From the Pen of the Captain’s Kid: Rainy Day Matinees
The movie theatres in Ocean City that I remember as a kid were three: the Capitol, Showell’s, and the Shore Drive-In; none of them has survived. The Shore-Drive-In, which opened in 1954 and was located about 3 miles west of Ocean City along Route 50 [11826 Ocean Gateway], has now returned to forest. Since the drive-in closed in 1976, the site has simply stood unattended and increasingly unkempt. I still pass by it on Route 50 straining to see if the rusting metal sign is still there along the highway—when last I looked it was so covered with vines and overgrowth as to be almost invisible. A few years ago I hiked deeper into the property to discover the huge white screen still standing but full of holes and stained, weathered, and deteriorating. The curved mounds of dirt that lifted the front wheels of all those 1950s Chevies and streamlined DeSotos (in order to provide a better angle for viewing the outdoor screen), were still there, segmental arcs arranged like kneeling prayer pads in the church of the mobile society. And the regularly spaced posts that held the speakers which we would detach and hook onto our window glass remained like ancient stelae isolated in a verdant archaeological field. All this footprint and ghostly reminder of the drive-in’s once open field, no longer crowded with 500 cars on a Friday night, was in the process of being reclaimed entirely by Nature.
The projection booth and concession stand was just a concrete rectangular box of no architectural distinction and sat unadorned, just as it always was, but now the structure had attracted overgrowth and weathered toward a state of extinction.. We used to walk from our car to the concession counter to buy popcorn, sometimes stepping over movie watchers who prefer to watch the show en plein air. Refreshments might include a hot dog and coke, to supplement the dozen donuts we had smuggled in from Ernie’s Donuts on Division Street. Ernie’s was always a required stop on the way to the drive-in (as though we needed more sugar!) Entry to the Shore Drive-In cost just a few dollars but I can’t remember if that was per car or per person; perhaps the later since some of my associates boasted of smuggling in two extra people hidden in the trunk.
Memories of seeing movies at Showell’s theatre takes me back to an earlier age, to a pre-teen period when I thought Jerry Lewis was funny, and when I groaned when Dean Martin started to sing. Later, it was the reverse. In my younger teen years, when crew cuts were the norm, some people said I resembled Jerry Lewis, which I was dumb enough to think was cool since he was a Hollywood star. I even acted goofy to encourage the comparison. A little older and wiser, I later found it hard to understand why the French thought Jerry Lewis was the best thing since Chaplin, and the French actually held Jerry Lewis film festivals in Paris. But in the early 1950s, when I was too young to discriminate about much of anything, I went to all the Martin and Lewis films,–they almost always played at Showell’s, Theatre “two shows nitely.” Alas, about the time I entered my teen years, the comedy team broke up, and I thought we’d never see either again, But Jerry Lewis started making films on his own, and while I should have known better, I still went to Showell’s to see “the kid” (as they called Jerry) make a fool of himself in various roles: as a geisha boy (1958), bellhop (1960), errand boy (1961), disorderly orderly (1964), or, worst of all, ladies man (1961). The first of these solo juvenile cinematic efforts was the “The Delicate Delinquent” (1957) which at age thirteen I thought worth seeing. But looking back I’m surprised that I was still laughing at Jerry Lewis in 1963 when he played “The Nutty Professor,” maybe because by 1963 I had entered college and thought I would someday be a professor myself, albeit less nutty. Movies made at Paramount Pictures studio seemed to find their way to Showell’s Theatre, and Jerry Lewis was a Paramount staple. But Showell’s also ran MGM films including their great musicals, like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers that I saw when I was ten, and as an adult I have come to be a real fan of musical theatre both live and on film, and to conclude I had had enough of Jerry Lewis.
The downside of attending a film at Showell’s in those years, however, was Mrs. Elizabeth Showell Strohecker. Mrs. Strohecker was the daughter of patriarch John Dale Showell, Sr., who had developed the Showell complex of buildings at the Boardwalk and Division Street: the salt water swimming pool, the bowling alley, and the theatre, all now razed. We never knew Mrs. Strohecker was a Showell, but she must have had a vested interest in harassing the younger movie clientele, because she did it so often and so enthusiastically. It always took a few minutes, when we entered the dark theatre auditorium for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. We couldn’t see a thing, but we always knew Mrs. Strohecker was lurking around in the dark recesses of the movie house ready to pounce. It was almost as tentative as entering Trimper’s Haunted House venue on the boardwalk. She was a woman of prodigious proportions, a rotund grandmotherly type but with an aura less like Aunt Bee in Mayberry, NCi ,and more like some power-imbued Visigothic princess named Brunhilda from a heroic German legend. Just as we were settling into our seats, pushing and shoving a bit, and failing to monitor our decibels, the Wagnerian pronouncement would be articulated: “QUIET! ….I said QUI-I-I-ET!” she would blast forth from several rows away and with piercing tones resembling a fog horn positioned barely two feet from your ears. As a young kid, I could not believe that a voice so basso profondo as hers could come out of a female. Despite the fact that she was always standing at the back of the theater, it always seemed like she was holding forth right behind me and for my personal benefit. Today, she would be guarding against cell phone abuse, as juveniles played Candy Crush Saga, or watched a U-Tube video of car wrecks whenever the film got boring, but our less techno-sophisticated rowdiness at the movies in the 1950s seemed comparably “below standard”—certainly unacceptable to Mrs. Strohecker who sought to hush the multitudes when the house lights dimmed and maintain silence throughout the movie. We hardly dared to laugh out loud at Jerry Lewis. Mrs. Elizabeth Strohecker must have been effective because I remember her name 60 years later.
There were no multiplexes in those days, nor scores of movie channels on TV, to cater to, and nourish, the short attention spans of the typical teenagers. In Ocean City in the 1950s, choices were limited as to what movies were playing on any given night— only three or four as featured at the drive in (usually a double feature), Showell’s, and the Capitol. The runs were short, only 2-3 days, so if you wanted to see a film, you had to act fast, and I always thought myself a precocious lad in the area of becoming an informed citizen, because I always knew what was playing at the local theatre. All three theaters printed posters, about 22” by 14” in dimension, with the week’s movies listed in three horizontal rows. Usually a movie would be shown Mon and Tuesday, another film on Wednesday and Thursday, and a third on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, with two shows “nitely” at 7 and 9pmii . The movie posters were always in the window of Bailey’s Pharmacy, a block from our house, and a location that I passed every time I walked to the 8th Street beach. One simply could not walk past Baileys without checking out the movie postersiii . An advertisement for three “loser” movies could spoil the whole week.
By 1960 I was on the beach patrol, I had just turned 16, and I thought myself fully capable of deciding what movies I’d like to see. Nevertheless, I remember to this day a curious prefatory certificate appended to the movie credits that seemed to indicate that the film had been censored—or that’s what I thought as a boy since at the start of most films the screen displayed a notice that the motion picture had been passed by the Maryland Board of Censors. What the @#$&#@ was that?! Apparently the agency had been around since 1916 and their job was to insure a film was “moral and proper.”iv I figured since every film Showell’s or the Capitol or the drive-in showed had all passed, any movie that’s played Ocean City was OK to see, and while I might be bored watching My Cousin Rachel, I would certainly not be corrupted.
In 1960, however, I found I had a tougher board of censors at home: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was showing at Showell’s Theatre, and since my friends had all seen the movie and found it wonderfully scary [of course it was scary, I said; it was Hitchcock], I was anxious to see Psycho. Captain Craig had other ideas. Two of my dad’s best friends were visiting with their families from St. Louis and New Jersey respectively, and I thought the Conradi and McDougal kids, who also wanted to see the film, could add numbers to my cause célèbre. They were decent kids; after all, and one of the fathers would later become chief potentate of the Shriners and was a 32nd degree Mason, while the other was ex-military, or at least seemed so. I assumed you couldn’t get more proper and moral than that. So Captain Craig, Bob Conradi, and Harry McDougall formed a self proclaimed Maryland Board of Censors, and went to preview Hitchcock’s film. There was no equivocation. In the tradition of ancient Roman caesars, the paternal triumvirate returned with all three giving Psycho a thumbs down as inappropriate for their young children. “No way are you going to see that film,” was declared in unison, making us all want to see Hitchcock’s movie all the more. I complained to my buddies who by then had seen the film three times and one kid, a bit of a cut up, remarked with a feigned Brooklyn accent, “So what’s with a little blood in the shower? …the film’s in black and white, for God’s sake.” Ignoring the mollified effect that black and white film brought to the gory splatters and drops of blood on the motel shower floor, another friend went to the heart of the matter: “Besides, ya gotta see it—ya just gotta: Janet Leigh was naked in the shower!!” But then they all admitted with obvious regret, “but ya really couldn’t see much.” Boy talk!
Looking back I recall lots of color films at Showell’s Theatre, especially the MGM musicals that played there, but the Capitol Theater, by contrast, seemed always to feature black and white films with private investigators like Philip Marlowe and directors like John Huston and Otto Preminger—suspense and action crime films from RKO, Universal, and United Artists. At the Capitol we saw Edward G Robinson or Humphrey Bogart or James Mitchum in movies I later learned to call film noir.
But from the earliest period of my remembered youth, the Capitol Theater stands out for another reason: as the sponsor of “rainy day matinees.” On those miserably wet days in Ocean City when we couldn’t go to the beach, being stuck at home was next to intolerable. Hoping for reprieve from our fate, we listened intently for, and were excited when we heard, the sounds of a pick up truck slowly moving along St. Louis Avenue and broadcasting the happy news that the Capitol Theater was having a rainy day matinee. Oh blissful joy! A driver with his side window down had a microphone in his hand (if it were raining really hard), and if the rain came down in just a drizzle there would be a second man in the open flatbed of the truck with an amplifier announcing what movie was playing at the Capitol that day—not that night, but that very afternoon! Showell’s only had “two shows nitely”—as did the Capitol—7 and 9pm— but the glorious Capitol Theatre would also schedule rainy day matinees during inclement weather. If a soggy weather front passed through town or a squall kicked up enough wind and rain so as to keep kids home from the beach, the Capitol, bless its commercial heart, opened its doors and presented their current movie feature during the afternoon, sometimes with additional cartoons thrown in. I can still envision that pick up truck with its amplified announcement—a sign from high that life was good after all, and I could get out of the house.v
In those halcyon days in small-town Ocean City, a kid could even ride his bike the fifteen blocks between his house and the movie theatre and not fear that the bicycle would be missing after the movie: it was still there where you left it leaning against the theater wall. Rainy day matinees, a highlight of summer life in Ocean City in the 1950s, are now just memories of a lost time, perhaps akin to what Marcel Proust was talking about in À la recherche du temps perdu.vi
Main Image: Movie Poster The Big Sleep (1946) Courtesy, reelclassics.com , fair use.
iThe reference is to The Andy Griffin Show (aired October, 1960 – April, 1968)
ii Typical examples of scheduling movies at Showell’s Theatre during the 1940s are as follows: Week of Aug 16, 1946: 8/16-18 Fri-Sun, Bing Crosby and Ed Gardner in “Duffy’s Tavern (1945; Paramount, b/w); 8/19-20 Mon & Tues, Ann Sothern and George Murphy in Up Goes Maisie (1946 MGM, b/w); 8/21-22 Wed & Thurs, Sonny Tufts and Eddie Bracken in Bring on the Girls. (1945, Paramount, color) and Week of July 4, 1948: Mon & Tues, Wallace Beery and Jane Powell, A Date With Judy (1948, MGM, color); Wed & Thurs: Wallace Beery and Tom Drake, Alias a Gentleman (1948, MGM, b/w); and Fri/Sat: Bob Hope and Jane Russell in Paleface (1948, Paramount, color).
iiiToday, these posters are occasionally offered for sale for $250 on E-bay.
ivJack Valenti, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America replaced these earlier moral censorship guidelines with the rating system [PG, PG-13, R, X) still in use today and thought to be more parent focused . Rather than the movie industry approving or disapproving what audiences should see, the rating system that emerged in 1968 sought to educate parents regarding movie content in order to help them make decisions for their family.
vIn 1964 the Capitol burned and ceased operations as a movie theater. It was immediately rebuilt and opened as the H2O Under 21 Night Club, a dance venue for teenagers.
viMarcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu is a novel in seven volumes published between 1913 and 1927. Translated as Remembrance of Things Past, Proust’s title became In Search of Lost Time in a 1992 translation by D. J. Enright. The novel traces recollections of childhood and experiences of the narrator’s early adult life with commentary on the loss of time and lack of meaning in the world. The formidable novel has been summarized by Colton Valentine in “TL;DR: Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search Of Lost Time’ An endless literary masterpiece condensed to its sensible essentials.” Huffington Post, July 10, 2015, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/tldr-prousts-in-search-of-lost-time_n_559e8cb1e4b0967291558d31 accessed Dec 22, 2019.