Leaving The Sedgwick
by Jim Harris
In her heyday, she was a queen among theaters. Her elegant, arching facade towered high above the modest homes and stores of the surrounding working class Philadelphia neighborhood. The Sedgwick was a movie palace. By the late 1950's, however, the guilt paint was peeling, and the flickering lights on the marquee were chronic, but it was still a place of magic to the baby-boomer kids of the nearby Holy Cross grade school. We made it our own, and lived in it as no one ever had.
My buddy Dave shoveled coal there on weekends, so I had unique access to the place. In the basement, there was a huge iron furnace with tentacles radiating in every direction, and high up the spiral staircase behind the massive organ pipes there were bulky contraptions that once simulated the sounds of wind and thunder for silent films.The lobby was a dimly lit cavern with chandeliers, ceiling-high mirrors, ornate woodwork, and wall to wall oriental carpeting. The lobby perimeter was lined with clunky mechanical candy machines, and in the center was a glass and brass kiosk from which a large, stern-looking woman with precipitously dangling goiters sold popcorn and soda.The theater proper had a huge smoked-glass lighting fixture in the ceiling where, according to legend, King Kong was entombed (it was always fulfilling for older kids to pass this information on to young newcomers, and to watch the terror well up in their eyes). There was a stage, complete with curtain, that was home to many a Halloween contest and yo-yo demonstration. The screen was indeed silver, and if you sat up close, you could see the many U-tacks that had been shot into it by intrepid slingshotters. These bits of metal caught the projector's light in such a way as to shimmer like little stars during the show.
Now, the Sedgwick on a Saturday afternoon was probably not the best place to see a movie. There was constant talking, seat changing, and the sounds of whoopee cushions and belching competitions. This is not to say that movies weren't an integral part of the overall experience - they were. There is still no suitable substitute for seeing Foghorn Leghorn looming twelve feet high, as God intended, or for watching from the front row as Wile E. Coyote plummets into the abyss. Martin and Lewis, Johnny Weismuller, John Wayne, Vincent Price- they all became part of our regular Saturday afternoon house party. In my younger days, a movie would occasionally scare me so badly that I would run out of the theater, and be too embarrassed to ask the ticket lady to let me back in. This behavior was not all that uncommon, or limited to me. Often I would find myself on the street, with four or five other timid, blinking souls, feeling chagrined and acting as if I had actually meant to leave the theater in mid-show. Of equal importance to the movies, however, - especially for the older kids - was the business of shmoozing and posturing. Everyone knew everyone else, or knew of them, and reputations were made and lost in the course of an afternoon. The ushers were the same safety-patrol nerds that no one paid any attention to in school, and grownups never ventured into the seating area, so there was basically no law beyond the lobby. In spite of this, there were still certain behaviors that were considered unusually daring. Chief among these was the "bust out", whereby a young rogue patron or two would push open the fire doors near the stage during a movie and scamper off into the distance. The consequent influx of sunlight would completely wash out the picture on the screen, resulting in audience rioting, and instant celebrity status for the rebellious perpetrators.
And so it came to pass one day, that, during a showing of "High Noon", Billy Quinn turned to me and said, "This movie blows, wanna bust out?" My heart jumped. Me? Billy? Bust out? I was more of a shy, passive-aggressive type, and not one to show off in public. It was a bold and unexpected proposal, but I was enamored of the possibilities. I knew that Susan White (she of unspeakable beauty) was in the building, and that a successful, stylish execution might well boost my status immeasurably, and bring me the attention that I secretly craved. "Okay", I said, "lets do it". We sauntered nonchalantly down the aisle, then turned abruptly, pushed open the massive doors, busted out, and ran like hell. With the sounds of chaos fading behind us, we stopped in an alleyway and collapsed onto the ground, out of breath and laughing hysterically. Now it was time to speak of our momentous achievement, and to reflect upon the mantle of greatness that was about to descend upon us. Instead, a short, pudgy man in a cheap, too-tight sports jacket flew around the corner and assumed a Karate-like stance. "AHA!", he barked, "No one ever leaves my theater except by the legally designated means. March!". Billy and I looked at each other as if to say, "Who the hell is this guy?" It never occurred to us that anyone would actually bother to come after us. Perhaps this besieged manager just needed to make an example, and we were the sacrificial goats. In any event, we were not willing to disobey an adult, so we let him herd us, like POW's, back in through the fire doors (which we were made to close), and then up the center aisle towards the main exit.The entire theater was howling with derisive laughter. I just stared at the floor and wondered how things ever went so wrong so suddenly. I knew that I would now probably never kiss a girl, or get invited to a party, or have a cool job. At that point, I couldn't have even become an usher. The humiliation was complete.
As it turned out, I never went back to the Sedgwick. Not long after that incident, much to my surprise, the doors closed for good. They had a final farewell party, including an organ concert, but urchins were not invited. I heard it was a grand affair. The building then became a furniture storage warehouse. In the ensuing years, I did, of course, kiss a few girls, and attend a few parties, but they weren't that great (the parties, that is). As for the cool job, I'm still looking. In the 90's, community activists bought the building and opened it as a "performance space" for local artists. Occasionally, they show classic films. I haven't been. I think I prefer to remember the Sedgwick as she was. Of course, if they were to show "High Noon", my sense of justice would compel me to attend, and when that clock in the movie struck twelve, I would spring up, shout something eloquent, like "God Save the Queen", and hurtle through those fire doors like a human cannonball.
It's not how you come in
that matters, it's how you leave.
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