Saving The Picture Show
There was a rumor all over Clarkesville, Georgia. The picture show was going to close. The Habersham Theater. It had been operating since way before World War Two. Movies five nights each week, and all day on Saturdays. Lots of school plays had been performed on the stage. A lot of folks were concerned. Specially some young folks.
Three boys, Bobby Joe Nix, Sonny Butler and Henry Barron met on the square Saturday morning to discuss the situation. They stood outside Turpin’s Drug Store, leaning against the cement wall. “Bobby Joe,” said Sonny. “You reckon it’s true?”
“I believe so,” said Bobby Joe. “Heard the doors was locked yesterday.”
“Damnit,” said Henry, looking up at Bobby Joe, who was a good twelve inches taller. “Makes me want to cuss and piss at the same time!.”
“Me, too.”
People were coming and going around town. Some were just lookers, and some were shoppers. Which made Mr. Turpin, and the other store owners, happy. The three boys walked over to a bench on the courthouse lawn.
Bobby Joe waved his arm in a circle around the square. “Wonder how many of these folks know ‘bout it?”
A water fountain stood near the bench. It was good to drink from it on hot summer days.
It leaked some, and the leak usually ran into the grass in the front of the courthouse. Or sometimes, it ran back out into the street, next to Big Jim Boswell’s police car.
“I don’t know,” said Sonny. “Bet a lot of ‘em be upset if they knew for sure.”
They watched little children standing on tip-toes trying to get a sip from the fountain. The three boys had the same thoughts: wondering if the little things would have a place to watch shows. Eating good buttered popcorn, drinking cold Coca-Cola’s. It was a good thing to do.
“That’s that little Drake girl,” said Sonny, pointing, and looking to Henry.
“Is,” said Henry.
“You gonna see her sister today?” said Bobby Joe.
“Was…was taking her to see that new one: East of Eden. She’d read about it.”
“I’d rather see a good cowboy movie any day,” said Sonny, forming his right hand like a pistol, and pointing it toward Henry’s ear. “Pow!”
It was getting hotter, and more people were coming to Clarkesville to do their Saturday shopping. Henry stood up, looked around, and said, “What am I gonna do now? Where will I take her.”
“It don’t seem right,” said Bobby Joe. “Nothing like going to the picture show on hot days, sitting in that air condition old building.”
“Specially a good cowboy movie,” said Sonny. “Damn it!”
Bobby Joe pointed down Washington Street toward the Habersham Theatre, and said, “Why don’t we go see if old man Walker will let us run it for him.” Sonny and Henry laughed.
“You nuts,” Sonny said.
Henry walked to the water fountain for a drink. “This heat must be frying your brain,” he said.
“Why not?” said Bobby Joe. “The old man’s sick, they say. What else can he do with it? Sell it to somebody? Let’s walk down there.”
They stood, watching Clarkesville Police Chief, Big Jim Boswell, get in his car. They watched him drive away. “Lord,” said Sonny, look how much that car is leaning to the driver’s side. They laughed.
“What’s he weigh now, reckon?”
“Nearly three hundred,” said Bobby Joe.
“No doubt.”
They walked across the square, crossed Washington Street, and walked down the sidewalk to the theatre. Sonny tried the door, shook it. “Locked tight,” he said. They studied the posters on the doors, and posters behind glass frames on the walls. Bobby Joe stuck his right hand through the little curved opening at the bottom of the ticket window.
“Can’t reach the cash drawer,” he said, pulling his arm out, laughing.
“Better be glad Big Jim didn’t see that,” said Henry.
“Really wanted to see John Wayne’s new one,” said Sonny, pointing to a framed poster. “The Searchers. In color, too.”
Henry leaned against the door. He felt weak. He’d have to figure out something he and Sue could do this afternoon. Maybe walk down to the river. Sit on the bank of the Soque River. Throw some bread in for the trout. He wondered what she’d think about wading, and fishing.
Bobby Joe punched Henry on the shoulder, and said, “Let’s go see him.”
“Good grief,” said Henry. “Doubt he’ll even talk to us.”
“So,” said Sonny. “What’ll it hurt.”
Old man Carl Walker lived in an ancient house, three blocks behind the theatre on Wilson Street. With Bobby Joe leading, they walked and talked. Henry didn’t say much, mostly thinking about Sue.
“How about this plan?” said Sonny. “Henry you run the lobby. Take up tickets, make popcorn, sell Coca-Cola’s. I’ll learn to run the projectors. Bobby Joe, you sell tickets, and keep order. Check on the pay-trons, ‘specially that ass-hole Danny Ward. He’s always showing out, and talking during the movie.”
“He’s a real ass-hole, for sure,” said Henry seriously.
Old man Carl Walker was sitting on his front porch. He was bald, and had a cigarette sticking out of bulbous lips. His small eyes, and short, wide nose reminded Henry of a pig’s face. Bobby Joe led them straight toward the porch steps.
“Hello, boys,” Carl Walker said, waving his arm toward several rocking chairs. “Come on up and have a seat.” He had his right leg laying on a stood. He didn’t have a shoe on that foot, and it was wrapped entirely with a white bandage.
Bobby Joe felt good. Sonny, too. Henry wasn’t sure. “We just…uh…came by the theatre,” said Henry.
“How’d it look?”
“Okay,” said Bobby Joe. “We was wondering, I mean—”
“You wondering whether she’s gonna be shuttered for good, I reckon,” Walker said, as he put his cigarette butt out in an ashtray on the porch floor.
“Yes, sir. We was.”
“Well, boys, tell you what. I had a man, out’a Atlanta, that I was hoping would move up here and run it for me. He called me yesterday and backed out.” Walker removed a rag from his shirt pocket and blew his wide nose. He stuck another cigarette between his lips and lit it.
“That’s too bad,” said Bobby Joe.
“You telling me,” he said, as he blew smoke, and waved his arm toward the front door. “Sure glad y’all stopped by. If one of you could go into the hall there, and bring me that closed sign and roll of tape, laying on the hutch, I’d appreciate it.”
Bobby Joe went inside and got the sign and tape. He came out and sat down in the rocker next to Walker and said, “This is…what we were thinking—”
“I’d sure appreciate it if you boys would tape that sign to the door next to the ticket window, when you go back uptown. And what was you saying Bobby Joe? Thinking about?”
“Well, sir,” said Bobby Joe, “we hate to see it closed. And didn’t know if you was gonna sell it, or what.”
“I’d sure like to sell it. But I don’t know if it’d bring what I got to have,” said Walker. “I mean for the building, and everything in it.”
“We been thinking and talking about it today,” said Bobby Joe. “What if you keep it open, and we run it for you.”
Walker smiled, put his cigarette out in the ashtray, and rubbed his knee on the bad leg, “Don’t know if you boys could do it. There’s more to it than most folks realize.”
“Yes, sir—”
Henry kept staring at Walker’s foot. Looked like there was some red blood seeping through the white bandage on one side. Mark Nix, Bobby Joe’s daddy, said that Walker probably had a cancer in that foot. Said the old man claimed he got shot in the foot and leg in the war. But it was probably not true. Said he heard Walker never went overseas. Said he heard that he spent most of his enlisted time at Fort Benning, running a movie theatre on the base.
“I hate it, but I just can’t hardly walk much anymore,” he said to the boys.
“Yes, sir, that’s why—”
“How old you boys?”
“I’ll be seventeen next week,” said Bobby Joe. “Sonny and Henry both sixteen, right now. Sonny had the best ideas how we could run it for you.”
Sonny leaned forward in his rocker, and laid out the plan. “Bobby Joe will sell tickets and keep control of the money for you. He’ll keep order, and help Henry in the lobby. Henry will be in charge of popcorn, Coca-Cola’s, keeping lobby clean. I’ll run the projectors.”
“You ever run a projector before?”
“No, sir,” answered Sonny. “But last summer, that fellow named Bob-something, was running them for you, and I sat next to him at Joe’s Hamburger Restaurant next door, and he invited me up to the projection room. Showed me all about it.”
“Bob Olson, it was. “He died this past winter. Good man. If he’d not passed, I might’ve kept it going a little longer. Who knows.”
Carl Walker lit another cigarette. He took long draws, inhaling deeply. Then he blew his nose hard. The sound reminded Henry of a pig slurping food out of a watery trough.
“What your folks, your mother and daddy, think about all this?”
“We ain’t said nothing yet,” said Bobby Joe. “Wanted to talk to you first.”
He took more long draws, and went silent. Enjoying his cigarette, they figured. Finally, Carl Walker said to them, “Tell you what. Let me think on this. Lot of responsibility for such young fellows.” The he laughed. “I do respect your idea, and you coming to see me.”
“Yes, sir, and we’ll put the sign up for you, soon as we walk back,” said Bobby Joe.
Habersham Theatre stayed closed three more weeks. Everyone figured it was closed for good. The Tri-County Advertiser newspaper ran a story on the theatre’s history—with pictures. What it had meant to Clarkesville, and all of Habersham County. But during those three weeks, the boys helped Carl Walker get from his house to the theatre, so he could train them. Sonny had the most difficult job. He practiced running the projector for hours. Till he had it down pat. Walker handled ordering films from the distributer. On opening night, the line waiting to buy a ticket was all the way back up to the square. The boys did good. Henry had Sue working the popcorn machine. Sonny had wanted the first showing to be a western. But Walker over-ruled him, selecting a film that showed different cultures, new countries, excitement, and daring. He chose, Around The World In 80 Days.