It was on a summer afternoon in 1956 when Duncan Hess, Jr., known since birth as “Chip” to avoid confusion with his father, had the first true epiphany of his young life. It did not occur on the road to Damascus, but in The Calderone Theatre located at 145 North Franklin Street in Hempstead on Long Island.
Duncan had, as on many occasions, waited for the N-25 bus in front of the Wheatley Hills Pharmacy at the corner of Post and Drexel near his home, and rode it to the terminal in Hempstead. This was an era when unaccompanied children were allowed to do things such as ride buses to nearby communities.
In Hempstead, Duncan Hess, Jr. walked the two blocks along West Columbia Street to North Franklin, bought a thirty-five cent bargain matinee ticket and entered the tremendous lobby of the theater. The muggy heat of this particular Saturday afternoon had plastered Duncan’s shirt to his back on the short walk from the terminal, but the air conditioning of the theater forced him to put on his windbreaker.
The Calderone Theater was massive. Standing in its lobby was like standing at the bottom of a massive cavern, gold distressed mirrors soaring up on all sides. The auditorium contained more than twenty-five-hundred plush red seats, unoccupied that Saturday except for fifty or so people scattered about the great hall. People who had, in many cases, come in for the air conditioning more than the show.
Duncan Hess, Jr., however, was there for the show. At least half of the show. It was a Saturday double-bill of two pictures that played out a couple of years earlier and were coming back for a bargain matinee.
Duncan selected a seat in the middle of the orchestra, in row F.
Duncan’s purpose for being in The Calderone Theater was to see Diablo Ridge with Randolph Scott. Cinemascope. Color by DeLuxe. A western about a bunch of outlaws taking over a stage coach stop in Arizona, there to wait for a government shipment of gold headed for San Francisco.
While many of his friends preferred John Wayne, Duncan was an unapologetic Randolph Scott fan. Wayne, to Duncan, always seemed to be putting on a show, pretending. But Scott looked like he took things personally. You believed the way he shot. You believed the way he rode. You believe he came by all those wrinkles and creases honestly. In the sun. On the range. You could depend on Randolph Scott. He wouldn’t let you down. He’d get you through.
And on more than one occasion, Duncan Hess, Jr. needed someone to get him through what he thought of as the rough parts of life. Points of indecision and questioning, of not knowing why people said one thing one minute and something all the other way around the next. All sorts of people. Even your Dad.
Duncan Hess, Jr. had come to The Calderone for clarity and respite. He knew he could depend on Randolph Scott. What Duncan could not know was that there was a barrier he would have to negotiate to reach the prairie and his hero.
Duncan had to get through the first feature on the double-bill. It was a musical. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. With Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell.
Duncan was a western fan. He liked the understandability of westerns, especially since the increased use of color and the introduction of CinemaScope (The Screen Miracle You Don’t Need Glasses to See!). Horizon after horizon filled with good men and bad men and weak men who, under the proper circumstance, could redeem themselves, even if that redemption came at the cost of their lives.
The plots were as simple as Bible stories, but with the added advantage of having horses and gunplay.
At that moment in time, Duncan Hess, Jr. had never seen Marilyn Monroe or Jane Russell in a movie.
The lights went down, the red velvet curtains parted, and the movie began with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in identical dresses singing and dancing. Not so much dancing as parading. Then there were credits, then it went back to them singing and marching and then they showed you weren’t watching them in a movie but in a night club. If a movie doesn’t know where it is and when it’s starting, that’s not a good sign.
The story of the movie slipped away from Duncan Hess, Jr. What held his attention were the colors and shapes of the two women. How they moved through the air as if it was something thicker than air. Something that trailed a near transparent wake behind them.
Something about their motion disturbed Duncan for reasons he couldn’t identify. He thought about going out to the lobby to sit this picture out. But he had paid his thirty-five cents and his Dad had impressed on him how important it was not to throw money away. So, Duncan slouched down in his seat and focused on getting his seventeen and a half cents out of this part of the double bill.
It was bright and loud and didn’t make much sense to him.
Perhaps it was the lack of story, or, more properly, a story a young boy would find interesting, that left Duncan’s mind free to wander, to focus on the two female leads as people instead of characters. As shapes. Moving shapes.
This Duncan did while working on his Butterfinger bar. But soon, the candy bar in his hand was forgotten.
They were very interestingly shaped women, these two. Sometimes you’d see pictures of women like that in Life Magazine. But they were still things in those pictures. Posed like statues. Always smiling. Usually coming down stairways from recently arrived airplanes.
But here they moved. And the dynamics of their movements was something Duncan could not at first understand. Then, maybe twenty minutes into the picture, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell were on an ocean liner, walking into a fancy dining room. All the men were looking at them. Duncan saw in Jane Russell’s eyes something he didn’t at first recognize. Then he realized what it was. What he saw there was awareness.
The dresses the two women wore, elaborate, bejeweled like ceremonial armor, were molded to their breasts and hips and rears. The breasts were lifted, directed by the garments. Aimed. As if they were weapons. And Jane Russell knew you were looking at them. She knew you were looking because her clothing was designed to hug and accent, present and define. She knew why you were looking at her. She expected you to look at her. She was satisfied if you looked at her. It was a way for her to achieve some sort of advantage.
They were like exotic birds displaying their plumage. Like peacocks. But Mr. Lancaster said it was the male bird that attracts the female and has all the plumage. Somehow people got it backwards. How had that happen? And why?
The shapes and movements of the women took up residence in Duncan’s mind. As if there’d always been space for them in his head, waiting for them to arrive and move in.
Nothing like this had ever happened to Duncan before. The closest thing to it was the moment he finally mastered long division. The numbers were always there, but it was such a labor to sort them out and put them in sensible columns. The whole concept of remainders had thrown him for a loop. Then, one afternoon, sitting at the kitchen table, it opened for him like Ali Baba’s cave. Nothing had changed, but everything was different.
Now, there was Marilyn Monroe wearing a brown plaid dress that looked like something that had been applied to her body with adhesives as opposed to something she stepped into and zipped up the back.
Duncan Hess, Jr. couldn’t grasp the meaning, but he knew there was meaning there.
The movie rolled on. There were apparently mirthful hijinks and shenanigans, or so Duncan assumed from the isolated pockets of occasional laughter around him in the cool auditorium. Including one particularly happy male patron who represented the otherwise unoccupied balcony behind and above Duncan.
More music, different dresses, all of that particularly adhesive nature, misinterpreted motives, impersonations, declarations, mistaken identity, then more loud music, a choir, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in white gowns and then “The End” superimposed over everything.
The curtains closed across the screen. Duncan was close enough to hear the machinery and the rattling of metal rings. It sounded like a cell door closing. The house lights came on.
Duncan was seized by an irrational urge to flee the theater, abandoning the second half of his thirty-five cents.
Why? He couldn’t say.
The movie felt like one of those bad dreams. Not a nightmare with monsters, but one of those dreams where nothing seems wrong, but you know something is broken, something is about to spin out of control.
Duncan held onto the plush arm rests and tapped down the feeling as best he could. Then he thought of Randolph Scott waiting in the wings and how he was only an intermission away from getting the kind of common sense that would put everything back in its proper place.
Duncan Hess, Jr. went into the lobby and bought a Crunch bar to settle his nerves. He’d dropped the unfinished Butterfinger at some point in the first feature, lost in the curves that moved with voluptuous precision on the screen looming over him.
“Chip” Hess sat down on a bench near the broad staircase, carpeted in dark red with regiments of gold fleur-de-lis, that curved up to the balcony.
The lobby seemed to have grown larger during the first feature. The ceiling appeared higher, retreating into a darkness in which a multi-tiered chandelier ringed with honey-colored lightbulbs shaped like frozen candle flames, seemed to float, unsupported, at the edge of the void.
All the walls had been pushed back, Distances had expanded in a most disorienting fashion. Duncan began to wonder if it wasn’t the theater that had enlarged. Did it stay the same size while he diminished, grew dangerously smaller?
But the soles of his Keds still reached the floor. The candy bar in his hand was the correct dimensions for a candy bar.
Maybe he was coming down with something.
Maybe the humid summer heat mixed with the refrigerated air in the movie theater had given him a chill. Like the chill when he focused on Jane Russell.
Duncan sat there, in the dim yellow light of the popcorn machine as the high school girl who worked the counter scooped popped kernels into paper bags, and thought about the two women in the movie.
The girls Duncan knew were all pretty much like the pair he saw now at the candy counter buying Shoe-strings and Chuckles. Girls in that place between childhood and someplace else. Cotton summer dresses, bare legs, one girl wearing sneakers, the other in loafers, both wearing white socks. Under the dresses Duncan could detect no clue or promise of the potential for anything remotely resembling the astonishing topography of the woman in the movie.
But women were once girls. So, somewhere in those two girls, one with her straw colored hair pulled back in a ponytail, the other with dark bangs and red plastic barrettes, there must be the seed of those curves, that motion.
The girls skipped away from the counter, moving toward the massive, leather-padded doors guarding the auditorium. Duncan squinted after them, trying to imagine their narrow hips taking on the gravity and rhythm he had recently seen moving across a soundstage Parisian street.
As much as he tried, Duncan could not make the evolutionary connection in his brain. The women in the movie seemed less like the mature versions of the girls he knew from school and more like an entirely different species.
A fanfare from the open doors to the auditorium announced the arrival of the Previews of Coming Attractions.
Duncan rose from the bench, entered the theater and, by the light of Abbott and Costello encountering a mummy, found his way back to his seat in the sixth row.
Two more previews folded into each other. One about juvenile delinquents, the other about a nun in the African jungle. Then the curtains closed and immediately opened again, this time wider than for the first feature. They rolled back as far as they could go and the screen was filled with the words…
C I N E M A S C O P E
…from one side of the the theater to the other.
The words faded, revealing a broad river with stretches of shallow stoney bank. A lone rider came around a bend in the river and approached us, his horse kicking up spray that was backlit by the afternoon sun, spreading droplets turned to diamonds.
Duncan Hess, Jr. felt himself relaxing. He felt the tightness he’d been unaware of loosen its grip on his chest.
Randolph Scott rode into his close-up and pulled at the reins of his horse. He looked out, beyond the camera, eyes not much more that slits in a face that was entitled to every hard won wrinkle, line, and crease.
Then the name: RANDOLPH SCOTT, superimposed across his chest, as if anyone in the audience could have mistaken him for someone else.
The name faded, and Randolph Scott rode out of the shot. Next there was a view of a wide mesa under a sky of fired blue enamel. The horseman rode on, his horse kicking up a cockscomb of mustard colored dust. There was music under the credits. Better music than in the first movie. This music was soaring, respectful, heroic. Like some kind of anthem. Not music about love or jewelry, but music about greatness and honesty and not being afraid to be afraid and doing the right thing even though you’re scared.
Randolph Scott continued to ride across the landscape. No, he didn’t ride through it, he was part of it. It’s where he belonged, where things made sense.
We rode on after the credits as the music softened. Up ahead, nestled in the shade of a valley, there was a ranch house and barn surrounded by a wooden fence. Randolph Scott paused at the open gate and looked at the buildings. This close it was clear they were in disrepair. They needed paint and patching, the yard had gone to weed. The spread was abandoned. Randolph Scott focused on the well in front of the house, a bucket creaked on its rope, nudged by the breeze.
Randolph Scott rode through the gate and up to the well. He got off his horse, went to the well and dropped the bucket into the darkness. A moment and the bucket landed in water. The sound made Randolph Scott smile. He cranked up the bucket and drank from it. Then he turned and offered the bucket to his horse. The horse drank. Randolph Scott’s smile increased.
Then there was the sound of someone cocking a Winchester pump action rifle. Randolph Scott’s smile faded.
Slowly, Randolph Scott turned and looked toward the barn. Standing against the blackness beyond the open door was a woman, pointing the rifle at him.
She wore a blue gingham dress, all bustled and gathered, like the thick fabric of the curtains that guarded the screen of the theater. But at her waist, the garment contracted around her. It held to her shape with the same adhesive delineation of the costumes from the other movie. Fabric-covered buttons somehow managed to contain the bodice across a bosom as dramatic as that presented by Marilyn and Jane.
Something had happened in the projection booth. The two movies had gotten mixed up somehow. But the woman with the upraised rifle was in the same wide Cinemascope frame that held Randolph Scott, so it must have been the same picture. Nothing had changed, but everything was different.
Duncan Hess, Jr. focused on Randolph Scott who seemed unperturbed by the shape of the woman in front of him. He spoke calmingly to her, asking her to lower the rifle. She ordered him off her land, but he stood his ground.
A flicker of panic ran through Duncan Hess, Jr. If the women in movies were some sort of construction, a creation, then what about the men?
There was Randolph Scott. Stalwart, flinty-eyed, the dust of the trail on this shoulders. Spread artfully across his shoulders. As if it had been carefully placed there by someone.
Duncan was suddenly aware of the edges of the frame and wondered what was being hidden just beyond his sight. The person who cinched the pioneer woman into her breathtaking gingham. Was that the same person who made sure Randolph Scott’s Colt 45 rested perfectly against his hip with just the right number of empty loops in his cartridge belt, eloquent of gunfights fought and won?
The cool rush from the theater’s air conditioning now felt to Duncan as if it was coming from the screen itself, stopping off to move perfectly choreographed tumbleweeds between Randolph Scott and the pioneer woman before touching Duncan’s hair in row F.
Sitting there in the dark, Duncan realized he’d never thought about what movies actually were. They were a thing you went to and watched and then left. Sort of like church, only much more fun and didn’t require a clip-on bow tie.
A flash of motion and Duncan Hess, Jr. focused on the screen again. Randolph Scott grabbed the barrel of the rifle and twisted the gun out of the pioneer woman’s hands. She balled her hands into fists and charged Randolph Scott who caught her by the wrists and stopped her.
And Duncan knew it would be all right. Randolph Scott would help her. He’d repair the barn and paint the ranch house and make it a working spread once again. He’d do the things we think we’d do if we were there because that’s what we saw him do once. He wasn’t confused by changing shapes and colors.
Because this wasn’t a musical. It was real. It was a western.
Duncan Hess, Jr. relaxed.
In the lobby, the girl who worked the candy counter looked at her reflection in the mirrored tiles behind the burbling soda machine, and freshened-up her lipstick.
Joseph Dougherty is a writer living in California.