Somehow we’d fallen into calling her “Luce the Moose.” No one even remembers why. After that, I used to buy her some kind of moose – a stuffed doll, a carving, anything – every Christmas. Her given name was Lucy Sylvia Mesce. Lucia, actually, but other than her immigrant parents, I don’t think anybody ever called her that.
She was my mother.
We are, each of us, at any given instant, the sum total of our lives. Everything that we have seen and heard, the people that we have known and the experiences we have had shape us, influence us, nudge and shove us this way and that. And all of it – even that which we have forgotten or thought we had completely ignored or considered so minor as to be irrelevant – leaves some trace, even if microscopic. We are, in the end, like glaciers, moving on our way and constantly picking up something from every inch of the path over which we travel.
I’m hardly venturing into new psychological terrain when I say that for most of us there is no influence more powerful than that of our parents. For good or for ill, they form the basis on which everything else that becomes “us” is built. And for me – since my father died in 1970 when I was 15 – much of that influence came from my mom. The Moose.
I’m sharing this with you because she’s much of the reason I’ve been writing here at Sound on Sight for the last 20 months. And since this work has, personally, come to mean so much to me, I thought I owed her the tribute. I hope you won’t mind too much. And if you do – as The Moose used to say with a certain Newark-bred bluntness – you can go scratch.
I was lucky, growing up in the tail end of that period when families still, at least on occasion, went to the movies together. That’s how it had been in the old studio days. Theaters offered a package of entertainment changing every week with enough of a spread to cover every member of the clan: two films (maybe a weeper for mom, a shoot-‘em-up for dad), a cartoon and a serial episode for the kids, a newsreel. Even though the movies had changed, and the cartoons and serials and newsreels had gone the way of the dinosaurs, my parents still had that everybody-in-the-car-we’re-going-to-the-movies habit.
We didn’t manage it often. My dad, a bricklayer, often worked a second job at night, sometimes squeezed in some freelance work on weekends. Even when he was around, he was often exhausted. That made the few times we all went out together all that more memorable, and I remember them still, even to specific titles. Like when we went to see the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn light-hearted thriller Charade (1963). To this day, I still don’t know how my three-year-old brother was the only one of the four of us to figure out who the killer was…and pull that rabbit out of his beanie in the first half-hour.
In those days, movies weren’t released on the waves of hype that carry them into the multiplex today, and they weren’t released nationally. A movie started off in the major cities, than wandered around the country’s movie houses for months. You often didn’t even know what was playing in the neighborhood. Somebody felt in the mood for a night out, you picked up the newspaper for the movie listings. “Oh, hey, there’s this picture with Cary Grant in it. You like him, right?” And maybe that’s all it took.
You walked through the movie house doors a blank, promised and hoping for a surprise.
Looking back, I have to give my mom and dad credit. For people of their generation, they were commendably open. Movies were getting more brazen, tougher, and they were still willing to go along for the ride. In The Scalphunters (1968), I heard the n-word in a movie for the first time and tried to show my great maturity in front of them by not being shocked. I saw my first glimpse of a woman’s breast in The Professionals (1966), and of a bare posterior in The President’s Analyst (1967), and tried to save us all some embarrassment by acting like I hadn’t noticed so my parents wouldn’t notice that I had noticed and feel obligated to “discuss” it with me. I suspect they were pretending not to notice I’d noticed for the same reason.
Even though he was often either working or sacked out, my dad did manage to carve out a little daddy/son time. We went to see the Japanese monster pic Mothra (1961) together. I got the creeps when the ooky zombie-like natives from Mothra’s home island started coming out of the bushes to jump a scientific expedition. I still remember my father trying not to let me see him smile over how I was getting spooked by such ripe cheese. “Are you ready to go back in?”
I’d peek through the doors. “Not yet.”
But the best time with Dad was when he took me and my brother to see 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). We were all home with the Asian flu and running fevers, so of course it made perfect sense to take us to a matinee on a slushy, winter afternoon. It was playing at the Clairidge.
The Clairidge was one of those huge caverns of a place built during the days when theaters looked like a mix between a palace and a cathedral. I remember getting giddy from looking up into the grand, graceful dome which capped the place. Not too many years before 2001 had come out, the Clairidge had installed a massive, curved Cinerama screen, the only one in New Jersey, I think. The dwarfing auditorium, stereo sound, that enormous screen, and Kubrick – 2001 washed over us and took us like a fever dream.
2001 is a hard enough movie to get your adult head around, but try being a naïve 13 and delirious with the flu. God only knows what my seven-year-old brother made of it. I don’t know; at seven, maybe it makes sense…particularly with a fever. Then it was over, the lights came up and we sat there for a few seconds, a little overwhelmed I guess. We started filing out with the crowd.
“What was it about, Dad?”
He just shook his poor, befuddled head. “I dunno. Something about God, I think.”
The other thing I remember about my father was he didn’t care for war movies. He’d been in WW II, from 1942 until the end, serving in North Africa and Europe. We know he was in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge, but we don’t know what he saw. But he saw something; my mom told me he was still having nightmares when they married…in 1953.
The only clue of what he carried inside was when I came home after an uncle had taken me to see The Battle of the Bulge (1965), an epic-sized, comic book version of the biggest battle on the western front during the war. My 10-year-old head was still filled with rather naïve ideas about war mostly stoked by old flag-waving war movies still running on TV and Sergeant Rock comic books. I had been bothered by scenes early in the movie when overrun American troops break and run.
“I can’t believe they ran away,” I said to my father, telling him about the movie.
“Billy,” he said matter-of-factly, “we all ran.”
There was one war movie I remember him watching whenever it ran: Robert Aldrich’s bitter Attack! (1956). The thing about Aldrich’s movie is it’s less about fighting the enemy then about the wars men on the same side fight among themselves: courage and cowardice, moral integrity and moral corruption. As I’ve gotten older, I think of my dad, I think of what there might have been about that movie that brought him back time and again, and I wish he’d been around long enough for me to ask, “What happened?” Because he never told us.
But I came here to talk about The Moose. I spent more time with her, even when Dad was alive.
Mom and her four sisters were like a pack. When one of them had a child, it was that it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-child thing, because you belonged to all of them. Looking back, it seems to me none of them ever went anywhere alone. They took vacations down the shore together, went to Bingo together, gathered at one or another’s house for a night of cards and coffee and cake, the kids carried along with them.
And going to the movies was a regular part of that. Sometimes, we’d load up a couple of cars and trek out to the drive-in at Totowa or the one in Troy Hills. It was as much a picnic as anything else. One of the drive-ins had a small playground under the screen where we could kill time until it got dark enough to start the movie. Some people would bring folding beach chairs and make themselves comfortable around the cars.
In theaters, I can still remember the snug feeling sitting between my mom and one of her sisters (most of whom tended toward being a bit…“cushy,” thus the snugness). I remember the heavy feeling in my chest when members of The Magnificent Seven (1960) died off, flinching as Kirk Douglas ferociously badgered poor, frail Christine Kaufmann in Town Without Pity (1961) (although I had no idea all the badgering and flinching was over rape since I didn’t know what rape was), and dimly recognizing that Anthony Quinn and Lana Turner were making a lot of bad choices in Portrait in Black (1960).
But where Moose made her big contribution toward turning her oldest boy into a serious cineaste was in the summers while we were still living in Newark. Almost every Saturday – and Sunday if she was a bit flush and I was particularly irritating – to get me out of her hair for the afternoon, she’d give me a dollar and say, “Here, go to the movies.” And then I’d hook up with four, five, six other kids whose mothers wanted them out of the house, too, and off we’d traipse to the Elwood.
The Elwood Theater was only three blocks from my house. Built in the 1930s, I remember it had a distinct angled entrance diagonal to the corner of the block. It was a big house, 800-900 seats, and the dark, high-ceilinged, carpeted lobby ran the whole width, with wide stairs leading upstairs to the balcony. Inside, the left-hand third of the auditorium was separated by a low partition of corrugated plastic: the smoking loge.
For that buck you got your ticket and then a soda, (my preferences) a box of Raisinettes or Milk Duds (Raisinettes had the edge because you could make a horn out of the box), and then something cold like a Dixie Cup or a frozen Milky Way bar. Man, a half-dozen of us trying to gnaw our way through frozen Milky Ways sounded like a pack of wolves working on soup bones. If you marshaled your funds properly, you even had enough money left over to stop off at Bernie’s Confectionary on the way home and get a comic book.
We never knew what was playing, but there was a different double bill there every weekend and we saw damned near all of them. Adult dramas like air disaster flick Fate Is the Hunter (1964), all the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movies (we all learned how to do the Eric Von Zipper snap-clap-point move), the Cliff Robertson I-don’t-wanna-be-a-gigolo-no-more soap Love Has Many Faces (1965), all of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe flicks watched through half-closed eyes thinking we could shut them faster that way if something gross happened, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) starring every funny guy in the whole mad world, resurrected low budget junk like The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959) and The Monolith Monsters (1957), The Great Escape (1963)…and on and on and on, weekend after weekend, summer after summer.
And in those days, theater managements didn’t clear the auditorium after the show, at least not at the matinees. I remember sitting through The Great Escape twice back-to-back – six hours of King of Cool Steve McQueen – and then coming back on Sunday to see it twice more.
Out of those hours in the dark at the Elwood, somewhere along the line I morphed from someone who loved going to the movies to someone who loved the movies. Years later, when The Moose fretted about whether or not I was wasting my time studying film in college, I’d throw it back at her: “Well, it’s your fault, ya know.”
“Hey! Who was the one who sent me off to the movies every weekend!”
Eventually, we moved out to the suburbs, but by then the habit was dug in deep. I was paying for it myself, now, with money I earned at a pizzeria. This time, it was the Park Theater. Nobody played double bills any more, and a buck didn’t even buy you a smile at the box office, but I went to nearly everything, anything. When the Park converted to a classics/foreign film house, I kept going. I went to the foreign flicks because I thought they’d be dirty, but the classics were movies I’d heard about for years but never seen. And they gave me and my mom something to talk about, although we were coming at movies from two different perspectives. I was getting more serious about film, and The Moose…well…
Like when I’d finally seen On the Waterfront (1954). It’s still one of the most atmospheric location shoots in movies, and that authenticity hit me even as a young teen. And there was Brando.
He was already past his peak, and his resurrection with The Godfather (1972) was still years away, so I’d never understood what all the hushed tones about Marlon Brando were about. Until I saw On the Waterfront. The scene between he and Eva Marie Saint in Hudson Park, with Brando futzing around with her fallen glove, is as real as the ash can fires in the park and the crowded Hoboken tenements. I wasn’t old enough to drive, yet, but I now knew what was so special about Brando.
“What’d you see tonight?”
“They had On the Waterfront up at the Park.”
“Oh, I love that picture.”
“Ya know, I never got what it was everybody was always saying about Marlon Brando — ”
“Man, he was gorgeous, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, he was pretty good looking. But his acting — ”
“He was beautiful in those days!”
“It didn’t seem like acting! He’s got this scene with a glove — ”
“He looked like one of those Greek statues! Gorgeous!”
And so on.
Years later, when I was studying film at the University of South Carolina, we were still talking about movies. She called me long distance one night when one of the networks was running 2001. Remembering my post-viewing conversation with my father at the Clairidge seven-eight years earlier, it was hard not to laugh when she asked, “So what’s this movie about?”
The Park Theater burned down in the 1970s. Some said it was arson. The Elwood was killed off by the 1967 Newark riots. The Clairidge is still there, but carved up into a half-dozen little boxes. Jersey – the birth place of the drive-in – saw its last outdoor screen close in 1991.
And The Moose is gone.
She lived long enough to see that while I never became any big thing, I did get just enough done to show her my passion for film had not been totally misplaced. Over her last years, the question she most asked me was, “Are you happy?” And one of the things that made me happy was the writing I’ve done here, and I told her so.
For that, I owe my colleagues here at Sound on Sight, and I also owe you out there who occasionally drop by to see what I have to say. So, from me and The Moose to all of you…thanks.