nickle.gif (5652 bytes)

When the last show was over, on the nights the bill changed,
we took down the old lobby and outside displays,
and thumbtacked up the one-sheets
and three-sheets (lithographed billboard posters)
and movie stills for the next attractions.
Then we’d go over to Sam’s and eat,
like showbusiness people do, before we went home.

 

 

 

 

n.gif (909 bytes)ew York newspaperman Ed Wallace—an avid chili lover—claimed that during the Depression, "the five cent bowl of chili saved more lives than the Red Cross". He might have added, that free saltine crackers and tomato ketchup also played their nutritious parts. Not those anemic cellophane-wrapped packets of crackers universally used in food establishments these days, but the generous bowlsful that used to sit along the counters and on the tables of diners, chili parlors and hamburger joints all over the country.

A hungry man could get into these and pull out a stomach filling helping with one hand.

During those hard times, many a bowl of chili was stretched into a day’s rations with such generous additions of free crackers and ketchup. It was kind of a contest of survival between a customer and proprietor, but in the code of those days, it was kept to a sporting proposition, with victory going to the fleetest.

I remember with affection the little Greek who ran a place called "Same Old Sam’s (Since 1925)" on Washington Avenue in Houston in the thirties. It was cattycorner across the street from where the Bridges family ran a movie theater in the building of a gone-broke bank.

Sam would get set when he saw a hand as big and hairy as a grizzly paw dig into the cracker bowl, and convey about a dozen saltines to the area above a nickel bowl of chili (hamburgers were also a nickel), where they were methodically crushed and allowed to dribble down into the chili. If the hand started back towards the crackers, Sam moved with desperate speed, shifting the cracker bowl down the counter and out of reach, achieving a Mexican stand-off at least for that occasion. Out of necessity, Sam was very quick on his feet. Given the time and circumstances, it may have been the chief reason he managed to stay in business.

Our movie house across the street from Sam’s was called the Midway, because it was about halfway between the section called the Houston Heights and downtown, the streetcar line turned off the esplanade in the middle of Heights Boulevard and onto Washington. The Waugh Drive bus—a motorized Tinkerville Trolley—which ran between Washington and Westheimer, ended its northern run at the corner by Sam’s, where the driver might have a cup of coffee and a cream horn before starting back to Westheimer.

Although apt, Midway was rather a long name for my father to choose. In those lean days, he weighed a possible name for one of his theatres against the cost of putting it into neon, and the fewer the letters and the easier they were to form, the cheaper the sign. His triumph in this line was a theatre he called the Zoe, downtown on Texas Avenue, behind the Chronicle Building. A lot of movie houses were named Bijou, for the same reason, and I’ve wondered if the man who named a place in the California desert Zyzzx wasn’t once a Depression era movie house owner.

Before the Crash, like a lot of people in those days, my father was on his way to becoming rich, with a growing chain of theatres (some with both movies and vaudeville) in downtown Houston, and more planned. We lived then in a house out on Navigation Boulevard, at the corner of Wayside Drive, that he bought because he sized the property up as a prime location for a movie house when the time was right.

Before they were taken from him, he owned the Crown on Main Street and the Royal on Texas Avenue. The house went, too, of course.

After the hard times hit, there was a succession of movie houses like the Midway, in buildings whose only virtue for showing movies was their low rent. They were equipped with seats and projectors gotten on credit from suppliers with warehouses full of these, repossessed from defunct theatres, like my dad’s.

The ex-bank which housed the Midway had marble columns and walls which made visibility bad and the acoustics terrible. (I understand a disco inhabits the place these days; for them the acoustics may be an asset.)

We all worked at the Midway: my Dad ran the projectors upstairs, my mom cashiered the tickets and kept the books, and I ran the candy counter and popcorn machine. In the good old days, my dad had let me run the Crown’s popcorn machine for fun.

At the time we opened the Midway, I was about eight; I could just see over the glass candy case, and I had to stand on a stool to load up the popper on the popcorn machine, first with oil, then with about a cup of popcorn topped with salt from a carton of Morton’s. I remember that at the wholesale house on Commerce Street, a 24 count box of nickel candy bars cost seventy-two cents The five-cent Powerhouse bar, which came out about that time, was bragged on by the maker as weighing a full quarter-pound. A burlap sack of popcorn went for about a dollar and popped enough to fill a room, a real profit maker, at a nickel a bog. Nickels, you may have guessed, were the universal coins of exchange in those days.

During intermissions between movies at the Midway (double features, naturally) I butchered candy and popcorn up and down the aisles, while my dad projected lantern slide ads on the screen, which he hustled from the neighborhood merchants. (Don’t think TV commercial "snack breaks" are anything new.)

On school days, my mother would run both the ticket booth and the candy counter until I got there on the Waugh Drive bus from Woodrow Wilson grammar school, located in an area south of West Gray, where we rented a duplex apartment. The streets were named for doughboys killed in World War I, names like McDuffie and Dunlavy.

I would get a coke and a hamburger from Sam’s and a Mr. Goodbar from the candy case, and eat my supper in the theatre office. After this I was supposed to do my homework, while business was slack in the late afternoon. What I usually did was read a Street & Smith pulp magazine, like War Aces, Doc Savage or Wild West Weekly, which I bought at the drugstore next door with pennies scrounged from my school lunch money, and snuck into the office stuffed inside my shirt.

When the last show was over, on the nights the bill changed, we took down the old lobby and outside displays, and thumbtacked up the one-sheets and three-sheets (lithographed billboard posters) and movie stills for the next attractions. Then we’d go over to Sam’s and eat, like showbusiness people do, before we went home.

I still remember the look of horror on my grammar school teacher’s face when, in the course of giving us the low-down on good food and health habits, she asked me what time my folks put me to bed. With all the aplomb of a showbiz veteran, I answered, "Oh, around midnight." Catching her look, I though I’d better reassure her that I wasn’t deprived, so I quickly added, "After we eat a bowl of chili."

Now for my folks and a lot of others, those times were certainly no picnic, but what with all the Sam’s chili and popcorn and Mr. Goodbars I got to eat, I didn’t feel deprived at all.

And because my dad owned a movie house, I was the most popular kid at Woodrow Wilson, and later on, at Sidney Lanier Junior High.

After that, at Mirabeau B. Lamar High, my popularity waned somewhat, when the boys discovered that girls represented the possibility of something infinitely more exciting than Hopalong Cassidy or the Three Musketeers.

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