Movie Threatre Diversions

What can you do when it’s Saturday, with no U.S. TV broadcasts and 25 cents in your pocket?

Escape to another world and devour a big bag of popcorn!
When I lived in Mannheim, Germany in the early 1960s, my brother and I were given a quarter and sent on our way to the base theater for a couple of hours every Saturday.

While we missed having a TV set to watch (since there was little if any U.S. broadcasting in Europe at the time), our weekly trip to the Saturday afternoon Matinee more than made up for the lack TV shows.

When a quarter would go a long way . . .
A quarter would pay not only for the movie, but also a bag of hot, buttery popcorn. Drinks weren’t allowed in the theater, but water fountains were available in the lobby area. However, once the afternoon’s entertainment started, few of us left our seats, as we were afraid we might miss something truly exciting or possibly gory.

After standing line and purchasing our tickets, we proceeded to get our popcorn, and possibly a candy bar if we had some unspent weekly allowance. We would spend a few minutes looking at the posters of coming attractions.

Often there were Vincent Price or Peter Cushing movies coming to the base in a few weeks, which promised creeping severed hands or battles with a world filled with vampires, or perhaps a Godzilla movie, with Tokyo being crushed yet again.

The excitement builds . . .
With the movie theater rapidly filling with 6 to 10 year olds, milling about trying to find friends and pick the best vantage point, it was a bit loud and unruly, even for Military Brats in training.

The first few rows of seats filled quickly as many kids in the theater wanted to be as close to the screen as possible. I tried it once or twice, but looking upward with giant figures overhead was just not for me.

I preferred to be a few rows back in the center section, so I could actually see the entire screen, in case something came on the screen that was bit too scary.

After what seemed like an hour, the lights in the theater would begin dim and the nervous laughter and jokes would die down.

“Oh, say can you see . . . “
With the sound of the first bar or two of the Star Spangled Banner, everyone stood up and the curtains in front of the silver screen retracted revealing the flag in all it’s glory. In a few moments the last note sounded and we were back in our seats ready for the show.

Usually the Saturday Matinee started with a cartoon, as I recall, sometimes Woody Woodpecker, followed by the weekly black and white serial. In the early 1960s, while color was very common in movies, often the Matinees had movies that were not exactly current. We really didn’t care about color, as long as there was plenty of action.

One of the weekly serials featured Tom Mix, billed as the “The Miracle Rider”, a cowboy hero who each week appeared to meet a an especially painful demise, though the hero’s violent end was always left to our overactive imaginations.

Serials were also known as “Cliffhangers”, as often there were scuffles high in the mountains, and at the end of an episode someone would be hanging over the edge of a cliff by their fingernails. You wouldn’t find out until a week later if the hero was able to get rescued or was able to somehow pull himself back up over the edge at the last possible moment and escape an almost certain death.

Each week, the serial went back in time, to the few moments before the end of the previous week’s episode, where we would see a few frames of missing footage from the serial. This missing footage showed how our hero (who always wore a white hat, of course), managed to get out of an impossible situation and cheat death once more.

What followed the revelation about how our hero was not in fact killed as we were led to believe, was about 15 minutes of Tom Mix or other serial heroes battling the bad guys and getting themselves into yet another impossible situation where it looked like he was about to be killed.

Then it was time for the main feature.

As long as there was some action and the romantic scenes were kept to a minimal level, we enjoyed whatever was being shown.

Our favorite movies . . .
Robin Hood, Captain Blood and the Son of Captain Blood, were all favorites. Historical movies were particularly fun as they literally transported us to another time and place and showed us pirate ships and a way of life that was very different from own. Living in Germany where there was a castle literally in every town of any significant size, only fed our desire for actors clashing swords in the 17 or 18th century, and firing off pistols and cannon.

There was something about the swashbuckling action with sword play and men bound together by a common enemy, facing not only the perils of the sea, but authorities and those who were determined to stop them, that we were somehow drawn to. Especially when the story line revealed the hero to be wrongly accused of wrong doing, or being pardoned by the King at the end of the movie.

Coming out of the movie theater side doors at the end of the movie, we staggered about like drunken sailors for a few moments, as our eyes adjusted to the blinding, bright light outside.

Immediately, we would begin mock swordplay as we had seen just moments before. Had some ropes or vines been dangling outside the theater, we would have all been swinging wildly around as we acted out the best parts of the movie.

While there was a bit of a letdown as we walked from the movie theater back to the apartment building we lived in, our thoughts returned to the serial and the seemingly horrific demise of Tom Mix. Discussions led to arguments as to the actual plight of the Miracle Rider, which lasted well into the week.

Appreciation for the diversions
While the lure of the Saturday Matinee gradually wore off as I got older, I really appreciated having a movie theatre wherever we stationed. The diversion from what had become our ordinary life on the front lines of the Cold War was a welcome relief.

In an ironic twist of fate, after I graduated from Frankfurt American High School, I worked at a couple of jobs to save some money before I returned to the U.S. to strike out on my own. One of the jobs I had was working for Recreation Services in a central processing facility where all the movies being distributed to bases in Europe were inspected, repaired and sent on.

As a film inspector, part of my job was to make sure films were as free of cracks and tears as the result of going from one movie projector as it traveled throughout theaters on bases throughout Europe. The natural aging of the film, which became increasingly brittle with time, and going through countless theatre projectors left many films damaged and prone to breaking.

Mending the past
Many of the same serials I enjoyed in the early 1960s were now crossing my workspace and while I had a moment of nostalgia, the serials, most of which were about 30 years old at the time, were in really bad shape and required a lot of splicing and repair to get them ready to send out again.

We repaired the films which had broken sprocket holes or cracks in the edges of the film by simply cutting the film, removing the bad frames and splicing or gluing the film back together again. This results in some garbled dialog and jumpy scenes as more and more bad sections of the film are removed.

If only you could do this with real life! Imagine editing out that terrible blind date or first car accident.

Once in a while I will turn to Turner Classic Movies or AMC and have my TIVO record an old Tarzan movie so I can get my Saturday Matinee “fix”.

It’s not quite the same as going to a Saturday Matinee, but if I pop a bag of popcorn in the microwave, start the movie, then close my eyes, for a few seconds I’m back in Mannheim, Germany, if only for a few brief moments.

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7 Comments
  1. I loved the base movie house. Also standing for the anthem at the beginning of each movie. This was a cool part of being a  military kid.

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  2. i lived in germany in the early 60s and i rember going to the movies on base for 25. seeing “the hand”. i sure miss those days

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  3. I remember going to the base movie theatre when I was 12.  There was a group of about 12 military members and a few civilians who I met up with every Tuesday night.  If the movie was rated R, one of them would buy me my ticket.  Sometimes the movies were so bad it would just be the dozen or so of us.  We’de move around the theate when we felt like it, yell at the screen, and have a blast.  It really did a lot for my less than steller self esteem, hanging out with older people and enjoying their company.  Good memories. 

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  4. I grew up at Tachikawa Air Base Japan arriving on May 1st 1958, finishing up the first grade on base going thru the 5th grade, then rotating back to the states in June 1962. My dad retired from the air force and got a civil service job back at Tachikawa Air Base in April 1967 and I finished my junior and senior years at Yamato High School – Home of the Warriors graduating in June 1969.

    One of the Base (2)  theater’s used to be the Japanese army’s wind test building used before and during WW2. The building was the largest us military theater in the far east . To this day when i go to a my local movie I want to stand up at the start of the picture for the national at hem. Growing up as a military brat was the best time of my childhood.

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  5. I have very fond memories of the Itazuke AFB Japan theater.  Every Saturday afternoon going to the theater to watch Walt Disney movies.  It was also a bonus since my father worked at the theater.  To this day I have a love for movies and never tire of watching movies weather at a theater or at home.  Oh to be a military child was one of the most spectacular adventures any child could possibly experience.

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  6. We did not get to see many movies, but when we did we trooped to the Base Theater at Ramstein AFB. I remember being able to get great popcorn, standing up for the National Anthem, watching the serial, even though I had no context for it and then off to the feature! Movies were a great time.
    The first time I went to a movie in the US, when we were visiting relatives in Boston, I was like a country cousin with my jaw dropping. There was this palace of red curtains, gilt and carving and mirrors . . . . ! Where the hell was I? I have never forgotten our base theaters. A great part of being a military brat!

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  7. Thanks everyone for the great comments on my blog post. It is a lot of fun to see different takes on the same subject!

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