the pursuers, as the crack of fist meeting jaw and dm crash of bottles hurled at barroom mirrors roared ever onward. Life was complete. Occasionally a menacing grown-up form roamed up and down the aisles in search of a huddled fugitive from the supper table. A pitiful outcry in the darkness and a kid would be dragged kicking and screaming toward the Exit sign and back into life.
Finally, three quick Mighty Mouse cartoons in succession as a capper- for the road, as it were - and it was all over for another week. Back outside at last, splinter bands of bloated, sticky, Tootsie-Roll-filled kids drifted homeward, recounting in photographic detail every labyrinthine twist and turn of each feature, reliving each fistfight and showdown, each ambush and hairbreadth escape. The ideological arguments would begin, the Ken Maynard faction snorting derisively at the lesser Bob Steele contingent. An occasional Roy Rogers nut would give a nasal rendering of The Streets of Laredo. The few holdouts for Tim Holt, outnumbered but unbowed, were united in their disdain for the effete Gene Autry. The great day was over. We had only to face the ordeal of trying to stuff down baked beans and spareribs at supper, which wasn't easy on top of four Milky-Ways and a rich compost heap of other indigestibles moving like some great glacier down through our digestive systems.
But the uproar on Saturday afternoons at the Orpheum was as nothing compared to the continuous hoopla and razzmatazz of the rest of the week, when Air. Doppler's bijou would rise to a fever pitch of excitement. Very little of it had anything to do with movies, but the Orpheum continued to pretend that it was in the film business, and so did the customers.
Monday night, immediately after supper, the adult faithful would scurry through the darkening streets toward the sacred temple to play Screeno. I have heard that in other movie houses this was called Keeno, but Mr. Doppler was a fundamentalist. As the Judy Canova fans pushed through the turnstiles, they would be handed a crude sheet of cardboard ruled off in squares, with the great black letters:
SCREENO! EVERYBODY HAS A CHANCE TO WIN! WATCH YOUR NUMBERS!
Next to the door was a wastebasket filled with corn kernels. Each lover of the cinematic art would grab a handful On his way into the humid arena, slide down in his seat and wait for the action.
At about seven, on would come the Movietone News, with the bathing beauties and the horse races, and the funny, goose-stepping, comic soldiers wearing scuttle helmets marching in phalanxes to the sound of Deutschland, Deutschland iiber alles. And Westbrook Van Voorhees and die March of Time. Ten minutes of previews of coming attractions, featuring music by the Coming Attractions Band, followed perhaps by a John Nesbitt Passing Parade, or a James A. Fitzpatrick travelog, or a Pete Smith Specialty or even a Joe McDoakes. Then the first feature would begin, with Ben Blue chasing Judy Canova around a haystack as the audience rustled their cards and crunched on corn kernels in keen anticipation of the delights to follow.
Finally Judy had deafened the multitude for the last time. The eighth reel had spun out and the moment of exultation would arrive. The house lights would go on; the popcorn bags were set aside, and there would be a moment of suspended animation while the real reason all were there was getting under way. On stage the great white screen stood empty, Mr. Doppler could be heard testing the P. A. system in his richest baritone:
"Hello, test. Hello, test. One-two-three-four. Can you hear me up in the booth, Fred?"
And then silence. Next, on screen a great blue-and-red-numbered wheel appeared, with a yellow pointer, and Mr. Doppler would get right down to business.
"All right, folks, it's time once again to play that fun game, Screeno. Anyone filling out a diagonal or horizontal or vertical line with corn kernels wins a magnificent grocery prize. Just yell out 'Screeno.' Be sure to check your numbers. And now, here we go!"
A spectacular fanfare would wow into the sound system, since Doppler really believed in production values all the way, and the evening would start. On screen the pointer, a yellow blur, spun as band music played softly. Everyone leaned forward in their scats, their cards poised as they waited for the call of fate and riches to lay its golden laurel wreath on their fevered, movie-loving brows. The pointer slowed and stopped, and Doppler's voice intoned:
"The first number is B twelve." Rustlings, creaking of seats, muttering. Some wit up in the gloom hollers: "Screeno!"
The crowd titters and the pointer spins again. A constant obbligato of dropping, rolling and scrunching corn kernels and excited mumblings played like a soft flame under the great pot of gold that all pursued. Finally someone would shout "Screeno!" and the first prize of the evening was snagged. Doppler, his voice trembling with emotion', announced:
"And now the first Screeno gift of the evening-, a five-dollar bag of groceries from the Piggly-Wiggly store on Calumet Avenue, credit extended, superb meats and groceries; we cash checks. This five-dollar bag of superb victuals goes to..."
The usher hurried down the aisle with the winner's Screeno card and his name, the audience shifting- restlessly, waiting distractedly for the next game to begin, and somewhere off in the middle distance the sound of gurgling as the winning party celebrated the great coup. The pointer whirled; the action roared on. The kids, not eligible to participate under the strict international rules of classic Screeno, spent most of the time throwing corn kernels at the balcony and the silver screen.
To the right of the stage was a magnificent smoked ham, and all the other grocery gifts for the Screeno crowd.
During the Depression a seven-pound ham was good for at least four months in the average family, not including 800 gallons of rich, vibrant pea soup; so Screeno was a very serious game. Rising above the usual Orpheum aroma - a rich mixture of calcified gum, popcorn, hot leatherette seats, steamy socks, Woolworth Radio Girl perfume and Kreml hair oil - was the maddening scent of smoked bacon, fresh pickles and crushed corn kernels.
Screeno was played for at least 15 minutes, until the last can of Van Camps Pork & Beans had been won, the excitement rising- upward until the final great moment, the Grand Award: a year's supply of Silvercup Bread, provided by the local A & P. Bread truly was the staff of life to a dedicated Screeno addict. The same bread that the Lone Ranger lived on and that Tonto used to make French toast. Immediately after the Grand Award, which. Of course, Doppler masterfully squeezed for every last drop of dramatic tension, the lights went out, and onto the screen came the face of Lou Lehr, saying, with his rich Bavarian accent, "Munngeys iss da cwaziest peebles!" Culture marched on.
. . .
Tuesday was bank night. Bank night was for the really big-time movie fans - the crowd that avoided Screeno like the plague. Every week the bank-night jackpot rose by hundred-dollar jumps, and every Tuesday night at zero hour, amid a deep hush, beneath the spotlight, the sinister cage containing the bank-night registration slips was spun as the world perceptibly slowed in its orbital flight around the sun. Mr. Doppler, standing solemn and straight - there was no razzle-dazzle on bank night - waited beside his silver microphone as a gleaming- white card was drawn by one of the audience. Moment of agonizing hesitation, and then. In a quiet voice, Mr. Doppler intoned: "Tonight's bank-night registration drawing for seventeen hundred dollars . . ."
A dramatic pause at this point to let the enormity of that figure sink into the souls of the transfixed congregation, most of whom hadn't seen a whole ten-dollar bill for five years running. Seventeen hundred dollars! Everyone in the house had followed the progression of bank night from the first hundred-dollar jackpot to its present astronomical height. Each week Mr. Doppler had changed the big red figures on the marquee, and all week seven long days - the feverish bank-night dreamers passing back and forth on their aimless errands were constantly reminded. As each week rolled into history, the sweat, the fear that someone else would win clutched at the Very vitals of each registrant. Everyone would scrabble and scrape week after week to scratch up the price of a ticket. Until finally, at the seventeen-hundred mark, it had become a kind of recurrent nightmare, steadily growing worse.
The movies shown on bank night unreeled before glazed, uncomprehending eyes, their pupils contracted to pinpoints glowing in the darkness. Seventeen-hundred dollars meant the difference between glorious life and penny-scrabbling existence. Thus, on bank night there were no friends, only solitary sparks of human protoplasm - alone, plotting, scheming-, hoping against hope that no one else would strike it rich.
"The number is two . . . Two . . . Nine . . . Five!"
It isn't your number. Silence. A stunned, watchful, waiting, fearful silence. Will the money he claimed? Is 2295 here? Jane Withers, Jack Oakie and even Freddie Bartholomew have been drowned and forgotten in a (lark, swirling sea of anxiety.
"Is that number in the house?"
"I repeat, is number two-two-nine-five in the house. Once."
An usher at stage right, in a blue spotlight, raised a padded mallet and struck a gong.
The clangorous boom rolled nut over the multitude like a death knell, echoing from Coke machine to gilded cherubim, from high above the stage and down into the depths of the hearers' subconscious, there is an agonizing pause, then . . . Twice."
Another interminable pause.
"Two . . . Two . . . Nine . . . Five. Three times and . . . Out!"
A deep collective sigh of blessed, numbed, tremulous relief rose from the darkness, and the audience settled back into their scats. Already plans were under way in fevered minds on how to grub together next Tuesday's admission.
Somewhere, in some (lark mortgaged frame house, number 2295, who had decided to stay home this one night in order to save the 40 cents' admission, tossed uneasily in his sleep as the great ship of fortune sailed by him, unseen, unheard, into the darkness forever.
. . .
Wednesday night was amateur night. Between features a long procession of banjo players, mouth-organ virtuosi, clog. Dancers, Bing Crosby imitators and other out-of-work steel puddlers engaged in mortal artistic combat for another array of Grand Awards, including an all expenses-paid two-day trip to Chicago, a full 30 miles away, ten free vocal lessons at the Bluebird Music School ("Accordion Our Specialty') and a 550 top prize, as determined by the applause of the audience. At least that's what the poster in the lobby called it, applause. Applaud is not exactly the word that describes the acrimonious pandemonium. The disdainful hoots, catcalls and obscene noises that accompanied each act. The Orpheum on amateur night gave many of us who were fortunate enough to be in attendance at these cabalistic rituals a glimpse, a taste, of that stuff of which riots and great historical upheavals are made.
One night in particular is etched in my memory. In the middle of the show, a bulky bricklayer clumped on stage. In the pit, the piano player began a flowery intro to Neapolitan Tights. The bricklayer pursed his lips wetly and began to whistle in a high, thin, birdlike trill, his hairy chest perspiring, cheeks popping, eyes bulging. Instantly a wave of falsetto whoops rolled out front the audience and crashed in a rip tide of derision around the hapless hod carrier. He stopped in mid-trill.
"Awright, ya bastards! Who's the smartass?''
His fists were like two giant clubs at his sides. Another great bellow more of a snort, actually from the audience. Enraged, the offended artist dredged his visceral depths with a quivering subterranean hawk, and let fly, from his pursed lips, a fairly sizable silver oyster. It landed in the third row. Cut to the quick, his outraged critics arose as one and rushed over, under and around the seats toward the stage, as hundreds cheered and bird-whistled on the side lines to goad the battlers on. It was the first time Mr. Doppler had to call the police in order to get second feature under way. But it was not to be the last.
. . .
Thursday was the one night of the week when Mr. Doppler was forced to book a halfway decent movie. It was on Thursdays that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby traveled their eternal Road, panting and leering alter Dorothy Lamour. It was on Thursdays that Gary Cooper sat tall in his dusty saddle, on Thursdays that Andy 1-lardy Judy Garland decided to put on a show to buy the serum for the widow's boy, who was dying- of a strange, unnamed Hollywood disease whileDonald O'Connor, the wise-guy freshman, made passes at Andy's girl in the gym between tap dances. Thursday was serious-picture night. And in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion, Mr. Doppler also presented the Orpheum Singalong. As the Paramount mountain materialized on the beaded screen to end the picture, there rose from the cavernous darkness of the pit - electric motors humming the mighty Orpheum Wurlitzer, sparkling and glowing, glittering sequins catching the light. A blindingly brilliant white, it loomed above the audience like a marble mausoleum, and seated before the arching keyboard, his wavy golden hair ashimmer, his white tuxedo coat insufferably spotless. Sat the famous Orpheum organist, booming out Chiribiribin as On screen a slide appeared with a scene of gypsies caught in mid-fandango, tambourines raised, eyes flashing hotly in glorious Technicolor. The organist spun on his twirling seat, unveiling a grinning set of dentures that made anything Liberace was to do later pale to insignificance. The slide changed: "Follow the bouncing ball and sing along with the world-famous Orpheum Wurlitzer."
A beautiful moonlit scene flashed on, sailboat in the middle foreground, a silhouetted couple June, moon-spooning against the sky, as these words appeared above them: "Red Sails in the Sunset" The strains of the mighty Wurlitzer spilled out over the orchestra, overflowed the balcony and lapped against the chandelier as the white ball bounced from word to word, and the audience, conditioned by countless hours of Kate Smith, Harry Horlick and Mc A / P Gypsies, Jessica Dragonette and the Silver-Masked Tenor, belted it out.
Beside me in the darkness, my mother giggled sell-consciously but sang on, curlers rattling, eyes shining-, as the Orpheum Dorgan pealed the empty coalbin and next month's rent forgotten as slide after slide marched across Mr. Doppler's sing-along screen. The only tune I ever heard my old man sing was when the mighty Wurlitzer, like some demonic pipe of Pan, drove him on.
"Betty Coed has lips of red for Harvard. Betty Coed has eyes of blue for Yule!"
On screen a male cheerleader in white ice-cream pants and a white sweater with a big "V" on the chest held his megaphone high and a golden-haired coed, Betty herself, tilted her perky profile toward an orange sky as the ball bounced on and on.
So much for Thursday. Then came Friday the black day that proved finally to be Mr. Doppler's Armageddon. For this historic night Mr. Doppler had come up with his master stroke. A spectacular display in a gleaming glass case appeared without warning in the neo-mosque lobby of the beloved Orpheum. For dramatic effect, the lobby had been darkened and strategically placed pink, blue and amber baby spots focused On the eventual cause of Doppler's downfall. Above the case in tinseled fuchsia letters, the starkly simple word blazed forth:
The motley throng that gathered in the lobby on that fateful night stood slack-jawed before the incredible riches gleaming behind the glass. Artistic sights arc rare in the steel towns of the Midwest, slumbering amid the tangled spiderweb of endless railroad tracks and groaning beneath the weight of vast acres of junkyards; but when they do appear, the natives respond with awe. Denizens of an artistic desert, they devour each scrap of beauty with a relish that warms the cockles. Tonight was no exception. The Three Stooges Forgotten, they stood in dark, silent clumps and gaped, unbelieving.
Radiant, pristine, row On row, cushioned On a carpet of blood-red velvet, reposed a complete set of Artistic Deluxe Pearleen Tableware, Dinner Service of the Stars. A tasteful placard spelled it out with simple eloquence:
FREE! FREE! Beginning next Friday, one piece of this magnificent set of tableware will be presented FREE, to each adult woman in attendance. The moviegoer will be able to complete this 112-piece set of magnificent dinnerware and enjoy the finest of movie entertainment.
Signed by the Management: Mr, Leopold Doppler
The amber spot played sinuously and enticingly Mel' cascading ledge upon ledge of pearlescent, sparkling. Grape-and floral-encrusted tureens and platters, saucers and gravy boats, celery holders and soup bowls.
It would probably have been difficult to assemble a complete set of any kind of dinnerware from among the entire audience that night. My mother stood gazing at the artistic opulence, her breath short, her eyes glowing like coals. Our cupboards were filled with a collection of jelly jars, peanut-butter containers, out only, for state occasions, was a matched Shirley Temple sugar and creamer of dark-blue glass. Our silverware consisted of Tom Mix spoons, Clara BOW pickle forks, and a Betty Crocker bread knife with a rubber handle and cardboard blade.
Hence, the effect of the Orpheum's incredible offer was galvanic. 'The word spread like bubonic plague, and by the end of the week the air was charged with tense expectancy. It was as though the whole town was waiting for Christmas morning which, like all great days, approached with maddening deliberation. On Thursday it was announced in the local paper that along with the first free-dish otter, Tarzan and the Pygmies would be shown, along with selected short subjects. Doppler was going all out.
Friday morning dawned crisp and clear. By seven p.m. a serpentine line wound its way around the block, past the poolroom, the Bluebird Tavern, Nick Kirtsopolos' Hardware Store, and almost to the WiIlys-Overland showroom, a full football-field length away from the Orpheum. Our family, about halfway back in the mob. Which had begun to gather early in the afternoon, was surrounded by a throng of nervous skeptics. It was hard to believe that it would really happen, that a real dish would be given out free just to watch Tarzan, Jane and Boy swinging from the vines. Would the dishes run out before we got inside? A rumor spread that The Pearleen Deluxe display was a phony, just a conic-on, and the dishes we'd get would be cheap Japanese reproductions of the real Dinner Service of the Stars.
Finally the doors opened and the mob surged forward. The box office roared with activity as we inched our way toward the marquee. Just inside the door Mr. Doppler and two minions stood, packing cases stacked behind them, handing out to each lady a beautiful, gleaming butter dish. What an opener! Doppler could have opened with a prosaic cup or saucer, but his selection of a butter dish for starters Was little short of total inspiration.
Handing a butter dish to housewives who came, almost to a woman, from oleomargarine families, was a master stroke. As a matter of fact, few people in the crowd had ever even seen a butter dish before, and some bad to be told what it was for. My mother, of course, an avid reader of Good Housekeeping, instantly recognized the rare object for what it was: a symbol of gemility and good taste. Still, we were oleo people, and my, mother would mix the dead-white, lard-like substitute for the high-priced spread in a glass mixing bowl. Adding coloring from the gelatin capsules inside the plastic package. We always referred to this as "butter" and it was invariably served on a cracked white saucer used only for that
purpose. Our new butter dish was a step into the affluent world of the 20th Century.
Mr. Doppler beamed, his black suit crinkling as he whisked out butter dish after butter dish, distributing his largess to the multitude.
"Next week there'll be a different piece, lady," he said over and user. "Maybe a bun warmer, who knows:"
Thus lie insidiously planted the seed in the mind of each butter-dish clincher that next week could be even more exotic. The hackles of desire rose even higher as they filed into the darkened auditorium.
"What's a bun warmer?"
"You warm buns in it, stupid!"
Snatches of complex table-etiquette debates drifted back and forth as the mob went down the aisle brandishing their butter dishes. The Tarzan movie began. Popcorn bags were. Ripped open and ravaged, the evening was complete.
As soon as the kitchen light went on back home after the movie, even before my mother had taken off her coat. She jerked open the refrigerator door and the butter dish was put into action. Loaded with oleo, its pearIeen finish lighting- tip the linoleum for yards around, it rested in the center of the white enamel kitchen table. Dish night had hit Hammond, Indiana, right Where it lived.
The news of Mr. Doppler's dishes spread through town like wildfire. Over back fences, through jungles of clotheslines, down alleys, into basements, up Onto front porches, into candy stores and meat markets, the winged word spread. Red, chapped, water-wrinkled hands paused on clothes wringers and washboards; bathrobe-clad figures hunched over sinks listening in amazement. Neighbors trooped into kitchens all over town to inspect at firsthand the beautiful works of art that somehow had come into the lives of the movie going set.
The following Friday the Orpheum drew crowds from a three-county area, a jostling throng that stood in long, expectant lines to see Blondie Takes a Trip, starring Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake, and to receive as compensation for that trial by fire. Sure enough, a Pearleen Bun Warmer. Mr. Doppler had not failed his public. Bull warmers flooded Lake County in a massive tide of deluxe Hollywood finish, There were few buns to warm, but we were ready for them.
The Orpheum had never known such inordinate popularity. The other movie in town, the Paramount, desperately tried to stem the rising tide of Doppler dishware. A huge, glowing sign appeared on its marquee announcing that it was prepared to offer free a one-hundred-and-eighty-seven-piece set of Movieland Mexican Plasto-Ware, designed personally by Chester Morris and including his permanent, indelibly embossed, raised signature On each and every piece. But it was too little and too late. This incandescent beauty of Mr. Doppler's dinnerware had an unbreakable grip on the aesthetic fancy of the population. Mr. Doppler was in the saddle. His power grew from week to week as each new piece was added to the growing collection that gleamed from practically every kitchen cupboard in town, crowding jelly glasses and peanut-butter jars farther and farther to the rear.
The third week saw the first cup-and-saucer combination, a two-piece bonus; the fourth week a petite, delicately modeled egg cup, the first ever seen in the Midwest. Week by week the crowds grew. Tension mounted as piece after piece was added to the kitchen shelf. Speculation was rife as to what the next week would bring. As he and his aides passed out celery dishes and consomme' bowls, Doppler would lean forward and mutter confidentially, "Maybe next week an olive urn with pick!" He never said it absolutely would be an olive urn with pick; he just hinted.
The weeks flew by. The town was hooked. It had a 112-piece monkey on its back that grew heavier every week. Ladies in the last stages of childbirth were wheeled into the Orpheum, gasping in pain, to keep their skein going. Creaking grandmothers, halt and blind, were led to the box office by their grandchildren. Ladies who had not seen the light of day since the Crimean War were pressed into service. They sat numbly, deafly in the Orpheum seats, their watery eyes barely able to perceive the shifting images on the screen, their gnarled talons clasping a sugar bowl for dear life.
Then, one night, we got The Big Platter, as it was called in our family for years afterward. The Big Platter, a proper name, like The House On The Hill, The Basement or The Garage. There was only one Big Platter in every complete set of dinnerware, the crowning jewel of Dopplers' diadem. For weeks we had filed past the magnificent display in the lobby, and there in the exact center, catching the amber spots, glowing like the solar orb itself, was The Big Platter.
One of the saddest sounds I have ever heard was the crash in the darkness of the theater as some numb-fingered housewife, carried away by Joe E. Brown, loosened her grip in laughter. Stunned, disbelieving, she would sit for a moment staring down in mute horror at the pearlescent slivers among the peanut shells and 'Footsie Roll butt ends that formed a thick sludge underfoot. Then recriminations and suppressed sobs as the entire family rose and filed stiffly out, their only reason for being there shattered in a moment of giddy abandon. With both hands, my mother clamped our platter over her chest in a death grip.
None of us realized then, in the exultation of the moment, that the end of the idyl was already in sight. Without warning, the following Friday, the ladies were handed a finely sculptured, grape-encrusted gravy boat. In our innocence, we greeted this windfall with hosannas and bore it home to a place of honor. The next week, however, brought a premonition of disaster as a chagrined Doppler dealt out to each female patron another gravy boat, all the while mumbling over and over, "The shipment was wrong this week. You can exchange this gravy boat for a dinner plate next week." Vaguely uneasy at this unexpected break in the rhythm of dish collecting, the women filed muttering into the theater, bearing their redundant bounty.
Significantly, the third Friday was marked by a sudden avenging rainstorm that grew in intensity until, as the Orpheum hour approached, it became a genuine cloudburst. Women scuttled through the downpour, carrying their paper-wrapped gravy boats for exchange, to be met at the turnstile by Mr Doppler and his shamefaced crew - surrounded by cases of still more shining gravy boats.
"Bring all your gravy boats in next week," he said bravely. "We will positively exchange them next week. The shipment... "
But the tide had turned. What had been, weeks before, a gay rabble of happy ticket buyers had become a pushing, disgruntled, menacing mob. And all through that fourth week a strange quiet hung over Lake County. Even the weather reflected the sinister mood of watchful waiting. Fitful dry winds whistled across the rooftops, screen doors creaked in the night, dogs bayed at the sullen moon, and children cried out in their sleep.
The fourth Friday turned unexpectedly cold chill, clammy, premonitory cold. Solitary black-clad women bearing shopping bags full of gravy boats converged on the arena. By seven a silent clot of humanity milled under the marquee and spilled out raggedly along the gloomy, shuttered street. The doors remained shut. 7:05. 7:10. A few of those in front tapped demandingly on the wrought-brass gateway. 7:15. It was obvious that something was up. 7:20. The doors finally, reluctantly, swung open.
As the vanguard approached the turnstile, they knew the worst had come to pass. For the first time in many weeks, Mr. Doppler was absent from his post of honor. Two unknown strangers, eyes downcast, handed to each ticket holder another gravy boat. Each one was received in stony silence and stuffed into shopping bag or hatbox, completing a set of four.
The feature that night, appropriately enough, was The Bride of Frankenstein, the story of a man-made female monster that turned on and destroyed her creator. For long moments. When it finally ended, the house lay in hushed darkness, waiting for Mr. Doppler's next move. On this night no gay music regaled us over the theater loudspeakers. No coming attractions. The candy counter was dark.
The mothers waited. Then a sudden blinding spotlight made a big circle on the maroon curtain next to the cold, silent screen, and out of the wings stepped Mr. Doppler to face his moment of truth. He cleared his throat before speaking into the ringing silence. No microphone tonight. He seemed to have shrunken, somehow. His tie was a little crooked and for the first time scuff marks and dust marred the gleaming toes of his black pumps. His coal-black suit was slightly rumpled. "Ladies .. ." he began plaintively, "I have to apologize for tonight's gravy boat."
A lone feminine laugh, mirthless, arid and mocking, punctuated! His pause. He went on as though unhearing. "I give you my personal guarantee that next week..."
At this point a low, subdued hissing began to rise. The sound of cold, fuming venom. Doppler, his voice shrill, continued: "Next week I personally guarantee we will exchange all gravy boats for..."
He never finished that sentence. A dark shadow sliced through the hot beam of the spotlight, turning over and over and casting upon the screen the lmge magnified silhouette of a flying gravy boat. Spinning over and over, the object crashed on the stage at Doppler's feet. Instantly a blizzard of gravy boats filled the air. Doppler's voice rose to a scream.
"LADIES! PLEASE! WE WILL EXCHANGE . . ."
A hail of gravy boats and obscenities drowned out his words. And then, spreading to all corners of the house, shopping bags were emptied as arms rose and fell in the darkness, pearlescent projectiles and maniacal female cackles driving Doppler from the stage.
High overhead someone switched off the spotlight and The Bride of Frankenstein flickered onto the screen. But it was too late. More gravy boats were launched. And yet more. An almost inexhaustible supply, as though some great mother lode of Deluxe Dinnerware had been struck. The eerie sound track of the movie mingled with the rising and falling cadence of wave upon wave of hurled threats and missiles and outside, the distant wail of approaching riot cars. The house lights went on. The back of the Orpheum was suddenly lined with a phalanx of blue-jowled policemen. The tumult ebbed. Glutted with revenge, the audience sat taciturnly amid the ruins. Under the guidance of pointed night sticks, they filed into the grim darkness of the outside world. 'The dish-night fever was over, once and for all.
The great days of Leopold Doppler had passed forever. The doors of the Orpheum never opened again. Mr. Doppler disappeared from our lives without a trace, leaving behind countless sets of un-completed Hollywood Star-Time Dinnerware, memories of Errol Flynn stripped to the waist, climbing the rigging of a pirate barkentine; of George Raft, smooth and oily under his snap-brim fedora, surrounded by camel-hair-coated henchmen; of Bobby Breen and Deanna Durbin on a rose-covered swing; of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald waltzing endlessly under Japanese lanterns; of Jose Iturbi at a piano made of ivory and mirrors playing cascading rhapsodies before thousand-piece orchestras in a perpetual MGM Grand finale. It was the end of an era.
"Want me to warm up your cup?'' Abruptly, the counterman snappd me back from screenland. Before I could answer, he moved away. I knew what I had to do. Stealthily, like a cat, in one quick motion, I swept the damp green bowl into my briefcase. In my booming John Wayne voice, to keep him off my trail, I barked gruffly, "Well, gotta push off." I slapped a buck on the counter and scuttled out with my priceless object d'art. For a brief instant I almost panicked as I heard the thin, tinny voices of the Andrew's Sisters singing a chorus of Roll Out the Barrel from my attache case - but it was just the buzzing of a leaky neon sign that spelled EATS.
A moment later I was out on the Turnpike, jaw set, wearing my widely applauded Claude Rains smile, the hard-earned result of hundreds of hours logged in secret practice before the bathroom mirrors of my adolescence, carrying with me nought but my tattered memories, and a relic that would confound as-yet-unborn generations of anthropologists: a mute, lumpy Rosetta stone of our time.