Friday, May 23, 2008

Movies and the March of Dimes

I have always had a tremendous affection for the movies. When there is a movie category in Final Jeopardy, I invariably bet all of my imaginary money. At one time, for whatever reason, I could name all of the Academy Award winning pictures in order and can still recall about 90% of them.

My love affair with the movies began during the 1950’s when the Elnora Theater was owned by the Ricketts family. Mr. and Mrs. Ricketts had very pretty twin daughters, Georgette and Jeanette, who were older than me and graduated from Elmore Township High School in 1958. However, my memories of the Ricketts family revolve not around them so much as their movie house. Unlike today’s modern Cineplex, the Elnora Theater was tiny by anyone’s standards. When you went to a movie during the 1940’s and 1950’s, the theater would almost always show a cartoon, a newsreel highlighting the prior week’s events, and a double feature. Yes, you would get to see two movies for the price of one. And, rather than new movies coming out on Friday and running for two weeks or more like they do now, the feature films changed from Saturday night to Sunday afternoon and maybe again on Wednesday. So, there was always a new movie or two or three each week to capture the imagination.

My parents, Elizabeth and Emerson Johnson, owned a restaurant in Elnora that was open seven days a week. It was called simply, Elizabeth’s Restaurant, and was located almost directly across the street from the theater on Odon Street just south of the town square. So, to give my grandparents a break from babysitting while my parents worked, I would routinely spend my Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons alone in the dark in my usual seat on the right side of the aisle about halfway to the front of the theater. Although television became popular during the very early 1950’s, we didn’t own one until 1954. From the time I was six years old in 1950 until about 1956 when the theater showed its last film, I think I saw most of the movies that came to our small town.

Some of the films were especially memorable, although for different reasons. The Wizard of Oz was originally released in 1939, but it was being shown in Elnora probably around 1951. When the movie became dark and scary as the Wicked Witch of the West was screaming, “I’ll get you my pretty!” I knew she must have been after me, and I also started screaming. Mr. or Mrs. Ricketts ran over to my parents’ restaurant and my father came and rescued me from that traumatic experience. Another memorable movie, The Greatest Show on Earth, about the Ringling Brothers Circus, was released in 1952 and won the Oscar for best picture. When it finally came to Elnora, the theater was packed, and it was the only time I remember my father attending a movie with me rather than just ‘dropping me off.’ The theater was so crowded that he sat on the aisle floor next to my seat, something that wouldn’t be permitted by the Fire Marshal today. From Here to Eternity was shown at the theater a year or two later, but my dad wouldn’t let me go to that one, labeling it as too ‘adult’ for a young boy.

However, the most memorable day I spent at the Elnora Theater turned out to be one of life’s most embarrassing moments, especially to a young boy who had experienced a severe case of polio and survived. Once a year, a nation-wide fund raising campaign for the March of Dimes was conducted by individuals and businesses alike to aid those who had contracted Infantile Paralysis, more commonly known as polio, and to provide research for developing a vaccine to prevent it. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had proposed the idea for the March of Dimes many years prior in 1938 because he knew the devastating effects of the disease, having contracted it himself as an adult before becoming president.

The annual March of Dimes fund drive was held each January. Following the first movie of the Sunday double feature at the Elnora Theater, the house lights would brighten and the employees would start at the front of the auditorium, passing canisters with slots in the top for patrons to drop their dimes into. As the containers were distributed, you could hear the much needed dimes dropping into the metal cans. After the cans finished their journey to the rear of the theater, the house lights would stay on for a while, allowing folks a chance to visit the concession stand or the rest room. A few minutes later, the second feature would start. The routine was always the same. So I would have money to contribute, my mother would always give me a quarter for the movie ticket, a dime for popcorn, and another dime for the canister.

One Sunday afternoon, as usual, the house lights came up at intermission, and I sat patiently waiting to drop my dime into the slot. Nobody came, so in my young mind, I assumed the fund drive was over and I had a free dime to spend. Having already eaten my popcorn, I grabbed my crutches, hopped up, went to the concession stand, and bought a candy bar. Just as I returned to my seat, I glanced toward the front of the theater and much to my horror, the March of Dimes canisters were being passed up the aisle. I was mortified! How could I not give? My mother had made it clear that I had been a prime recipient of medical aid made possible from donations in other cans just like these. When the canister was handed to me, all I could do was just pass it on. What had I done? How could I have let those people down? I felt everybody’s eyes in the theater staring at me, knowing that I didn’t contribute. I don’t think I ever told my mom what happened, but for the next two weeks of the fund drive, I didn’t buy any popcorn and put both of my dimes into the canister.

Thanks to Dr. Jonas Salk, polio vaccine finally became a reality in 1955, seven years too late for me, but in time to prevent millions of other children from having to hear the diagnosis my parents heard on that fateful June day in 1948 when I became afflicted. Polio has been all but eradicated in the United States and most parts of the world, and the March of Dimes has changed its focus primarily to children born with birth defects. I still give.

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