George’s story

Memories

This is an article that George Hutchison wrote and has very graciously given me permission to include on my website.

They danced to big band sounds at the restored Palais Royal along Lake Ontario the other night, and community activists are determined to save some of the neighbourhood movie theatres that provided escape from the harsh realities of the wartime 1940s and Cold War fifties and sixties. We’re packaging nostalgia.

But as I watch my grandchildren play with their Gameboys, and negotiate the interactive mazes of the Internet, and listen to MP3s, and take pictures on their cellphones, and watch the latest action DVD in exploding colour and surround sound, I doubt that the old dance-halls and Nabes, as some called the local movie houses, will survive my generation.

The kids will have no regrets, just as we had no regrets when Technicolor and Cinemascope doomed colourless film, and television killed radio soaps and dramas. But it’s bittersweet to realize that the curtain is falling on that world of simple imagination.

In the tiny post-war world of the kids of Caroline Avenue in Toronto’s east end, the centre of the globe was the Joy Theatre, where the wonders of the universe beyond unfolded in the noisy darkness every Saturday afternoon. For a few pennies, Hollywood stars would entertain the neighbourhood, in scratchy black and white and monaural sound: Roy Rogers… John Wayne… Buster Crabb… Lash LaRue… Abbot and Costello… The Three Stooges…

Still forced to frugally dispense the circular blue tokens left over with wartime food rationing, money for keeping the kids out of their hair was scarce, so parents seemed almost grudging in spending a nickel or a dime on a kid’s fleeting adventure at the Joy. But they managed, week after week, after week.

It was mandatory to attend, after all, lest we miss the collision of Buck Rodgers with the alien planet, or the death of Lash in a plunge into the Grand Canyon (his whip always managed to save him). The serials kept us coming back, and parents shelling out.

Heedless of the expense of our Joy-ful visits, I can vaguely remember the costs, perhaps five cents for admission, three cents for popcorn or a package of candies, which were wolfed down as we wrestled for positions even before the previews illuminated the blank white screen.

Kids today, bombarded and consumed by media even Buck Rodgers couldn’t conceive, cannot imagine the thrill and awe their ancestors experienced as they nestled into the sparingly padded seats of the Joy, the lights dimmed and the screen came to life with colourless yet colourful characters who sang and danced, fought and died and, on occasion, even planted a kiss on the cheek of the fair damsel. It was our first halting lesson in sex education. Graduation would come much, much later.

To the mind of a six- or seven-year-old boy, the westerns were the thing. I was taken by Roy Rogers, who seemed much more manly (now they say macho) than Gene Autry, who would subsequently confirm my suspicions by singing a frilly song about a reindeer.

Roy sang manly stuff. He started his screen career as a villain, and soon became a hero, which he remained until his death and my middle age. It’s nice to think that Roy’s golden Palomino horse, Trigger, stuffed and exhibited rather than chopped up and buried, remains upright, somewhere, to this day.

In a book called “The Nabes,” a nostalgic look at Toronto’s neighbourhood movie houses, John Sebert a couple of years ago revived my memories with a 1948 photograph of the Joy showing a clutch of kids under a marquee advertising “Tarzan and the Leopard Woman.” Starring, probably, Johnny Weissmuller, who was the only Tarzan I ever saw who could convincingly proclaim, with a beat of the chest and point of the finger, “Me Tarzan; you Jane!”

Joy Theatre (formerly the Rex Theatre)

The Joy was a brief walk from 25 Caroline Avenue, near Eastern Avenue, to the north side of Queen Street near Jones Avenue, made all the more brief as we ran to the “show” for our weekly fix of fantasy.

Inside, we chattered and chomped on popcorn. If the show didn’t start precisely on time, the courageous among us would launch a chant – “We want the show! We want the show!” – until the ushers, bigger kids than us, strolled down the aisle with flashlights and orders to keep quiet or be thrown out. Then came the preposterous previews of movies to come – “Stunning!” “Sensational!” “Never before seen!” – and, finally, a serial and main feature. Perhaps a double bill, punctuated by a Loony Tunes cartoon.

If it was a western, as it most often was, we would lose ourselves in a world of gunfighters, stagecoaches, sheriffs, posses and Indians appearing along the crest of a box canyon, whatever that was. White hats and black hats were worn to help us keep track of good guys and bad guys. The Indians didn’t wear black hats, but they were always among the latter. That was the way in those days, and it coloured our view of things for years to come.

For an hour or more we were in another world. The gunshots inside the Joy were make-believe. The punches thrown, feigned. Far removed from the realities of a neighbourhood still grieving the effects of a war where bullets and bombs killed for keeps. But we were happily allowed our weekly escape, occasionally reminded of the outside world as a noisy streetcar rattled past every 15 minutes or so.

The light outside was blinding as we left the Joy, and we invariably headed for the lane that ran south between Caroline and Larchmount avenues. Cap pistols and holsters would miraculously appear and we would childishly attempt to recreate the drama of the shootouts we had just witnessed; dodging behind corners of garages, poking our pistols over fences. The caps would explode in wisps of sulphur, a friendly smell that lingers to this day. We all lived to fight another day.

I understand that the Joy is a nightclub now, dedicated to the entertainment of a more mature, freewheeling generation.

Roy Rogers hasn’t been seen in these parts for a long, long time. Tarzan has swung his last vine, and spaceman Buck Rodgers is strangely out of date in the 21st Century.

Sadly, some of the Joy is gone.

Toronto writer George Hutchison is an “Eastender.”

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