Winter break always reminds me of the Christmas vacations of my youth. In 1960s Catholic Bay Ridge, there was no such thing as “winter break;” you’d hear “break” in commands like “if you don’t come in the house when I call you I’m gonna break both your arms and legs,” to which the only reply was “how can I come in the house if I get broken legs?”
These Christmas vacations were mainly for kids but I think it gave the nuns a vacation as well because in those days they had 50 to 60 pupils per class, and none of us were allowed to have ADHD or peanut allergies; you just sat still and tried not to wheeze. Imagine the tension! And we always wondered where the nuns went for Christmas vacation– did they go visit other nuns? What else would YOU do if you were a nun? Sometimes we imagined them running crazily throughout the convent in bras and slips, smoking cigarettes and screaming, but who could say?
I think we usually got two weeks off. In those days it snowed a LOT, and it was often very cold, but we were bundled up and sent outside anyway. We did the same things we did the rest of the year, only slower. What we liked to do was, during a thaw, dam up the flowing water in front of somebody’s house, which would invariably freeze over in the middle of the following night. Two or three parking spaces– gone ! I think we probably set off this current radical change in weather patterns.
In those days, for 75 cents we could go to the movies, and we often did. For six bits you could sit in the Fortway Theatre for six hours between lunch and dinner, watching bad movies and giving grief to the matrons. Ahh, the matrons! They were basically vacation nuns, serving the same purpose– to keep us out of our mothers’ hair during the day so that they could go to the A&P and the beauty parlor and drink rum and Coke. If a movie was particularly boring, we’d drop nickels and summon the matrons with their flashlights to come help us find them, or we’d spill popcorn or sodas (accidentally) and then put our feet up while we watched her sweep the mess up. God forbid if the film snapped or clogged the projector and started to burn; pandemonium would ensue as the matrons ran around trying to keep order while we stamped our feet, screamed, and threw Dots at the screen.
And who could forget the popcorn lady? While filling your cup, she’d stare off into the distance, knowing instinctively when the cup was full. She had a dyed blonde beehive and blue eye shadow, and was probably in her forties. One time I asked for “a small dry,” meaning “a small tub of popcorn, no butter,” and she snarled “whaddya think this is, a cocktail lounge?” I only saw her smile when the toadish theatre manager was around.
I’m sure we saw many, many different movies, but it seems to me that we were always sitting in front of some Joan Crawford potboiler that involved an axe murder or a stabbing. In Berserk she played a circus ringleader in tights who was trying to run a show, for crying out loud, as performers experienced gruesome deaths all around her. Of course, that kept the circus patrons coming back for more! (Folks is folks.) In I Saw What You Did, her lover stabbed her to death as he embraced her, but not before she gave HELL to some young teenagers who were harrassing them. Strait Jacket featured Joan freshly released from a mental hospital for killing her husband and his lover years before, and of course another series of murders takes place around her as soon as she settles into her daughter’s home. In both Berserk and Strait Jacket her daughters were responsible for the murders, which neatly foreshadowed the real-life drama Joan and her real-life daughter Christina would re-live during the Mommie Dearest fiasco.
Were we children affected by these movies? Of course not. There was no discussion; we were sent to the movies and left to deal with any issues and to sort it out amongst ourselves. No pampering; no pandering. We knew we were seeing something fake, and the fact that Joan Crawford was up there on the screen experiencing mayhem somehow made it all laughable.
It wasn’t always about horror, though; we all sat through The Bible, and the theatre was actually completely silent for a few seconds when Adam and Eve showed up naked, but then the hooting began. And Disney sent a tour bus to the Fortway one day, with Annette Funicello inside, and sixteen million of us surrounded the theatre, blocking traffic, ready to welcome her. She never got out, though; upon seeing the boiling crowd of us, she opened a window a little bit and waved. What did she think we were going to do, tear her clothes off and grab fistfuls of her bouffant? I was so disappointed, because I loved Annette!
My mother tells me that, these days, the streets are empty of kids during Christmas vacation. Apparently they’re all inside on their computers or thumbing electronic devices in front of their television sets. They’ll never know the pleasure and community of crowding into an old movie palace and just being lousy rotten kids for a few hours. Every kid should experience that, especially during winter break… and the memories would last longer than two weeks.