The first thing I’d like to note is that long before I was briefly an usher in a movie theater, my father was briefly an usher in a movie theater. That might not be so much in my mind right now had he not died a little over a year ago—alone, in distress, in a nursing facility on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, of, as they say, “complications of the coronavirus”—but he did, and so here we are.
The story, as it was occasionally told and endlessly retold, like many of our family’s stories, for ritual, for comfort, is that he worked his way through so many screenings of Yankee Doodle Dandy that he knew the entire film by heart.1I have just now rewatched via YouTube, for the umpteenth time, my favorite Yankee Doodle Dandy number: “Off the Record,” in which Jimmy Cagney, recreating George M. Cohan’s turn as FDR in the 1937 Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical I’d Rather Be Right, prances and kicks and hops through a Central Park dreamscape—note the confectionary trees—surprisingly faithful to the original stage set as photographers snap photographs, Supreme Court justices bounce merrily stage left, and Cagney, with a lyric updated for the nascent World War II effort, promises to put ants in Hitler’s Japants. He and his fellow ushers, we were told and retold, wielded clickers so that they could signal to one another through the auditorium where the empty seats were.2I think—my father is not, as noted, available to confirm the details—that this was at the Hollywood Theatre in Manhattan, at Broadway and Fifty-first Street, subsequently the Mark Hellinger Theatre, where My Fair Lady later played—the stage musical, that is; the theater, opening in 1930 as a movie palace that could also accommodate live shows, was exclusively a legit house for a few decades starting in 1949—and where, in 1982, my mother and I saw the ill-fated, to put it mildly, A Doll’s Life, a kind of postmodern thinking person’s operetta sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The details pile up in my head, so I pile them up here, for context, for the official record, or simply to pile them up.
It’s the summer of 1975, and I’ve just graduated from high school, and I work for a few months at the Roslyn Cinema in strenuously picturesque Roslyn Village, Long Island,3This movie theater—pardon me, cinema—sits opposite the venerable, chunky clock tower that along with a nearby duck pond and ancient grist mill suffuses the town with quaintness, and if you’ve ever seen the original 1970 version of The Out-of-Towners, the one with Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis, you can catch a glimpse of it—and maybe even the theater too, I’d have to check—in the opening sequence, with Roslyn Village standing in for the film’s fictitious Twin Oaks, Ohio. The Out-of-Towners screenplay, I note, is by Neil Simon, whom I’ll get back to, along with Jack Lemmon, momentarily in the main text.
not far from where we live, a mile or two up Roslyn Road, in a boxy split-level house, one of three models repeated up and down the streets of our tight little 1960s suburban housing development (Rosewood, it was bucolically called) in an obscure hamlet—seriously, it’s a hamlet—called Albertson.
I remember the jacket that was assigned to me to wear and its stale, undercleaned smell, also the rancid-sweet Coca-Cola odor of the perennially sticky soda dispenser behind the candy counter. I remember taking tickets and periodically wielding a flashlight to guide latecomers to available seats—no clicker, I’m afraid—and I particularly remember laying claim to the job of changing the plastic letters and numbers on the marquee as one film gave way to another: As improbable as it seems, I was apparently the first employee at the theater to devise a system for figuring out which letters and numbers from the outgoing attraction were needed for the incoming attraction and leaving them up top to be shuffled into new positions rather than simply taking everything down and then starting all over again.4It seems so improbable that, now that I think about it, it’s probably not true.
I remember climbing up into the projection booth—hot, airless—to hang out every now and then with the projectionist and, though it was probably against the rules, help him switch reels.
And I remember three—there may have been more, but I remember only three—films of my tenure: The Happy Hooker, with Lynn Redgrave (more comedy of manners than comedy of sex, I should note; I rewatched it a few years back and it’s not bad, and Lynn is always cheering company); Richard Fleischer’s deeply lurid Mandingo (during whose run I always made it a point to slip into the auditorium in time to catch a glimpse, toward the beginning, of naked Perry King and, toward the end, of naked Ken Norton); and The Prisoner of Second Avenue, directed by Melvin Frank, screenplay, from his Broadway play,5Possibly this was the first nonmusical I saw on Broadway—not with its original stars, Peter Falk and Lee Grant, but with (I’ve checked the Playbill, which I still have) Hector Elizondo and Barbara Barrie. If it wasn’t The Prisoner of Second Avenue, it was definitely Night Watch, a thriller written by Lucille Fletcher, best known as the author of Sorry, Wrong Number, and starring Joan Hackett, my first encounter with the kind of high-strung stage diva acting I’ve craved like drugs ever since, and later made into a drearily lousy Elizabeth Taylor movie. It was a benefit of a Long Island upbringing that school field trips didn’t take in only museums and zoos and historical venues like nearby Sagamore Hill and less nearby Old Sturbridge Village but Broadway shows, even if they weren’t necessarily educational. by the then ubiquitous Neil Simon, and starring Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft as Mel and Edna Edison, an Upper East Side6Extra obsessive footnote: Mel and Edna Edison, we’re repeatedly told, live at 385 East 88th Street, apartment 14A (the little paper label insert on the couple’s apartment’s front door reads “M. Edison,” an appallingly perfect 1970s detail), at the corner of Second Avenue. There is no 385 East 88th Street, but if there were it would be over and slightly beyond First Avenue, halfway to York Avenue. The film sites the Edisons—you can see them coming and going through the building’s entrance and lobby—in the real-life Mayflower, still extant at the corner of Second Avenue at East 87th Street. Coincidentally, my parents, long after they left Long Island to take an apartment on East 65th Street, moved further uptown to an apartment tower at York and 88th, where, after the death of my father, my mother quietly and reasonably happily lived out the rest of her life. Though not on the fourteenth floor. couple struggling through economic recession, unemployment (his), and a paranoid nervous breakdown (also his). Struggling, sure, but not too much. This is a Neil Simon recession, Neil Simon unemployment, a Neil Simon paranoid nervous breakdown, so there’s always somehow enough money to pay the bills (including college tuition for two resolutely offscreen daughters) and lots of punctuating rinky-tinky wisecracks.
How many times I watched it in bits and pieces, larger and smaller chunks, I can’t say. (Was there nothing else I was supposed to be doing while the movies were screening? If there was, I guess I mostly wasn’t doing it.) But I took it in deeply, absorbed it, internalized it. Like my father with Yankee Doodle Dandy, I virtually memorized it, not just the lines but the line deliveries. (Bancroft’s incredulous “What plot, Mel?” occasionally, randomly dances through my head to this day.)
Ever since I DVR’d it in 2015, I’ve watched it a couple of times a year. I don’t claim it as a masterwork; I claim it as a familiar domestic comfort: mine, very likely not yours, though perhaps you have your own version of it, some less-than-remarkable film you watch and rewatch for no better reason than that you’ve always watched and rewatched it. And if there’s a particular reason that this boulevard comedy of middle-class, middle-aged angst imprinted itself on teenage me—I’ve long since achieved my own adult middle-classness, surprisingly (at least to me) like my parents’, and am rather beyond the middle-agedness—I can’t quite say, and I’m happy to leave that largely unexplored; one doesn’t always have to or want to know everything about oneself, does one.
Not so very long ago, a few weeks ago as I write this, my husband, noting a distinctly though scarcely, I think, uncharacteristically abstracted look on my face, asked me what I was thinking about. I told him that I wasn’t thinking about anything, I was just thinking. “That’s not possible,” he noted.
EDNA: What are you thinking?
MEL: Just thinking.
EDNA: About what?
EDNA: That’s not possible. If you’re thinking, it’s about something. Otherwise you’re just staring.
But here’s the thing. Or here’s another thing. At around the midpoint of the film, Jack Lemmon’s busily and theatrically anxious rage is interrupted by a literal blast of cold water, hurled at him by an upstairs neighbor. And the rinky-tinky comedy gives way, for a moment, to something like real feeling. No. Sorry. To real feeling. And I give credit not only to Lemmon, who always specialized in finding the deep truth at the heart of jokery, but to Neil Simon, who every now and then found a deep truth amid the wisecracks and set it out, raw and unguarded.