Mrs. Barzcik pretty much hired me on the spot. She sat me in the theater, turned on the house lights and asked me to name five stars on the ceiling. I got Boris Karloff (of course), Rosalind Russel (I remembered!), Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne and, for some reason, guessed Bette Davis and got it right even though I don’t think I ever saw her in a movie. It must have been the eyes. Someone even wrote a song about them a few years ago.
Working at the Stella was more fun than I thought it would be even though most of my job was sweeping up popcorn after every show and cleaning the bathrooms at the end of the day. I would fill in at the candy counter at times or take tickets at the entrance to the theater.
The Stella didn’t get movies that were all that great and most of the people came on the first day or two and for the rest of the week it was pretty quiet if not outright dead. There were times when no one came to a showing at all and Mr. Barzcik and I would sit and, bored after seeing the same movie a half dozen times, would turn off the theater speakers and we’d add our own goofy dialogue. Mr. Barzcik was good at different voices. You never know what talents people have until you get to know them.
The lineup for the first half of that summer was the opposite of awesome: War Games, Tron, The Karate Kid, Videodrome and Alligator. Not bad movies (well, maybe Videodrome) but none of them were new releases, or, maybe worse, even old enough to be nostalgic. At least I could satisfy my horror hunger with Alligator by watching people get chased through the sewers of Chicago by a 30-foot reptile. Most, of course, didn’t run fast enough.
We showed them for week, maybe two at the most.
“It’s cheaper to get the second or third run reels,” Mrs. Barzcik explained one afternoon while we were restocking the candy counter. “They sure don’t fill the seats but it keeps the lights on.”
Every weekend the movie section of the local paper, the Katherine Falls Bulletin, printed a full page of new titles showing at the mall outside of town. I hadn’t been there yet but would be lying if I wasn’t a bit curious. The Lake Shawnee Mall didn’t just have a six-screen theater, it also had a Merry-Go-Round, Gadzook’s, Sam Goody, Spencer’s, two arcades and even a West Coast Video. I loved our Towne Video but it was kind of small and they only carried one or two copies of the newer titles.
The saving grace for us was that you basically needed a car to get to the “Lake” (as the locals called it) and for those who didn’t have wheels, there wasn’t a ton of things to do in Katherine Falls during the summer except go for the cheaper seats at the Stella and watch three or four-year-old movies.
But I loved it. I really did. Mr. and Mrs. Barzcik were wonderful.
One of the cooler jobs they trained me in was how to put up the new movie titles in the marquee. Each letter was printed on a rectangular piece of thick, clear plastic. You laid the letters out on the sidewalk and picked them up one by one with this long pole that had a suction cup on the end. Then you positioned the piece into these slots on the marquee. You had to flick your wrist to release the letter when it was in place.
Also...you had to pay attention.
Remember how I said there wasn’t a whole lot to do around here in the summer? Well, the week we ran WAR GAMES some kids must have gotten their hands on a tall ladder and saw an opportunity. So one day I came to work one day to find this on the marquee:
Get it? Rhymes with...nevermind.
It only took me a few moments to run inside and get the pole and fix it but I had to find a replacement E since it was nowhere to be found outside. They must have taken it as a souvenir. Mrs. Barzcik came out to see and erupted into laughter. I had this feeling that the whole time someone was laughing their asses off watching me frantically rearrange the letters.
I scanned the street to the left and right but only saw a couple of proper-looking, older ladies with their arms locked together on their way into the library. Most likely not them…
Still, best to keep my eyes on those two.
Mr. Barzcik and I watched the credits end on the final showing of Tron for that day. I counted four people total, two couples, and thanked them as they walked out. Mr. Barzcik asked his wife to keep the house lights off for a moment and turned on his flashlight and aimed it at me.
“Mr., I was born ready,” I answered, trying to be serious but shielding my eyes and laughing.
He turned the flashlight off and then turned it on again and it hit the round, smiling face of a man in a black derby directly above us.
“Easy. Oliver Hardy.”
The light went off again and all was black. The spotlight reappeared in the far corner behind us. A woman with arched brows and a red, pinched mouth. Her hair was tightly pullled back.
“Um, Greta Garbo,” I answered.
The light went off, meaning that I got it right. My eyes were darting back and forth in the inky blackness trying to guess where the next spotlight would fall and then a glowing circle appeared on the smiling, wrinkly face of a man in his fifties, maybe sixties. He had a wonderful head of white hair and wore thick framed glasses.
Light off again.
Light on. A ghoulish green face with bolts in his neck and a flat…
I snorted. “Frankenstein’s monster,” I said but the light stayed on. “Oh jeez, okay, Boris Karloff.”
Darkness again. This time the light beam ran across the theater to the front where it fell on a woman with amazing, round and haunting eyes.
“C’mon, man, give me a challenge. The eyes. Bette Davis.”
Mr. Barzcik chuckled. “Oh, you’re ready for a challenge?” The light went out and then danced across the arched ceiling, resting on each face for only a few seconds before vanishing again. I tried my best to keep up.
“Um, Cary Grant...Jimmy Stewart? Audrey Hepburn, no, Vivien Leigh? Ur...Gary Cooper, right? Wait, I know her!” The light went out and we were in darkness.
“Mary Pickford,” he said and turned the light back on her face.
“Huh, I was gonna say Faye Wray,” I answered, looking at the beautiful soft eyes, the full lips and long lashes. Faye Wray was the lady that King Kong carried up the Empire State Building.
This woman’s hair spilled down in looping curls and was the color of a field of strawberries. She was wearing a necklace with tiny pearls and was smiling like she knew a secret. I wondered if the artist got the hair color right or not because it didn’t seem right, like when they try to colorize the black and white movies. “Mom had mentioned her name once or twice.”
“I bet she did. Mary Pickford was known as ‘America’s Sweetheart’ or the ‘girl with the curls’. Not only a beauty but one of the finest actresses of her time.”
The person who painted her portrait clearly had a lot of admiration. You could tell it was one of the older paintings as well, not just because it was showing some cracks and fading but it had that soft quality surrounding it, like it was being transmitted from a hundred years ago.
“She was also quite the pioneer,” Mr. Barzcik added.
“What do you mean?”
Mr. Barzcik had gotten into the habit of telling me a little fact about each of the faces on the ceiling above us: who was having an affair with who and who totally hated being near each other, who was easy to work with and who was, supposedly, a pain in the ass. It not only added to the fun but also helped me put names to their faces.
“Well, she had been in movies since she was nineteen and in show business since she was seven, touring the country with her family by train and doing plays in small theaters.”
I thought about what I had been doing since I was seven. Not a whole hell of a lot.
“She wanted to walk away, but not from the movies, you see. She wanted to be behind the camera - to be the one who was in charge, which for a woman back then, was pretty unheard of.”
“There were no women directors?” I knew the answer already. I thought about flipping the pages in my movie book and seeing nothing but men and more men. Great directors, no doubt, and some of my favorites but...really? I was embarrassed that I didn’t notice it earlier but I guess we’re just used to seeing men behind the camera.
“Oh, no. There were women writers and even directors but you never heard of them. They were talented, of course, but they didn’t have the star power that Mary did. She was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. Were talking about ten thousand dollars a week.”
It didn’t seem like a ton of money but in 1910...
“So she decided to get together with this guy - ” and shined his light to the left side of the ceiling where it landed on a very recognizable face, with his pink cheeks, worn derby and tiny black mustache.
“Charlie Chaplin,” I chirped.
“Yep.” He moved the light a bit more to the left. “And this guy.”
I didn’t know who he was but he was very handsome with a pair of mischievous eyes and a thin well-trimmed moustache that suited the sleek shape of his face. On his head was a brown, sharp-edged hat with a long green feather in it.
“Uh, no idea, Robin Hood?” I asked.
“Well, his most famous role was Robin hood. That’s Douglas Fairbanks,” he said. “The three of them joined with a director named D.W. Griffith and together they made up the biggest names in movies at the time.
“Back then the big studios ruled Hollywood - MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers, Fox, Columbia - and the studio owners,” he said and then began playing the light all over the ceiling, making it look light a searching spotlight, “were like kings. They could do practically anything they wanted when it came to making a picture. They could make someone’s dreams come true,” he continued and I followed the spotlight as it raced across dozens of beautiful faces watching down on us. “Or,” and he flicked the light off completely now, “ruin their career forever.”
Yeah, cheesy, but I let him have it. He told a good story.
Mrs. Barzcik raised the house lights back on from the projection room.
“The actors, directors and writers were all under very strict contracts back then and it was very cut throat. The studios even built theaters so they could run their own movies exclusively. Challenging a studio head as an actor or even a director back then was...well, you just didn’t do it and there was practically no way you could make a big film unless you went through them.”
“So, how did she manage to pull it off?”
"Well, like I said, she was the highest paid actress in Hollywood at the time which carries a lot of weight and she knew it. When the studio saw that she wasn’t going to sign a new contract with them, they even offered her money to not be in any movies for five years but she still said no. She walked away from all that money because she didn’t want anyone telling her what she could and couldn’t do anymore. So, she and her three friends formed their own movie company.” He smiled. “I’m sure you’ve heard of it.”
I thought for a moment and then my eyes suddenly lit up. “United Artists.”
He nodded. “Knew you’d get it.” He looked up at the ceiling again and then to me. “You even kind of look like her.”
The house lights dimmed and then brightened again. “This is all very fascinating but do you two think we can go home anytime soon?” Mrs. Barzcik asked from the back of the theater.
Dad’s plan did, in fact, work to a certain degree. Some kids from town invariably showed up every now and then, probably because they were bored, but I did get to witness the elusive Katherine Falls teenager in it’s natural habitat. They seemed like kids everywhere.
But I never said much to them other than ask them if they wanted butter on their popcorn or thank them when they handed me their tickets. Once or twice I tried to guess which candy they wanted like Mrs. Barzcik but that only amused the little kids. The kids my age looked at me as if I was from another plant so I decided it was best to wait for them to tell me what they wanted. Still, I guess I was becoming more of a familiar face and once or twice I was asked by one of them (always a girl) whether I was going to be going to Katherine Falls High and I got a small nod or smile. No one mentioned my hair but I could tell it was sort of a beacon.
My birthday is August 26, which was a rotten time to have a birthday because a lot of families take vacation then, hoping to get one last hooray in before school starts. I got used to having small, family birthdays and I figured that this would be the world’s smallest because now, well, I pretty much didn’t know anybody.
My fifteenth birthday would truly be one of my best and I needed it by then. I was making myself sick about my new school the closer it got being a reality. I hadn’t really met anyone yet.
The closest I came was when I waved to the boy who lived on my street. He was about my age, but just looking at him I could tell he was probably even more of a social outcast than I was going to be. I know that seems mean but he never had anyone walking with him and, except for school or to answer the door for pizza deliveries, I rarely saw him. He was tall and skinny and wore the same clothes too often to be acceptable: tan pants and a white t-shirt, dirty gray shoes and no socks.
Maybe I wasn’t the saddest case in Katherine Falls, after all.
Dad told me his name his name was Linus Carp (seriously, were his folks trying to turn him into a punching bag?) and that he was going to be starting sophomore year this September just like me. Might even be in my class. Whatever. His reaction to my one attempt at a friendly wave from across the street was to put his head down and slink into his house with his ever present thick notebook under his arm like I had the plague.
His mother and father had come over to welcome us that first week when we moved in as many other neighbors had but they came up with some excuse as to why Linus couldn’t join them. That was fine with me at the time.
Funny how things don’t go quite how you expect.
On the week before my birthday Mr. and Mrs. Barzcik were both acting very weird. Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers weird. Don’t know it? That’s the movie about the pod people replacing humans with exact replicas and…
...nevermind. They did a remake in the late seventies.
I knew the two of them had something planned but couldn’t pry it out of either of them. When I did ask about it, Mr. Barzcik would turn on his flashlight and aim it at the ceiling.
“William Holden,” I answered and folded my arms. I gave up asking anymore.
When the day arrived, dad went through the mail and handed me an cream white envelope that had my name on it written elegantly in black cursive. I can tell when dad is lying and he looked as genuinely puzzled as I did. I opened it and pulled out a crisply piece of paper that read:
Ms. McKenzie Costello and one (1) guest are cordially invited
to an exclusive event at the Grand Stella Theater.
Address: 305 Waskon Street, Katherine Falls, PA 17815
Time: 6:30 PM (No admittance after doors close)
Hosts: Mr. & Mrs. Barzcik
Casual Dress is Recommended
“Hmmm, let’s see…” I said as I pulled out the new pocket address book that dad had bought me for school and flipped through the almost completely blank pages. I finally landed on D where I had written, “Dad”.
“Wanna go to a party?” I asked him.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he answered. “Like a golden ticket!”
Dad made reservations for dinner at Charlie’s Diner and even though you never need reservations at Charlie’s (as you can tell, I had eaten there a few times already), Dad insisted and they made sure to reserve my favorite window booth.
We walked into town and it was a beautiful night, with the sky turning that certain magical blue that makes all the shapes of the world dark and crisp. Mom used to tell me how much she loved summer nights like this. I guess she still loves them.
I could see the glow of the Stella from a block away, which was odd because they rarely put on all the outside lights on a weeknight. Trying to keep the bills low. Then that I saw why Mr. Barzcik let me leave early that day. The marquee had changed:
PREMI R SHOWING
Dad stopped and let out a soft whistle. “Wow, you must be a pretty big deal.”
“It would seem so,” I smiled a bit awkwardly. Whoever put up the new letters was unable to find the enough E’s as well but the message was clear enough. There were even a few people huddled out front, curious, I’m sure, about anything that could be so important as to be a private premiere event in Katherine Falls. Tell folks that they aren’t invited to something and of course they’ll want to get in even if it was never on their mind before. Maybe they were waiting for a limo to pull up to the curb and Al Pacino to get out.
Mr. and Mrs. Barzcik even pulled out the old, velvet ropes and put them out front as if there was going to be a long line. I found out they’re called stanchions.
Mr. Barzcik came out and greeted us.
“Good evening, folks! I’m assuming that you have your invitations?” He was dressed in a gray suit with a small white flower in the lapel and had on a gray and black fedora that I immediately wanted to snatch off his head and wear. “Special night, hmmm?”
The half dozen people milling around out front had turned to us and looked more than a bit surprised when we pulled out our invitation and handed it over. He looked it over, taking his time and then nodding and handed it back. He looked over at me and asked, “I’m sorry, do you happen to have any identification?”
“Um, I can vouch for her if that will help,” dad joked and Mr. Barzcik nodded. Did dad know more about tonight than he was letting on?
“Happy birthday, Ms. Costello,” Mr. Barzcik said.
“I have no idea what you have up your sleeve, mister,” I said and gave him a hug.
“I have always been a man of mystery, so says my wife,” He waved his hands and wiggled his fingers as he headed to the door and held it for us. A few of the people tossed questions at him but he politely excused himself and closed the door behind us.
Mrs. Barzcik was waiting by the concession stand with a big smile on her face and wearing a beautiful lavender dress that trailed to the floor. Her hair was pulled up and held in place with a silver barrette and her lips were a soft red.
“Wow, you look beautiful,” I said. “Rosalind Russel’s got nothing on you, lady.”
She wrapped me in a tight hug and I instantly caught scent of flowers. “Happy birthday, baby. Now, tonight everything is on the house,” she assured me. “I have my nephew running the projectors so you just enjoy the night.” She knew that I always had this nagging worry that the reels wouldn’t get switched over in time. The four of us gathered our candy and Mrs. Barzcik filled up a jumbo popcorn with butter for all of us to share.
Every light the Stella had was on and it was gorgeous. Mr. Barzcik often kept on only the lights that were needed so you could get to the theater or bathrooms without breaking your neck.
But tonight all the lobby lights were lit and I was busy hoping that he also had his nephew replace some of the bulbs in the ceiling and on the wall sconces. The idea of Mr. or Mrs. Barzcik climbing that old ladder we kept in the storage room gave me shivers. I had worked at the Stella for almost two months now but I had never seen her like this. She was really putting on a show. The carpet, now under all the lights, had a sort of royal purple tint to it that I never saw before.
The theater itself looked wonderful. The lights were glowing and all the faces on the ceiling were smiling (except Frankensteins monster...oops, I mean Boris Karloff) from above. I chose the best seat in the house: row K, seats 25 to 28, right in the center.
I didn’t know what to expect but when the house lights went down but felt as excited as if it were the very first movie I ever had seen. I reached over and held Mrs. Barzcik’s hand. Dad took my left hand and gave it a light squeeze. The cutains parted and there was the huge screen before us, still a blank canvas waiting to be painted on. It was so quiet I almost imagined I could hear the light hum of the projectors far behind us. The screen was quickly filled with the black and white letters of Warner Brothers studio along with ominous, echoing music. Then, a quiet desert scene and a sudden crash of violins and horns. The red letters charged at us, getting bigger as they approached, like a train heading our way.
I let out tiny chirp of excitement and dad, along with Mr. and Mrs. Barzcik let out a cheer and then we all laughed. I couldn’t believe it! Seeing a movie as many times as I’ve seen on the big screen for the first time is completely different that seeing it on video.
I leaned into Mrs. Barzcik. “They originally were going to make this in color but at the last minute they had to change it to black and white? That’s why the original credits are in color!”
“I’ve always loved black and white but I’m not much of a scary movie person so if I close my eyes don’t you laugh,” she whispered back.
I was handed the tub of popcorn and the four of us were treated to a horror classic. It was amazing to see it on the big screen and I noticed things I hadn’t noticed before. The quality was good as well. Mr. Barzcik was able to get his hands on a good copy of this and I had no idea how he did it. I felt Mrs. Barzcik’s hand squeeze mine tightly every time the ants showed up.
As the house lights went on dad confessed to me that he knew about this ahead of time.
“Well, Danny asked my opinion on which movie you would like best and -”
“I couldn’t get a hold of Jaws, unfortunately,” Mr. Barzcik inserted with a smile. “But your dad did say that this one was right up there as well.”
“Oh, absolutely,” I said and wrapped him in a hug. “How the hell did you get it?”
“I still have my connections,” he said mysteriously. “I can keep it for a week. Your job tomorrow will be to put up the new lettering. Let’s see if we can make some money of this gem, eh?”
“It will be a pleasure,” I beamed. “We definitely have enough E’s for THEM! but do we have an exclamation point? It has to have the exclamation point!”
“I’m sure you’ll figure something out,” he said, smiling.
Dad invited the Barzciks out to eat with us and after we helped them close down the Stella for the night the four of us made the short walk to Charlies where I practically swallowed my pizza burger in three bites. We had fun talking about our favorite parts of the movie and I was glad that no one mentioned that school was starting in a week.