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Various Authors 6:38 p.m., Sept. 24
It was a Saturday matinee at the second-run Pickwick Theatre in Park Ridge, Illinois. Some of you may recognize the name from its vast marquee used as the backdrop for the title sequence of Siskel and Ebert’s At the Movies. The Pickwick was a spacious, old neighborhood single-screen (constructed in 1928 with 1,500 seats) and per usual, I’m parked fourth row center.
The afternoon fare consisted of visit #2 to Clint Eastwood’s principled screwball comedy western, Bronco Billy. The film opens with a traveling rodeo show about to do their thing. As if timed to the second, the moment Scatman Crothers announces Billy’s entrance, a teenage kid emerges from behind the screen (stage left), and begins walking towards the center of the frame.
Did I mention it was July 5, 1980, the day after America celebrated Independence Day? That might explain why the sight of a giant tin can with a sparkling fuse, swinging loosely in the left hand of the unbilled live-action co-star, didn’t seem all that out of place.
Without once looking out at the projector’s white glare, the scraggly teen methodically hit his mark and paused momentarily to place the pint-sized torpedo in the footlights. Brushing his hands together, as if to indicate a job well done, our hero slowly made his exit (stage right).
Twenty-seconds later and the room is aglow with fireworks. I'm in the middle of what feels like either the Step In Time number from Mary Poppins or SeaWorld at 9:50 p. m. My wide-eyed inner-child deems it a magnanimous way to celebrate American independence, but isn’t this indoor display of pyrothecnics a tad bit dangerous?
I have to duck in order to avoid a whizz-bang hurling just inches over my head. Fireballs and spangled meteorites ricochet off the ceiling, some actually tapping on the projection booth glass. All I see for rows behind me are tops of heads bobbing up from behind their seatbacks.
What if it was a nitrate print?
It lasted no more than 90-seconds and in even less time, the auditorium was filled with smoke. Even at close range I could barely make out the screen, but the thought of running out to the lobby never crossed my mind. My maiden screening of Billy, on an almost equally foggy opening night at the Sheridan Drive-In, was far from optimum. The evening's one everlasting memory was a scratchy print of The Gauntlet, complete with Spanish subtitles, that rounded out the double-bill. Bronco Billy demanded the hard-top treatment and dammit, I was going to get it!
A reel goes by before I feel a hand on my shoulder. “Would you please accompany me to the lobby, sir?” the voice asked from the fog. Nobody talks to me during a movie. “Can’t it wait until the picture is over…?” A flashlight on the officer’s badge cut me short.
Inside the cramped manager’s office, the copper lit a butt and began grilling me about the alleged canister-wielding assailant’s identity. “We brought you in here because you were the one sitting closest to the screen,” he began.
Habitual behavior does have its disadvantages.
I stupidly confided that I thought the fireworks display was a post-4th part of the show. That’s all it took for him to go full Jack Webb on me.
“Do you know how dangerous this could have been, Mr... (pausing to glance down at my driver’s license) …Marks? Do you want to see this theatre burn to the ground?”
Yeah. Get your marshmallows on your sticks! I’m the first one to applaud arson, particularly when a vintage movie theatre is concerned.
“Would it be okay if I went back and saw the rest of the movie?” I asked. “It’s my second time.”
“You’ve already seen it?” he asked, making it sound as if only a mental patient would waste their time watching a film twice. “Then you know what happens and should have no problem.”
In my mind, The Gauntlet's Ben Shockley is growling, "Aaaaaaasshole!"
Officer Squarenuts continued his line of questioning (height, shoe color, complexion, etc.) for another five minutes before letting me go. It turns out the little rascal was a disgruntled former employee with a score to settle. The kid masterminded one of the most memorable times I've ever had at a movie. I wasn't about to squeal.