In April, dad and I made a weekend trip to our future hometown of Katherine Falls. It was a four hour drive and three of those hours was on boring highways with lousy radio. We lost the Philly stations after an hour and I felt like those astronauts saying goodbye to Houston control until they came back around the moon.
The last part was on small roads that passed through towns with names like Kikoa, Mt. Resslen and Pawlton. Not very encouraging. As we drove through I imagined which buildings would be safest in a zombie attack like in Night of the Living Dead which wasn’t hard because most of the people I was seeing looked dead to me already.
The towns all looked the same to me: small, plain houses with small porches, corner shops that looked like they were from the forties and factories with black windows and no life in them. Old people sat outside, watching the world drive by. Hardly anyone was actually walking around on the sidewalks. Did they even call them sidewalks here it were they pavements? Jesus, I thought, I’m never gonna make it here.
I could only hope that Katherine Falls would be a bit better. Dad told me that it was bigger so there was that. Of course anything would have to be bigger, right?
Dad planned the move right after my freshman year, thinking that it might not be as drastic for me as being pulled out in the middle of the school year and plopped right into a new school with a whole set of kids I had never met before. That would give me time to say goodbye to the few teachers I liked and the fewer kids who knew me enough to maybe wonder where the hell I was when September rolled around.
Plus, he said, it would give me a whole summer to get used to the town and maybe make some friends. I’m sure that was what he was hoping but I wasn’t exactly looking forward to meeting anyone that had spent their entire existence in the small town of Katherine Falls, Pennsylvania. I was getting tired of his enthusiasm and had little to no energy to match it.
I can’t say that I was liking the idea of moving anymore than when dad first mentioned it but just sort of accepted it in a quiet, angry way. After that dinner, you know, the one where dad said he was going to completely flip my life upside down? Well, it took a while for me to talk to him after that and then a little longer for us to get back to where we were. I spent most of that time in my room with my monster friends on video tape and, oh, yeah, that was when I cut my hair short….I mean really short. I guess I forgot to mention that.
It was while I was watching The Bride of Frankenstein for the hundreth time. I paused it near the end, right at the part where the bride sees Frankenstein’s monster and sort of hisses at him. I walked into the kitchen where dad was making dinner (his turn), took a pair of scissors out of the junk drawer and quietly went back into my room and started cutting. First I cut bangs, then cut it a bit short on one side...then shorter on the other...I couldn’t get them to get even but also didn’t care. It was weird, I was sort of in this trance. At each stage I checked it out in the mirror. It was ghastly. I like that word.
The movie ended and the music came on and it somehow perfectly matched what I looked like.
When dad called me for dinner I came in and, after setting the table, sat across from him. We didn’t say a word to each other until halfway through the meal, after he served himself a second helping of ziti.
“You know, if you’re really gonna do that to your hair, then we should take you to a professional,” he said as he spooned marinara onto his pasta.
“Hair stylist?” I mumbled and looked down at my plate. It had been the few words we had spoken to each other in days and I missed the sound of his voice. I raised my eyes to meet his but maintained my sullen glare. I knew I was trying to get at him and maybe this wasn’t the best idea I ever had but at least it was my idea, not his.
“No, I was thinking psychologist,” he answered and took a long sip of his water.
And maybe it was the timing or the look on his face but I just started giggling and it grew from there. He laughed too and soon we both were wiping tears from our eyes. Things were a bit better after that.
The next day he walked me to Super Style at the Gallery mall and handed me his credit card.
“Thrill me,” he smiled and said he’d be back in an hour.
I knew I did a hack job on my head but when I saw it in the mirror even I was shocked. The lady behind me whistled softly and surveyed the damage. I knew I had no choice but to have it cut even shorter and to no one’s surprise it ended up pretty much a crew cut...but I actually liked it. Still, there was something missing…
...and I’ve always been sort of partial to the color blue...
When dad came to meet me he just smiled and nodded. He took me to lunch after that.
As we got closer to Katherine Falls, we passed dad’s new office building and it looked nice enough and was just outside of town. I tried to be as enthusiastic as I could but it seemed every face I saw was watching us, already recognizing our car as unfamiliar and it’s occupants as a threat.
A few folks were waiting at a bus stop and as we pulled to a stop they all look at me with mild shock and all I could think of was Village of the Damned, where all the children looked the same and acted as one. I held back a giggle.
Dad was walking a bit of a fine line with me and knew it so he was trying to sell, but not oversell, this place to me. He pointed out a couple places and even slowed down to take a few pictures which made us look even more awkward. Okay, so it was larger than, say, the town of Pawlton and there was a bit more going on here but when dad absently called Katherine Falls a city I just rolled my eyes at him. Not even close.
They had what I guess would be their downtown which had a few tidy shops, including a decent-looking bookstore and some small restaurants. There was a hardware store, a bike shop, along with and there was an arcade
Meanwhile, dad was busy dropping in historical tidbits. “The town was actually founded in 1788 by Katherine and Edward Heider. They built a cabin out here with there 6 children and soon it became a stopping point for settlers going west. Some of those folks stopped and never left and instead started their lives here,” he said as we coasted to a stop at an intersection. At least there were more people out walking here...
...except for the weird little kid standing and staring at me from the opposite side of the street. He was about six or so and had a tight hold of his mom’s hand while his eyes locked onto my awesome hair and couldn’t look away. Probably hasn’t ever even seen this color blue before, living out here.
I stared back, wide-eyed and baring my teeth. His whole body tensed but he was still frozen like a deer in headlights. I slowly rolled my eyes back and let my tongue fall out.
As we pulled away, I grinned watching him desperately tap his mom’s arm to show her the blue haired zombie from the future he saw riding in a silver Chrysler Minivan. Oh well, he can tell his friends.
Friends. At least he probably had some. Would I even make any here and do I want any?
Dad was still spouting newly discovered facts about our new home, god love him. “Oh, and did you know that Katherine Falls wasn’t the actual first name of this town? It was originally called - ”
“Katherine trips?” I said while still watching the kid in the side mirror.
We turned a corner and I watched the kid disappear. “Get it? Katherine Trips and then Katherine Falls.” Normally he would have immediately gotten that joke and I know mom would have been cracking up but he was in moving world right now and, well, she was just gone.
“Oh, no, although that’s actually pretty good,” he said absently. “No, it was originally called Heiderton but then Katherine, who was becoming quite an artist, began to paint the nearby falls and sold them to people passing through. Made a bit of a name for herself. Thus the name Katherine Falls.”
“I like mine better,” I said. We passed a couple video stores (thank God), an arcade and a few pizza shops (one claiming they had cheesesteaks but dad agreed with me that a real cheesesteak can only be found back in Philly). As we moved closer to the center of town banners began to appear, strung across the road from the street lamps, that claimed a festival was coming over the summer. I could only imagine, prettiest hog contests and the local high school beauty qu-
“Wait! Dad, stop!” I shouted. He hit the brakes a bit too hard, making a tiny screech and the two of us winced, waiting for a bump from behind that thankfully never came. “Can you back up a bit?” With a curious look, he nodded and checked the rear view mirror as we glided back to the cross street we had just passed.
And that’s when I spotted it, a theater about halfway down the block. Not like any theater I had ever seen. There was a triangular marquee just like the Duke and Duchess but it was outlined in fancy neon lights. Apparently, STRIPES was playing but I knew that had come out about four years ago. Above, a name was spelled out in red letters that climbed up the front.
“Kenz, let me go around the block and - ”
But I was already out of the car and walking toward it. The late afternoon sun hung just above the buildings in front of me and made everything look a bit hazy but I could see a man with white hair sweeping the walk in front of the theater. He paused and looked at me approaching before slowly heading back inside and closing the door.
There were two dark wood and glass door entrances and in between was a red painted ticket booth. The color had faded a bit but I could see that at one time it must have been so bright it could have hurt your eyes. Grand Stella was painted elegantly in gold on each panel of the booth and there were a few pieces of carved wood trim missing.
Thousands of tiny mosaic tiles lined the sides and top of the entrances. On each side were empty glass boxes where I assumed that movie posters would normally go. I looked up the front and now that I was closer, could see that some of the neon tubing for the letters was missing. Shame.
Dad pulled up as I stepped back to admire the dark brown stonework that made up the building. A large stained glass window was above the marquee.
“I guess they aren’t getting any new movies at this place,” I said as he came up beside me. Still, she was a beauty. I imagined this is the sort of theater mom talked about going to when she was a kid.
Dad put his arm on my shoulder. “Wow, it must be at least 50 years old.”
Through the glass, I saw the old man leaning on his broom and staring at us. Great, more staring contests. I actually thought about giving him the zombie look but he slowly walked to the door and poked his head out.
“First show isn’t for another hour,” he said. I liked his voice, it had a sort of a sing songy rhythm to it.
He had a full head of wavy white hair and was quite tall which I thought was fascinating at the moment. I usually think of old folks (let’s make that 60 or so, okay?) as more on the short side, like they had shrunk over the years, with a round-faced and a patch of shiny scalp on top of their heads. Sort of a sad look about them.
Don’t know where I first got that image but this guy was over 6 feet tall and looked in decent health. His cheeks had nice color in them and his eyes were bright and blue. I could almost picture what he must have looked like when he was younger.
“Oh no, thanks” my dad said. “Just admiring.”
“It’s beautiful,” I added. The man looked at me.
You ever get that feeling? Like at first site? I have to admit it was one of the only times it happened to me but he had that kind of face that even if he was angry, somewhere beneath it all would be those two playful blue eyes.
“It’s a nice surprise to have someone your age say something like that,” he said and for some reason I didn’t mind the the ‘your age’ thing. “Yeah, she’s held up pretty good over the years.” he put his hands on his hips and looked up admiringly which made his shirt seem a little baggier on his frame.
“How old is she?” I asked, wanting to call the Stella she like he did. It seemed appropriate. My eyes were trying to take in all the little details: the elegantly carved stone birds near the top of the building, the pattern of tiles that outlined each window on the second floor and even the struts that attached the huge sign to the building.
“Well, let’s see, the Stella was built in ‘21 so that would be - ”
“Sixty four years old,” I answered right away.
He grinned. “Head for numbers, eh?”
Dad nodded proudly. “Pretty much a head for anything she puts her mind to.”
“Admirable quality,” the man said, “and I haven’t seen that look in a person’s eye for a long time.” He folded his arms and made a face as if examining me. For a moment I felt like I was being looked over by not just the tall old man in front of me but by the Stella herself. He stayed like that, maybe lost in thought, I’m not sure, before turning to the theater and looking up for a moment. He mumbled something and then nodded before looking back to me with a slightly more serious expression.
I thought for a moment he was going to ask why the hell I was wearing a tie with a with a t-shirt and jean jacket or why I thought a black beret looked good on top of blue hair.
He didn’t. He unfolded his arms and smiled. “Okay, looks like you win the golden ticket.”
“Golden ticket?” Dad asked innocently.
“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” I said absently. The man had already turned and for some reason I knew it was an invitation. But still, manners never hurt anyone, right?
“Can we can come in?” I asked even though I was already two steps behind and following.
The man held the door open for us and smiled. I liked his smile. “I think you need to.”
Dad looked back at the car for a moment and then to my now eager face. “I actually had an early dinner on my mind but I guess it can wait.” I was already heading in.
“The name is Barzcik,” the man said as we entered the cool shade of the theater. “Daniel to my friends.” Truth be told, I was hungry as well, before I ever looked down this plain street, but the feeling vanished the minute we were inside.
The air felt a bit stale but the carpet in the large lobby was plush and was made up of interlocking lines of this awesome forest green and red wine colors. Mr Barzcik disappeared behind a door and the lights came on above us, giving everything a warm glow. The wall paper had a faint scalloped pattern to it and was off-white but I could tell that was from the passing of time and the original color was probably something like pearl. I let my fingers brush it and could feel the raised texture like it was skin.
A marble topped counter was in front of us and boxes of candies were on display: Raisinets, Twizzlers, Good & Plenty, Jujyfruits and more. Behind that was a large popcorn machine and soda fountains.
It all seemed like it came from another time. The ceiling was made up of beautiful metal panels, some that were silver and shiny and some that were dulled with age. Each had a picture stamped into it. Dad said it was called a tin ceiling and that you didn’t see them much any more. Behind the concession stand, two rows of stairs with gold colored railings led up, one on the left and one on the right.
“Ohhh, a balcony?” I said and took a few tentative steps. At the top, heavy velvet drapes hid anything beyond the doorway. Old decorative light fixtures climbed the stairs and I had this urge to touch one when a plain-looking woman with round cheeks and long steel gray hair appeared at the top magically. She was wearing faded jeans and a bright yellow button up shirt.
She immediately pointed at me and said, “That color, what do you call it?”
“Um, violet?” I answered, guessing that it was my hair she was referring to.
“Love it! I may do that when I get old someday,” she said. “Dennis my dear, be warned.”
“Ah, there’s my angel,” Mr. Barzcik said. “This is my wife, Marie Rose. Between the two of us we try to keep the Stella ship shape.”
Mrs. Barzcik came down. “Let me guess,” she said in a hushed voice as she passed, “he asked the Stella if you could have a tour, right?” I grinned. She had this cool, deep voice and I wondered if she smoked. I pictured us smoking together. She breezed behind the counter. “Did you offer them the free candy?”
“Free candy? Since when?” Mr. Barzcik answered.
“Free box with every tour. New policy,” she said and pointed to me and then to the candy boxes with a question on her face. I opened my mouth but she stopped me. “Wait,” she said and put a finger to her temple and closed her eyes. Her hand slowly drifted over to the Raisinets and picked them up. When she opened her deep brown eyes and looked at me I nodded, smiling.
“Knew it,” she said proudly and tossed the box to me, “Never wrong. My favorite, too.” She also picked dad’s correctly, Whoppers, before tossing his over.
“You know, with a gift like that, you should start selling tickets in the lobby,” dad chirped. “Make a few extra bucks on the side.”
“Lord knows we could use it,” Mr. Barczik said.
“I don’t think the Lord wouldn’t want me to profit off of the wonderful gift he graced me with,” she chuckled.
Dad explained how we had come to be in Katherine Falls - his new job, my soon-to-be new school and that Philly used to be home. He didn’t mention mom and thankfully they didn’t ask. Somehow, though, I think they knew. Mrs. Barczik glanced over at me and then looked down at the candies again. She grabbed a box of Raisinets for herself, swept from behind the counter and took my hand. Her skin was a soft and warm. “Well, let’s introduce you two properly,” she smiled and led me around the candy counter and through the theater doors.
“The Stella started out as a vaudeville theater in the twenties,” Mrs. Barzcik explained while we stood in the dark, cavern-like space. “At the time they got whatever acts they could - pianists, jugglers, comics, magicians, anything - but soon it was the movies that everyone wanted.”
My eyes traveled all over, from the heavy red curtain covering the screen in front to behind us where I could make out the small windows of the projection room. There were decorative lights on the walls and they glowed, revealing thick green and white stripes.
“Oh, they tried to do both for a while" she added, "you know, novelty acts during the day and then a movie at night. The owners thought that it was just a fad but soon the crowds weren’t showing up to see musicians and tap dancers anymore. Just the movies. That was the real money maker.”
Most of the lights were off but I could make out the glint of a large chandelier above us. Beyond that the ceiling was black as night though there was the occasional illusion of a pattern of color here and there.
Mom and her ceilings that were a mile high.
Who, knows, maybe they were?
I could make out the polished railing of the balcony but everything beyond that was hidden in shadow. My hand traced the soft cushions of one of the seats, each deep red with black metal trim and I pictured another few hundred of them up there.
“The very first movie to show here was a Chaplin film it was, uh,” Mrs. Barzcik said and closed one eye in thought.
“The Kid,” Mr. Barzcik finished gently and she nodded. “For forty years The Grand Stella was the centerpiece of Katherine Falls,” he said, “1400 seats but we haven’t filled her up in all the time we’ve been the owners. These days, with the video stores and the multiplexes with four and five screens, she just hasn’t been able to compete. Marie and I became the owners fifteen years ago, in a sentimental gesture I guess, to keep her from being demolished. We have a bit of history with her as well.”
“Did you grew up here?” dad asked as he wandered down one of the side aisles.
“Oh yeah, born and raised,” he said. “Met my lovely bride right after high school but it took a while to convince her that I was the man of her dreams.” Mrs. Barzcik chuckled to herself and walked away.
“So what can you tell a newbie like me about Katherine Falls?”
I sensed the conversation was veering sharply into some boring topics and Mrs. Barzcik was smiling at me mischieviously which instantly drew me over. I followed her to a door that was tucked near the corner of the theater.
“I’m going top deck, fella,” she shouted and Mr. Barzcik made a noise that sounded like he heard her. She turned to me and coaxed me to follow with her finger.
We climbed a short set of stairs into a room that appeared small at first but as I looked around I could see that it only looked that way because of the stuff inside. It probably wasn’t much bigger than our living room back in Philly.
A tiny table was off in the corner and there were two reels and what looked like some sort of cutting board. Above it was a handpainted sign that read “The Show MUST Go On”. A shelf near the table held a stack of worn notebooks. Mrs. Barczik said nothing and just smiled as I moved around the room. On one wall was a pegboard with several different sizes of metal reels.
I cautiously approached what took up most of the space in the room - two large silver and black projectors sitting side by side, each aimed at a tiny window that looked out over the theater. They were almost identical, with a bunch of buttons and knobs on one side and a metal tube that disappeared into the ceiling. Each had a piece of tape on it, one read #1 and one read #2.
I peered out one of the windows and saw Mr. Barczik and dad still talking but they had moved near to the curtains in front. I hadn’t hear Mrs. Barczik come up behind me.
“I remember the first time I was in here, Christ, that was back in the thirties and I was just a kid. My brother’s friend was the son of the owner and he ran the machines,” she said. “He let us come up before the movie and I looked out that very same window and saw nothing but a sea of people, all just waiting for the show to start.”
On one wall was a plate with a series of labeled switches. “These control the house lights, the curtain and the aisle lighting,” she said. “Wanna try?”
“You have your license, right?”
“Um,” I said and for some reason patted the back pocket of my jeans as if it would magically appear there. Then I caught her grin.
“Okay, one rule though,” she added as I fingered the first switch, the one labeled CURTAIN. “Let me put on the house lights.”
I agreed and flicked the first switch. Through the projection room window I watched the curtains slowly part, revealing a large brilliant screen. Next I switched the aisle lights on - one for left aisle and one for right. After that Mrs. Barzcik directed me to the theater floor. “I’ll be down in a moment.”
Dad and Mr. Barzcik were still talking. The conversation had turned to the high school I would be going to. I didn’t want to think about it right now.
“Ready?” asked Mrs. Barzcik from behind us.
“Oh, you’ll like this,” Mr. Barzcik said, looking up.
The huge chandelier blazed with a hundred tiny lights.
“Oh my God,” dad and I both said at the same time.
Above, painted on the domed ceiling sixty feet in the air, in the bright glow of the Grand Stella chandelier, were about a hundred faces staring down at me. Practically the whole surface was covered in hand-painted faces.
No two were alike. Some were slightly overlapped. Some were small and some were large. They were in the center of the ceiling and also tucked near the corners. It reminded me of a project I did in fifth grade art. We cut pictures from magazines of things that were important to us and glued them onto a sheet of foam core, completely covering it. Most of mine were about animals and food.
The teacher called it decoupage but what we were looking at right now was not pictures cut out of magazines.
I recognized Boris Karloff right away in his famous Frankenstein’s monster makeup and next to him was John Wayne in his big cowboy hat. He did a lot of westerns and war movies.
As my eyes went from one to the next, I could tell that they weren’t all painted by the same artist and, honestly, some were better than others. Some were smiling and some were serious. Some I recognized from the movies that I watched with mom and dad or just because they had become so famous.
“Every year someone would add another one or two,” Mr. Barzcik said. His voice sounded different, as if he was admiring a beautiful lady. Maybe that was what he sounded like when he first saw Mrs. Barzcik. I did the math and if they painted two a year that meant there should be well over a hundred up there.
“Who painted them?” dad asked. He was turning his head while walking and almost tripped. I thought I spotted the guy from Gone with the Wind above me. What was his name? Gary? Mark? Something like that...
“Oh, different people over the years,” Mrs. Barzcik said. She had walked so quietly I never heard her join us. “No two faces are done by the same artist and some of the painters wouldn’t even call themselves artist to be honest, they just wanted to paint their favorite star.”
Mr. Barzcik excused himself to man the ticket booth and Mrs. Barzcik took me by the hand and pointed out a few of the faces. Names like Swanson, Poitier, Cagney and Fairbanks floated fom her lips. There were many more names and faces that I didn’t know than ones I did and for some the paint was fading or peeling. Dad seemed to be enjoying naming as many as he could.
“The last one was painted right over here,” Mrs. Barzcik said and led us to a corner where a smaller face smiled handsomely down at us. He had gorgeous blue eyes that were brimming with mischief.
“Paul Newman,” my dad said respectfully. I remembered him from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Mom said she had a huge crush on him and I could see why.
“Yeah, he was painted in 1968.”
With only a few minutes before the 6 o’clock show, I asked Mrs. Barzcik if I could see the balcony and we quickly climbed the stairs. She surprised me by keeping pace with me the whole way up. Mr. Barzcik complained softly that she was supposed to run the projector. “Oh, you can start it just as easily as me,” she answered. “I’ll be down in time for the changeover.”
She ushered me through another curtain (there were so many!) and we were now above the theater floor, looking down on the rows of cherry-colored seats. There were less than half the seats up here than were on the floor but she folded her arms and looked somehow satifsfied now that she was up here.
“This has always been home to me,” she said. “So many memories. Over there,” she said and pointed to a row of seats to our right, “is where Danny and I had our very first date. We saw His Girl Friday. It was wonderful and I felt special because even though Rosalind Russell was on the screen, he couldn’t take his eyes off of me.”
She caught my slightly curious expression and walked me a few steps over, pointing up and smiling. “Her.”
Above, with a cat-eating grin was a beautiful woman with dark hair and red lips. Her eyes weren’t looking down at us, however, and she was gazing towards the other side of the theater.
“Brains, beauty and a wicked sense of humor. Triple threat,” she said and then the house lights dimmed. “Oh, jeez, he has to be so damned precise sometimes,” she muttered. We walked down to the lobby together to meet dad and Mrs. Barzcik jokingly asked if she could borrow my jacket someday. “I love all the patches,” she added before giving me a quick hug and hustling off to the projector room. Maybe it wasn’t a joke. Cool.
I poked my head into the theater one last time took one last peak and was actually sad to see only a few heads poking above the backs of the seats. Mr. Barzcik came out to say goodbye and we thanked him for the tour and the candy. “Anytime,” he said. “I hope we’ll be seeing you soon.” He gave us a recommendation for a place to eat and must have known I was hungry for Italian.
As we pulled away I looked in the mirror and smiled as the colored lights of the Stella came on.