Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

Little Art Theatre, Harbor Village Square, Bargaintown, New Jersey

May 20 2016

I’m confused by the poster for My Life as a Dog hanging in the lobby of the single-screen art-house theater my parents operate. There are two boys in it, maybe four or five years older than me and my friends, hugging in what looks like a dirty stable. In my mind, the story of the film is that one of those young boys on the poster turns into an actual dog and has to deal with the complications of this. It is in this same period that I believe the Hall and Oates song “Maneater” to be a warning against the dangers of tigers. When it plays on the radio, I imagine a spotlit room with mirrored floors in which a hungry tigress with green eyes stalks a boy who looks like me and I get confused and ask my mother to change the station. I find out sometime during the film’s run at the theater that one of those boys on the poster is actually a girl. This causes me similar feelings as “Maneater.” I’ve still never seen My Life as a Dog; it remains one among the countless films that I know today only through dimly remembered one sheets and small photos cut from ad slicks and arranged by hand into an Atlantic Film Society calendar.

*****

Billy Anderson’s the same age as me, but about six inches taller. Tall enough that if he stands in the narrow hallway that leads from the concession stand around the corner to the bathrooms, he can put his right foot on one wall and his left on the other and shimmy himself up, so high that it feels dangerous. His feet scratch the stucco as he rises, sending trails of concrete dust down to the floor. Later, my parents notice the piles of gray flakes and ask if we were responsible. We deny involvement.

*****

I categorically refuse to see Heidi. It’s a movie for girls, I explain. So, after my dad starts the projector and takes a seat in the back, I plop down on the little ledge by the front window in the lobby and wait. Alone. As the minutes stretch on, my moral victory seems increasingly dubious. At one point, the door to the theater opens and while it swings slowly shut I glimpse a few images—a blonde girl in a blue dress, a big man with a red beard. After the film ends, I demand to be taken to Kmart to purchase a wormlike toy I grow tired of minutes after I open the package. Years later, when I sit down to write this article, I can’t find a record of a Heidi film released in the U.S. in the mid-eighties. Heidi’s Song from 1982 comes closest, but the girl doesn’t look like the girl of my memory, and I start to wonder if any of this happened at all. I should call my Dad and see if he remembers.

*****

I take some friends to a weekend matinee of Transformers: The Movie (1986). The power that comes with granting free movies is not lost on me, and I use it often. Billy again, for sure, possibly Bobby McConville, but maybe Anthony “Ant” Petrino. I’ve probably seen the film a half-dozen times already, enough to be able to weather the death of Optimus Prime without crying in front of my peers. I goad my friends into spending the film shooting spitballs through straws into the curly hair of a boy seated in front of us. He ignores us at first, but then threatens to tell the owner. “Oh yeah?” I hiss. “He’s my dad.” The boy turns back to the screen, chastened. In this theater we are invincible. Today, I make friends join me for weekend matinees of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. We don’t spit on anyone, and we have to pay for tickets, and the films themselves are just godawful, but they still feel something like childhood.

*****

two times four equals eight twenty minus eight is twelve two fives two ones plus tickets…enjoy the show

I learned most of my math skills working the box office I was barely tall enough to see over the counter of.

…three times four no times one for matinee price equals three out of ten that’s seven one five two ones plus tickets…enjoy the film

My Mom sold concessions right next to me.

…four times four equals sixteen out of twenty wait twenty one why twenty one twenty one minus sixteen is oh I see five one five is better than four ones plus tickets…enjoy the movie

I think she checked my math a little more thoroughly than she let on at the time.

*****

Preparations for the midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show remind me of the days leading up to the landfall of Hurricane Gloria in 1985. Tie or tape down anything that moves. Be ready for the worst. Something terrible is about to happen. The morning after, I troll through the wreckage with my parents. Someone has pulled one of the theater seats out of the floor and tossed it through the wall. What kind of a movie could inspire this carnage?

I’m surprised to find that the walls of the theater are paper thin, not sturdy and dense. That the heavy seats, paid for after an endless fundraising campaign and laboriously installed with thick metal screws, could be easily uprooted and tossed through the air by a pack of rabid college students.

On his blog, Lee Wochner writes this about the theater, and Rocky Horror, in particular, on October 26, 2007:

“I have many fond memories of the long-lost Little Art, deep in the woods of Bargaintown, NJ. In the early 1980s before the advent of home video, this was the only place anywhere near my home to see art films, foreign releases like Jean de Florette” and its sequel, Manon of the Spring” (both of which we just Netflixed last month), and assorted strange offerings like the Hervé Villechaize / Oingo Boingo vehicle Forbidden Zone. The Little Art was also where I had my first date with the woman who would become my wife; we drove over there after a college event to see the midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and wound up being the only two from our crowd who went.

Was Lee Wochner the one? Did he rip out that seat to impress his future wife, and standing there, seat in hand, unsure what to do with it, decide it best to throw it through the wall?

Disconcertingly, this is the only direct recollection of the theater’s existence I can find online. I don’t think I’ve watched Rocky Horror all the way through.

*****

To this day, my parents talk about how A Room with a View played at the theater for months. They also always talk about how, just a few years later, Miramax would offer The Thin Blue Line to a local multiplex in order to secure additional bookings elsewhere in South Jersey and Philadelphia. This breaks the spirit and back of the two proprietors of the Little Art Theater in Bargaintown, NJ. It closes quietly not long after. I’m about ten years old, a seasoned ticket-seller out of a job, far too young to get another one any time soon. (When I finally have the chance to rejoin the workforce, I take up a red bowtie as an usher at the Tilton 6 Theater in nearby Northfield.)

The Little Art became an animal hospital, and I’ve always wondered how they dealt with the sloping floor. This past Christmas, my dad pulled out all the old calendars again, and for a few hours, its like the theater actually existed.

After taking pictures of a stack of those calendars and sending me photos for this article, my mom shoots off this text: “And just remember you always wanted to be there . . . we didn’t make you!”

When I tell people I spent many years of my childhood in a movie theater, the usual response is something like: “Wow, you must have seen so many movies!” I did, at least I think I did. It’s hard to say. Most of what I remember about these years happened off the screen.

Jeff Reichert is the director of Gerrymandering (2010); the codirector of Remote Area Medical (2013) and This Time Next Year (2014); and the co-editor of the online journal Reverse Shot.