My mom’s mom would’ve been 96 years old today. Alzheimer’s claimed her in 2007, but it had stolen her away from us years before that. The gifts she gave me, though, are woven through so many facets of my everyday life and my personality that it’s almost possible to account for them all. My stubbornness, my love of teaching, my competence in emergencies, my late-night cravings for mushroom swiss hamburgers–all were etched in my soul by the strong, steady hand of Nell Kresser.
Another of her lasting legacies is my love of movies, and seeing them in movie theaters. She was passionate about cinema, and she “went to the show” at least once a week for much of her life. She was a devoutly Christian woman, so she wouldn’t brook any unnecessary profanity or dirtiness, but her tastes were broad and her appreciation infectious. She loved sweeping romantic epics like Titanic, and cute nostalgic films like My Dog Skip. She loved Disney movies; her favorite (and therefore mine) was The Jungle Book. And she cried every time she watched How Green Was My Valley.
I was an unusually mature kid, so she didn’t hesitate to bring me along when she and my grandpa went to the theater, and settling into a velvety seat beside her at Milwaukee’s great landmark theaters always made me feel so grown-up. My impression of movies evolved very differently than other kids who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. Sure, Star Wars changed my life too–I was two years old, sitting on phone books in the front seat of our truck at a drive-in screen so big that I couldn’t tell where the starry sky of the movie stopped and the night sky above started.
But I also saw Gone With The Wind for the first time, intermission and all, at the famed Oriental Theater with my grandma. I marveled as my feet seemed to sink up to the ankle into the plush red carpet, and I was in awe of the massive golden Buddhas that lined the walls. I thrilled to the sound of Wurlitzer organ that accompanied the silent movies they screened from time to time.
I used to crane my head back to gaze up at the twinkling constellations in the ceiling of the Avalon. She took me to weeknight classic movies at the Paradise Theater, where I fell in love with All About Eve, Arsenic and Old Lace, The Philadelphia Story, and To Catch a Thief.
These were movie palaces, in the truest sense of the word, and my grandma and I loved their hallowed halls.
I knew they were special, and I wanted to share that magic. In my high school years, I dragged friends to the Paradise for their midnight movies: the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner, The Wall in six-track Dolby Surround sound. I saw Alien for the first time there, in 70mm–the film itself is about two inches wide, and the theater had to crank back the curtains all the way on the projection screen. Saturday night concerts meant an excuse to head over to the Oriental for their legendary midnight showings of Rocky Horror Picture Show. Those same plush carpets now softened my landings as I jumped to the left during the “Time Warp,” and I was surely the only teenager who carefully picked up every piece of toast or playing card I’d thrown from the floors of that beloved sanctuary.
And now I’m the grown-up, nurturing my own little movie buff. Connor’s been movie mad since his earliest days; he was only two when I first took him to the theater, and he sat still and quiet for maybe the first time in his life as Curious George unspooled in the projection room above us. Many autistic kids have difficulty with the overwhelming sensory experience that theater movies provide, but Connor just dives into it and lets himself be swept up in the darkness and loudness and the amazingness, like I used to and still do.
It’s not a cheap proposition to take a family of four to the movies these days, so we usually tie new releases to special occasions; movie release calendars are scrutinized for the best “birthday movie” months in advance. But we discovered the heir to the Paradise right over in Minneapolis. The Riverview Theater screens movies a month or two after their major theater release dates, which allows them to charge only $2 for matinees and kids; it’s only $3 for adults in primetime, so even date nights are suddenly affordable. Now movies aren’t just an extravagance; they’re a very affordable indulgence, and Connor and I pay homage as often as we can.
As we sat in the dark auditorium on Monday, so crowded with families taking advantage of the holiday to enjoy a weekday matinee of Happy Feet Two, I found myself watching Connor more than the movie. His eyes were huge as he followed every tiny movement on the screen; his mouth smiled, grinned, gaped at each revelation. About 20 minutes in, he started worming his way under my arm, so I flipped up the arm that separated our seats so we could snuggle more comfortably. And we stayed like that for the rest of the movie, mom and son sharing a story with each other, and the other viewers we could hear but not see around us.
It wasn’t a bad movie, but it wasn’t spectacular–Tintin, which we had splurged as a family to see at the local AMC on Saturday, had sated our need for amazing cinematic experiences quite well. But it didn’t have to be spectacular to be magical, the way every movie is to movie lovers. And as I watched the movie, and watched my son, I had one of those moments when I felt so close to my grandma again. I miss her, but I can feel her sitting beside us, just enjoying the show.