Being in the dark, for a good reason l Chuck's World
Last updated 6/19/2019 at Noon
On Sunday, Jan. 17, 1965, I joined my brother and sister in front of our black-and-white TV set to watch the annual showing of “The Wizard of Oz” on CBS.
I’ve been alive long enough to recognize when I’m on shaky ground. My childhood memories are sometimes vivid and occasionally very detailed, and quite often wrong.
That said, I suspect this is closer to truth than not.
“The Wizard of Oz” was a big deal, a touchstone for a generation of kids born too early for “Sesame Street” and two decades removed from video stores. We watched what was on, and we didn’t watch that much, so this was always special.
I was 6 years old. The 1939 classic film had become a tradition on television since the mid-1950s, the only chance in those days to see it. If you were busy the day it was on, too bad. Wait until next year.
So there we were, three kids lined up in front of a 14-inch screen, imaginations engaged. It was three days before the inauguration of President Lyndon Johnson, following his landslide electoral victory the previous November.
It was the day after my mother’s 28th birthday. I’m not sure what the weather was like, but I could find out.
I remember almost none of this, and certainly not the date. The internet is evil in this way, snatching a stray idea and turning it into an expedition. A random memory nudged me into research mode, and soon I was scrolling through 50-year-old issues of TV Guide, trying to scratch an itch.
I had some free time, really. That’s all this was. I just remember that specific night, watching the movie, because my parents came into the room with a better offer.
So we turned off the TV, piled into the station wagon, and headed off to the drive-in theater to watch “Mary Poppins.” That’s the memory I have, anyway, skipping out on a big event for an even bigger one. I had to wait another year for my Oz fix, and it was a fair trade. Going out to the movies always trumped TV.
“Mary Poppins” was released in December 1964, which is how I figured all of this out. I’m sure I enjoyed the movie, but then I enjoyed them all.
If you have a passion for a perfectly ordinary thing, this might feel familiar. Everyone likes going to the movies. It’s a universally fun thing to do, and I assumed I shared my affection with everyone else.
This isn’t the case, and I understand that now; it was just an assumption that had never been challenged until it was.
A few years ago, at a dinner conversation with friends, I was going on about some film and one of my companions said, “You must really like movies.”
This stopped me short. I hadn’t intended to bore anyone with my hobby, although that’s never really stopped me before. There are a variety of things to be interested in. I really like movies, I do. You probably have something that you like. I don’t know why I’m starting to sound like Mr. Rogers.
This is where it began, though, with those surprise outings in the station wagon. I’m still drawn to the big screen with the same excitement, although I only have nostalgia for drive-in theaters, not much desire to go (assuming I could find one).
And with all of this rummaging around in the recesses of a pretty dusty brain, trying to uncover memories, I began to realize something that had never occurred to me before.
I’ve always been at war with casual nostalgia, at least the kind that pops up on Facebook and inspires my peers to share. You’re probably familiar; these tend to have grainy photos and talk a lot about drinking out of garden hoses and playing outdoor games, and how we didn’t have bike helmets and still we survived.
Not all of us survived. That’s why these things irritate me. I’m nostalgic but I don’t believe in the good old days. A lot of them weren’t that good. Please wear a helmet.
But we now live in a world of endless choices, and even our kids have multiple options when it comes to passing the time. And while I’m very much pro-choice when it comes to entertainment, I’m starting to think I was lucky to grow up when I did.
I watched movies other people picked, in other words, either my parents or television programmers. I ended up watching movies as a kid I never would have approached otherwise, simply because they were the only thing on TV at the time.
It wasn’t better. It was simpler, and that’s an important distinction to make when looking backward. It’s a paradox, this idea that fewer choices leads to more exposure, but it feels true. There are 20-odd films currently showing in my neighborhood; if there were only two, I think I’d be more tempted to go, somehow.
I went to the theater last week to see “Late Night” with Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling. It was fun, free of superheroes or zombies, and it reminded me that I’ll always be interested in sitting in the dark for a couple of hours, particularly if there’s popcorn.
It was nice to have an excuse to go to the movies, and only a little sad to remember a time when I didn’t need one.