Grand Experiences!

Historical picture of the Robinson Grand Theater

Historical picture of the Robinson Grand Theater

By Buddy Simmons | June 30, 2014

Lately, there has been a lot of interest here in Clarksburg generated by the planned renovation of the Robinson Grand Theater. And for good reason, if those involved and invested in the project play their cards rights, this could be a boon for the city.

I’m not completely familiar with the plans for the theater, but I’m sure it could be a draw. I for one relish the idea of seeing those marquee lights flashing and I’d like to see the line formed down the sidewalk, similar to the ones that formed when the theater was still in its hey-day, when you could go see the latest block-buster on the bigger-than-life screen.

But I’m not going to speculate on the feasibility and plusses and minuses of the project. I’m just going to be thankful that at least for the foreseeable future, I won’t be seeing an announcement that it will be the latest victim to the overshadowing wrecking ball that seems to swing ominously over the city.
I’m also not going to attempt to delve into the theater’s rich history; we have those here at Connect-Clarksburg much more proficient at articles of that nature if they haven’t done so already either here or under another venue.

What I am going to talk about -somewhat typically, I’m a lot better at personal nostalgia than I am at being a historian – are my memories of the Robinson Grand. I may touch on some familiar waters, as I have discussed movies before in Possum Tracks. So forgive any sense of déjà vu you may feel as you read this, I’ll be feeling the same sensation as I write it. Later I’ll describe a few of the actual movie experiences there.

By the way, I had originally intended to touch upon the other theater of choice in Clarksburg during that era, The Ritz, but I found myself unable to conjure up any real memories of the theater. All I can really recall was that I don’t think that it was as luxurious as the Robinson Grand and that I did not enjoy going there quite as much. I also recall that towards the end, it seemed to develop a reputation for presenting less-than-wholesome films, but maybe that was just my perception.

Even before entering the Grand, you got a taste of what was inside. Above the heavy glass doors hung the gold-painted comedy and tragedy masks lamenting and grinning at you, respectively. To actually be honest, though, I’m a little uncertain if those masks have always been there, or if they were a later addition after I grew up and I am merely remembering them as having been there all along. But they LOOK like they have been leering down from their perch for a long time, at any rate.

Anyway, you could stand there for a moment, if you wished, to contemplate the movie poster for the movie you had arrived to see. Behind a window (on the left as I recall) there would be an additional poster notifying you of what was coming soon. After you had sated your interest there, you would enter and walk up the slightly inclined floor to purchase your ticket and then proceed to the second set of doors where you would give the ticket to the attendant, who would rip it in half and give you half so you could show that you had indeed purchased a ticket in the event you decided to go back into the foyer for something at the concession stand.

I remember the seeming cavernous grandiosity of the place, the plush velour seats, the ever-present scent of popcorn in the air and even the pop vending machine right outside of the theater proper. The real concession stand was outside where you bought your ticket, there you could grab your popcorn, candy and drink if you wished, the vending machine further in was for those who already had entered and decided that they needed a drink, or wanted one as an after thought. One thing I remember about the machine was that you would often drop in your change and then pray to the gods of dispensing that it would result in a cup-ice-soft drink sequence rather than ice-soft-drink-cup order. Otherwise it was off to the proprietor to complain, if you wanted to bother.  I think there was a candy machine located nearby as well, but my memory is a little foggy about that. Really, my memory is a bit foggy about a lot of the Robinson Grand, so try to overlook any factual errors I may be making.

One of the first things you could not help but notice upon entering the lobby was a giant picture of a lady. As a kid, I never knew who she was; I believe I assumed she was a movie star. I just thought of her as the “pretty lady at the movie house”. The fact is, she was a mystery to me long after my childhood. It was not until a couple of years ago, while discussing the theater on a Facebook group that I learned that the lady was actually Clarksburg’s very own Phyllis Curtin, an opera singer. I have wondered, and will continue to wonder if the picture is still there. I’m sure I will find out sooner or later now that plans to renovate are in the works. I hope she still stands there to greet the patrons of the arts; I considered that photo to be rather iconic.

One of the Holy Grails at the Robinson Grand for me was the balcony. I think I only had the pleasure of sitting there a couple times. Usually it was to my great disappointment to enter and see the thick velvet rope blocking access; I guess the balcony must have usually been reserved for sell-out crowds. There was just something about sitting up there, above all the poor peons relegated to the seats below, mere subjects to the elite who were able to view films from a lofty perch.  Well, that was how I viewed the privilege as a kid anyway. That and I just thought it was neat. I had always suspected that in the latter years, the structural condition may have precluded allowing people to be seated up there, explaining why it seemed perpetually roped off,  but that is sheer conjecture on my part.

When I reached the teen years, there was another Holy Grail involving the Robinson Grand, I’ll get to that in a bit.

I think another feature that had pretty much passed along by the time I reached the age of going to the movies was ushers. I can’t recall being accompanied to seats or anything like that. I do remember the proprietors occasionally walking down the aisle when somebody (generally a kid) got a little to rowdy and shining a flashlight on them, which was enough to correct the situation.

I think most people who visited the RG can remember the huge red curtains that hid the screen, illuminated by stage lights. If you got to the theater too early, you spent a good bit of time looking at those curtains. During that interval, the theater would be abuzz with chatter. And then, the curtains would sweep open and it was as if somebody had flipped a switch. The fidgeting ceased and the chatter was muted. It was showtime!

In one of my early Possum Tracks pieces, I ranted about commercials. At one point, I focused on the trend for commercials being shown prior to the movie, a loathsome development. Well, there was none of that back in the days of the Robinson Grand. I may have the order wrong, but I think once those curtains spread apart, you were first treated to the coming attractions. Yeah, I know, technically those were commercials too, but people didn’t see them that way. Nah, they were kind of like bonus mini-movies. Not something enticing me to rush out to buy a product to make me smell better or to refresh my self with the crisp bite of Mountain Dew. The previews enabled me and others to make a mental checklist on what movies we simply had to see in the future.  They helped decide what not to see too. I remember being so creeped out by the previews for “The Exorcist” that I decided that I’d better give it a pass. Not that I would have been able to get in anyway. I was still too young to pass myself as old enough to gain entrance to an R-rated movie.

At least theaters still show previews today. I could do without those commercials, though. So, after the previews were finished, next came a couple of cartoons. I’m not sure if they were screened for less family-friendly movies or not, though. They were always there for G-rated films, naturally, and I think that it was not uncommon for them to be shown prior to PG-rated pictures as well. I know in those cases often the cartoon was a Pink Panther short, and I think that was because the Pink Panther was not as universally considered being a target for children only. Maybe Pink Panther cartoons were reserved for the PG movies exclusively, I cannot recall.

Right now, I imagine that some of the readers might be rolling their eyes and muttering “Pshaw! When I was a kid, we watched a newsreel and part of a serial western, By golly, that Gene Autry sure did have some adventures!” But by the time I was attending movies, newsreels and serials were becoming a mere memory. Finally, after the previews and the cartoons, the feature would begin.

I can’t really remember the first movie I ever saw there. It might have been a double feature horror movie billing that my mother and older sister took me too, in what might have been a lapse of judgment on my mother’s part.  All I really remember about those movies was not watching them, spending the bulk of my time turned around looking towards the rear of the theater.

However I can recall another very early movie that had my undivided attention. My sister and one of her girlfriends decided in one of their rare magnanimous moments to take their kid brothers to see “Dr. Doolittle”. No, not the one starring Eddie Murphy, I’m a bit older than that. This one was a musical starring Rex Harrison, released in 1967.

I haven’t seen the movie since, but upon looking it up on the internet as an adult, I was a bit crestfallen to learn that it was considered a dud, and was negatively reviewed by critics. Crestfallen, because they should have had me review it. I was fascinated and thought it was the very best movie I ever saw. Hey, it WAS nominated for several Oscars, but it turns out that it was mainly by virtue of the film studio’s manipulation and lobbying. But at the time, had I known what an Oscar was, I would have been fully behind it taking home a bunch of statues.

Mostly though, it was my dad assigned to take me to the latest movie I wanted to see. These were often Disney Cartoons, which was probably not the highlight of his evening, my mother told me years after the fact that he had in fact usually slept through those. I believe that situation has come up before here, so I won’t elaborate. He was more into the nature movies, really. I really liked those too, of course. It was with some disillusionment that I learned many years later that most of the scenes in Disney nature films were staged. My disappointment turned to horror when I read that the scene in  Disney’s “White Wilderness” adventure ‘documentary’ involving lemmings casting theirselves off a cliff into the sea was staged. Rather than try to explain it in my own words, I’ll just copy a quote from the estimable Snopes web site:

“Disney’s White Wilderness was filmed in Alberta, Canada, which is not a native habitat for lemmings and has no outlet to the sea. Lemmings were imported for use in the film, purchased from Inuit children by the filmmakers. The Arctic rodents were placed on a snow-covered turntable and filmed from various angles to produce a “migration” sequence; afterwards, the helpless creatures were transported to a cliff overlooking a river and herded into the water.”

As it turns out, the whole suicidal lemmings legend was just that. A myth. One that was further perpetuated by the Disney studio. It is unknown whether the studio was aware of  the measures taken to create the illusion of manic-depressive rodents. The only sure thing is that those lemmings really needed a better agent.

My mom took me to at least a couple movies at the Robinson Grand, the aforementioned horror double feature and the Disney movie, “Herbie the Love Bug”, which we enjoyed immensely. At least I did, but she seemed to like it as well, and as far as I know, did not fall asleep. But mostly she was relegated to staying home to take care of my younger sister and left the cinema trips with me to my dad.

On rare occasions, when I got a bit older, my mom, dad, and I would all three go to a movie. Invariably it would be a WWII picture. As a veteran of that war, movies depicting the conflict interested him keenly. Personally, I found them dull. Aside from the actual combat scenes, it was usually guys in uniforms talking about stuff I was not particularly interested in. It was about the only time I was not thrilled to go, although I suppose my dad was due after suffering through films featuring talking cartoon animals during my earlier years.

One thing I have noticed that seems to have largely become a thing of the past is applause at the end of a movie. I can remember it being common, if not the norm when I was a kid. reflecting on it, I suppose that it started occuring to people that it was kind of dumb. Who were we showing our appreciation for, the projectionist? It isn’t as if the stars on the screen were aware of our accolades.

One other thing that has gone the way of the dodo is intermissions during long movies. These days, a movie can tip the scales at nearly three hours and there will be no break. I guess it is possible that in the past, there was a break needed to change reels or someting for exceptionally long films, perhaps something not needed on modern projectors.

Eventually I was deemed old enough and responsible enough to be dropped off at the theater alone. Probably to the relief of my dad. He liked a good movie as well as the next guy, but his idea of a good movie and my idea of a good movie were probably two different things much of the time, as evidenced by the war movie outings.

My first excursion was to a double feature the RG was showing. They were playing “Planet of the Apes” and “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” on a double bill. This was thrilling to me on a couple different levels. First, it was an early taste of freedom, and second because hey-it was Planet of the Apes, for Pete’s sake! I became totally immersed in the films, I don’t even think I realized there were other people around me once the movies started. When my folks came to pick me up at the prescribed time, the movies were all I could talk about all the way home.

The second time was for the movie “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” For reasons I do not now fully understand, I was obsessed with getting to see that movie. I had read the book and I think my young mind was trying to grasp whatever the inner meaning of  it was. My young mind had no clue and I guess I assumed that it was a deep book and film and it made me feel rather adult trying to absorb it. Maybe it was deep, but looking back, I think it was rather dumb. That did not stop the book from being a best seller. I think the message was “be all you can be” and “don’t conform to the expectations of others.”

Not bad advice, but kind of corny. I think I realized that after getting to see the movie, because my obsession with it faded away immediately. However, despite the success of the book, the movie was a dud, and and after looking it up to refresh my memory, I was amused to find a description of what it was about. “Jonathan Livingston Seagull, written Richard Bach, is a fable in novella form about a seagulll learning about life and flight, and a homily about self-perfection.”

Uh, okay. Now I see my problem. I had not yet developed a taste for pretentious metaphysical clap-trap. I also learned that Roger Ebert, the eminent film critic, actually walked out of the screening and described it thusly: “This has got to be the biggest pseudocultural, would-be metaphysical ripoff of the year.” Sheesh. Where was Roger when I needed him?

Don’t ask me what I was thinking when I was so eager to see the movie. To tell the truth, I don’t think I even liked the book that much. I suspect that I thought that cool, intellectual people liked and understood it, and I must have figured that if I liked it…you know what? Let’s just move on.

One nice thing about the Robinson Grand was that they either didn’t bother to check the seats after a movie or didn’t care if you stayed to watch the movie a second time. When I was a teen, this was not an uncommon occurrence if we really liked the movie. Plus we had nothing better to do, of course.
I’d be remiss if I did not mention the movie I attended the most times, embarrassing as it might be. I saw “Grease” eleven times. Now, it was a pretty popular movie, so it isn’t as embarrassing as other movie obsessions *Cough* Jonathan Livingston Seagull *Cough* But a friend and I REALLY liked Grease and went to it during its long run at the Grand. Partly because it was just a fun movie, but I think it had more to do with Olivia Newton John, whom as far as we were concerned, had the voice and look of an angel, and we could watch her sing “Hopelessly Devoted to You” to us (well…I’m sure each of us thought that she was singing it to us individually) for an eternity. I never really liked her “hot” transformation at the end all that well, to be honest. I still kind of have a soft spot for that movie.

I mentioned earlier another “Holy Grail” in regard to going to the Robinson Grand. As I entered my teenage years, I, along with another friend, (the same friend who shared my “Grease/Olivia Newton John obsession) began to focus on being able to see “R” rated movies. We didn’t really care which movie that might be. Naturally we were hoping for some naughty bits. We were successful a few times. The first, was getting in to see “Network”. We didn’t even know what it was about. But it was rated R and as such forbidden fruit, so we were willing to give it a shot.

We came out rather disappointed. “Network” won four Oscars, but it wasn’t really what we were looking for. It was a satire on the power of the media –or something- it was kind of over our heads and we found it boring. I haven’t seen it since, I might enjoy it now as an adult, but as a teen, we deemed it a yawn-fest.

Our second attempt at viewing clandestine cinema turned out to be the reason some movies really shouldn’t be viewed by those whose minds have not developed enough to process what they are viewing. We managed to be allowed in to see “Looking For Mr. Goodbar.”

If you are not familiar with this film, it was the story of a mousy school teacher, played by Diane Keaton. Well, she was mousy by day, at night she became a swinger. She would cruise the bar scene, hooking up with random stangers. While this might sound like it was exactly what two teen-aged guys might have been looking for, it wasn’t really. It was dark and seedy, displaying a lifestyle with which we were pretty unfamiliar. Wait, who am I trying to kid? A lifestyle with which we were COMPLETELY unfamiliar. But its grittiness and my lack of the ability to relate to the theme was not what I found disturbing. If by some chance you haven’t seen the movie and think you may wish to someday, better skip to the next paragraph, because I am going to spoil the ending.

The teacher gone wild ends up picking up the wrong fellow, ironically on New Years Eve when she had decided to give up her lifestyle, I think it was intended to be her last fling.

The guy du jour she picked up on her last hurrah turned out to have problems. She did not help with those problems when she made fun of his –well, let’s just say “prowess in the area of romance”. He did not take to her constructive criticism well, and unfortunately revealed that what he lacked in virility, he made up with by way of skill with a knife. The hapless woman was brutally stabbed to death.

Worse, it was by the light of a flashing strobe light, which were big in the 70’s. So we sat there stunned, as the light flashed on on off creating an alternately light and dark theater, and listened to her screams and watched her futile struggle. The strobe light slowed down after the deed, and we were treated to longer views of a dying woman, whose life ebbed from her with each slowing flash until she finally expired. The end.

I don’t think my friend and I said a word to one another until we got to his car. And even then it was like “Well! I didn’t see THAT coming!”

The thing is, I don’t think I ever completely got over that movie. For one thing, even though we were getting old enough to know better, I think that the notion that teachers had ANY sort of extracurricular lives really occurred to us much. I think that for a certain amount of time a student just assumes that a teacher drives (or flies on a broomstick in some cases) to work and goes home to await doing it all over again the next day. A night-life for teachers was pretty much a foreign concept. Dating? Preposterous! I think that even when one was expecting a baby, a small part of our minds believed it was some sort of Immaculate Conception. So Diane Keaton portraying any sort of life as a teacher at all was sort of jarring. And the type of lifestyle she led in particular? Absolutely shocking. Her fate though, was chilling. Teachers weren’t supposed to end in that manner. They were supposed to get old and maybe have blue hair, not be stabbed to death by the light of a strobe.

Worse of all, many years later I learned that it was based on a novel which was in turn based on a true story, which was even more grisly. I am kind of glad I was not aware of that at the time. I am also glad they did not show a more accurate and realistic depiction of her fate. The real event was even more horrifying. To lighten this up a little, I was reading a discussion on the movie and a woman said that she was taken to the movie by some poor schmuck for a first date. She mentioned that it was their last date as well. Maybe like my friend an I, the guy didn’t know what he was getting into.

After reaching adulthood, I was never comfortable with going to a watering hole (platonically) with a lady and being ready to leave only to be told that she’d like to stay and that I could leave without her. That may be a bit on the sexist side, I would not have similar compunctions about leaving a male friend behind, but that’s just the way I feel, no doubt largely in part to my viewing of “Looking For Mr. Goodbar”.  I once got into a rather heated debate with a female friend on the matter. Right or wrong, I knew I sure was not willing to be semi-responsible for somebody dying a bloody death in stroboscopic lighting.

We finally did get to see an “R” rated movie that lived up to our expectations, a horror movie knock-off of “The Exorcist”. I can’t remember the name of it, but it was just a cheesy demonic possession movie. But it was better than our earlier attempts. The thing I remember most about it was a couple with their child (who appeared to be about four years old) being ahead of us purchasing tickets. The proprietor tried to advise them that they might want to reconsider their choice of entertainment for the night, describing scenes including a woman biting the head off of a frog and a scene taking place during a witches’ coven gathering and involving a rather crude act with a goat. Overhearing that, I was ready to bowl over the couple and their child to get in, now we were talking an R-rated movie! Too bad it wasn’t very good.

After that, it wasn’t long before we could go see an R-rated movie without any subterfuge. Oddly, by that point it didn’t matter that much what the movie was rated then when we were choosing to go see something. Forbidden fruit is only really tasty when it is forbidden.

Besides, “Porky’s” and “Animal House” were just around the corner. Now THERE was what we  had been looking for in R-rated entertainment! No unnatural acts with goats or frog abuse, no blood-curdling murder scenes, just uproarious laughter. Oh, and with some naughty bits.

Original article here.