Liberty Theater Part 6
by John Gilbert
When I awoke, it was daylight and hot. We had an air conditioner but it was only turned on for special occasions and those occasions could last no more than an hour. Daddy was a tightwad and Georgia Power wasn’t going to get a penny more than absolutely necessary. Lights were never left on. Even if you left a room for only a moment, the light went off. Many were the nights I would come home to find daddy sitting in the dark. Dark was cheap and besides, there was a streetlight out front and with the drapes open, there was enough light to see around the room without stumbling into something. It would have been nice to have had a small desk fan in my room just to stir the air but that would cost money to run. I had a gas heater in my room but it wasn’t allowed to burn in the winter. It was lit one winter morning when the temperature dropped into the teens but that was the only time. But now it was hot and the open windows offered little relief. The last couple of days had been cool but now the heat had returned for one last blast of Indian Summer. The cool is what had inspired Tom and I to go camping.
“Camping! Oh my gosh!” I yelled as I looked at the clock.
It was 12:30. I was going to drive to Junction City and pick up Tom and Dennis after a couple of hours sleep but now it was after noon. I dashed up stairs from my basement room to call Tom’s house but before I could get to the phone, it rang. It was Tom.
“Uh, where were you last night?” he asked.
“I’m so sorry!” I apologized. I was headed your way and I had a wreck.”
“A wreck? I figured something must have happened.”
“Yeah. The whole passenger side of my car is caved in. I hit my head too.”
“I’ll be up in a few minutes,” Tom said.
I hurriedly got dressed and was walking outside as Tom pulled into the driveway. We both examined the damage.
“The doors won’t close,” I observed. “I had to tie the doors closed with my belt. I guess I hit my head on the door frame. ”
“Did it knock any sense into you?” he smirked.
“How did you get home?” I asked.
“I walked into town and called my dad from a pay phone at some little store.”
“Well, I sure hate it that I didn’t get out there. As you can see, I was a little occupied.”
We talked for a few more minutes and Tom had to leave. Just then daddy came home and looked over the damage. He went to the porch where there was a 6 X 6 timber propped against the house. He brought it back to the car and rolled down the passenger window. He ran the timber through the window and took aim at the door post.
Bam, bam, bam! The whole car shook as he hammered the timber against the bent frame. Daddy was a pretty good shade tree mechanic but I wasn’t too sure about this idea.
“Try the door,” he instructed.
I pushed the door closed and it actually latched but a slight pull opened it. Again he hammered against the door frame and I tried the door. It closed and stayed closed but there was a gap between the top of the door and the roof. Again he hammered until the door was properly aligned. It had worked! The outside of the two doors were bent but they were functional. Even the windows rolled up and down.
As I sat in the booth at the Liberty that night, I was depressed. My car was wrecked and looked like a junk pile in front of the theater. I didn’t want to drive Diane home any more because she seemed like bad luck to me. Three times I had taken her home and three times something bad had happened. I had to go to court in a few days and that only made matters worse. I had never been to court and I wouldn’t know what to do. My stomach was in knots and I hadn’t eaten all day. Sometime during my shift I heard footsteps coming up the balcony. It was daddy with a bag of Krystal hamburgers.
“I knew that you were upset and hadn’t eaten today,” he said.
I gratefully took the burgers and we sat and talked for a few minutes. Daddy assured me that everything would work out for the best and that he would go to court with me.
Daddy did go to court with me. The victim showed up with crutches and a neck brace. I pleaded guilty and agreed to have his car fixed and that was that. Realizing that he wasn’t going to get anything more than his car fixed, the victim discarded his crutches and neck brace as he left the courthouse.
The weather turned cooler and the leaves began to acquire their fall colors. The heat and humidity of summer had been swept away and there was a hint of autumn in the air. This only fueled my camping fever. Tom and our other friends spent many weekends in the woods.
It was now several weeks since my wreck and the car began to overheat. Something was wrong with it but I didn’t know what. I replaced the thermostat but that didn’t help. I had longed to have a Jeep but that seemed impossible. My friend Bill had a Land Cruiser and I loved it. I started looking at Jeeps at car lots but they were very expensive. One day I stopped by John Cunningham Trucks. He didn’t have any Jeeps but a pickup truck caught my eye. It was a 1969 Ford Ranger pickup. It was burnt orange in color with a chrome trim package. It looked nice but I had my heart set on a Jeep. Then I thought that if I had a truck, daddy could use it at the Edgewood Drive-in. He was always tying things to his car and there were always things sticking out of the trunk. That settled it. I would see if I could get the truck. Mama said that she would co-sign on it with me. The price was $2150.00 and that was expensive. The payments would be $88.66 a month but I knew that I could swing that. I made $90.00 a week so one week’s pay would go to the truck.
I was early at the Liberty on the afternoon of October 17th, 1973. I wanted to park my new truck as close to the front door as possible. It was the prettiest thing I had ever seen. I was disappointed that the staff was less than enthusiastic about my new acquisition. Sonny, the doorman, was more interested in the box of doughnuts that I had with me. He appeared at my booth door a couple of times during the night asking if there were any left. He knew there would be and he knew that I had a big heart and would offer him one.
Sonny would come to the booth at least once a night anyway and ask if I would like something from the concession. I would rummage through my pocket and pull out enough money for two chili dogs and a Nehi strawberry drink. I’m sure that the chili came from a can but it was really good. They must have added some other ingredients to it. I had many chili dogs as I sat in the Liberty’s booth.
With the colder weather came the theater’s heaters. Now, heat rises and I was at the highest point in the building. It was as hot as summer but not as humid. There was a little access door behind my chair that led inside the marquee. This was a service door to change burned-out bulbs. It was also very cold inside the marquee. I would open the door and let some of the cold air in thus keeping the booth at a tolerable temperature.
Night after night I ran the movies. I ran “Superfly” 36 times. I lost count of “Shaft.” I could tell by the soundtrack when the changeovers were near. One movie, that I can’t remember the title, came in two versions, an “R” rated and an “X” rated version. Somehow we got the “X”rated version on a Saturday when we had a full house.
“Gilbert!” Freddie Brown shouted as he dashed into the booth. “Did you see that?”
“See what?” I asked pulling my head out of a book.
“There was a nude scene on the screen. We got the wrong version! Get over to that projector and close the dowser when a sex scene comes up.”
I did as I was told and in a moment another bad scene came into view. I closed the dowser and the Liberty theater erupted! Even the balcony was full and a group rushed my door.
“Hey man! Why’d you turn the movie off?”
“I was told to,” I answered.
“Man, get the movie back on!” someone demanded.
I watched the film dancing just above the gate in the projector head. The picture was upside down and backwards but I could make out when the scene changed. I would then open the dowser throwing the picture back onto the screen. All would settle down until the next bad scene came up and I would again close the dowser. The theater would again erupt. This went on until the show was over and an “X” rated sign was put in the box office.
James and I had worked out our Thanksgiving schedule so that I could eat dinner with my family. I would then come in at 6:00 and relieve James. We would swap at Christmas and I would come in early.
Working through the holidays was a new experience for me. All of my life I looked forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas Holidays. School would be out and there was always excitement and anticipation. Mother would spend days baking cakes, pies, and Christmas cookies. I well remember the steam condensing on the cold kitchen windows as she stirred simmering pots of sauces and fruitcake ingredients on the stove. My sisters and I were constantly under foot and sticking our fingers into the pudding mix when mother wasn’t looking. The finished products were placed on the buffet in the dining room with strict instructions not to touch. Some cherries always went missing from the fruitcake. I liked cherries. Now I was working and there was no time off for holidays. Somehow it didn’t seem fair. Everyone should be home with their families I thought. But then again, theaters are about the only businesses open on holidays. I was no longer a school boy and this was the price I had to pay to be in the working world.
Thanksgiving and Christmas came and went and New Year’s was just around the corner. I don’t remember when or how I got the news. I should remember. News like this is something you shouldn’t soon forget. It may have come from Scott Whitley. It may have come from Freddie Brown. I can’t remember. The Liberty was to close. January 1st would be its last day. I didn’t know why. It did a great business and the weekends were always packed. New Year’s Day was no different. When I got there at 6:00 the place was full. Though this shift was no different from any other, somehow it was different. I watched the projectors run as I sat in my chair. I listened to them clatter away. I knew that after this night they would be silenced. During the last show I began using the shipping reels to take up the film. After each reel, I could simply place the spent reel back into its shipping can. By 11:00 I had placed the last reel in its can. I closed the can and sat it by the booth door with the others. It seemed strange that the film cabinet under the rewind table was now empty. One by one I turned the switches off. The fans went off as well as the amplifiers. The threading lamps in the projectors went dark.. I saw my intercom hanging on the wall. I walked over and unhooked the wires. I walked back to the door and took one last look around the booth. For a long moment I stood there looking at the little booth that had been my second home for the last eight months. At last I turned off the lights and started down to the lobby.
“You got another job yet, Gilbert?” said Mr. Brown.
“Scott said that he’s have me at another theater within a week,” I answered.
I asked to get my other intercom and after our good-byes, I left and walked out into the cold.
It was January 1st, 1974 and I had spent my New Year’s evening working for someone who didn’t appreciate eight months of work.
“I’ll never work for another man like that as long as I live!” I vowed as I backed out into the street and started for home.
Scott never did tell me which week that I would start at another theater. I’m still waiting. I was as good as my word. I’ve always tried to do my best on a job. There have been several times in my working life that I’ve walked off of a job. I may have been young and foolish when I started at the liberty, but I was wiser when I left.