“The movie theater and the church often existed side by side in a small town,” the late novelist John Updike once remarked in an interview. “The old Hollywood movies were very pious. Sins were punished in exact proportion to their seriousness. In many ways, the movies carried religious weight.”
Updike grew up in the 1940s, and by the 1960s, when I was growing up in Warrensburg, the movies may have played a smaller role in shaping moral habits, but they did help fire one’s own imagination, and, for that matter, the collective imagination.
I recently looked at the Facebook page of a Warrensburg Central School alumni group, where Joey Scriver (Class of 72) initiated a discussion about the old Warren Theater, which, as it happens, was across the street from the Episcopal Church. It was not an especially impressive building (and what structure built in Warrensburg after the Depression was?), but it served its purpose, which was not simply to show low-budget or second-run movies every weekend, but to give children and teenagers a space unsupervised by adults for a few hours every Friday. (Saturday nights, at least in winter, were reserved for basketball games, for watching the likes of Jack Toney, Jerry Quintal and Bud York crush Lake George and Johnsburg in the high school gymnasium.) I don’t think I ever saw an adult enter the theater. And perhaps because of the absence of adults, the class and caste distinctions that kept Warrensburg segregated during the day were lifted.
At the very least, the images on the screen – whether of James Bond and Goldfinger or of surfers and snow bunnies – transfixed everyone equally. Our access to popular culture was limited, so movies helped explain the world to us – a world the churches’ traditional teachings no longer could. Joey Scriver, who attended the Catholic Church, noted that the Diocese distributed a guide every week identifying the movies that were appropriate, and inappropriate, for young people to see. “It was a great way to find out which were the really good films: the inappropriate ones.”
Scriver’s post elicited nearly one hundred replies. I was astonished by the accuracy of people’s memories of specific films (and there were some deliciously bad ones, like “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte” and “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors”).
No less interesting was how deeply the movie-going experience had etched itself upon everyone’s memories: the first dates, the sundaes and sodas afterward, the walk home under the elms and even the character of Clyde Farrar, the drug store owner who wrote verses which he had bound and printed and who refused to permit even a fly to be killed. (Steve Parisi, now the director of the local historical museum, contributed the interesting information that Farrar had been unlucky in love.)
When we entered the theater, we left the world of the small town behind; back on Main Street, we had returned to it. We could no longer assign the same significance to our small town, and perhaps for a time we were dissatisfied with it. It would be years before we would realize that life in a small town is as rich, if not richer, than any life elsewhere.