On The Hill That Is Throckmorton…
In March of 1958 I was in fifth grade at Homestead School and had my eleventh birthday. I was still hopelessly in love with Lily Burris who didn’t seem to even know I existed. Mrs Guichard who taught us was probably the prettiest teacher I’d ever had. Unlike the other women teachers at Homestead she didn’t practice corporal punishment so there were no ritual spankings in her class. I wasn’t any better as a student but at least I didn’t dread going to school.
This was the year that Elvis Presley went into the US Army and I read all about his induction down in Memphis, Tennessee in the Chronicle. I would skim the news and read it when it interested me. Then I would turn to the funnies and end up gazing at the pages with the movie ads. On the day Elvis went into the army the big opening at the United Artists was Run Silent, Run Deep which wouldn’t get to the Sequoia for some time.
Although I did occasionally go into the city to see monster movies that I felt sure would never play at our local picture house, most of my movie going was done at the Sequoia. The Sequoia Theatre sat at a level angle on the side of the hill which goes up Throckmorton to Blithedale. There was an alley way on either side of the building and two small shops which nestled within it. When I was a kid in the 1950s the one on the upper side nearest Bennett’s Variety Store was Village Music, our local record shop, which was one of my regular hangouts.
I did an awful lot of hanging out as a child. I’d spend time at the Bus Depot as well as the library up on Lovell. The Sequoia was not a place you could hang out but I went there on Friday nights, Saturday afternoons for the matinee and again on Sundays when the movie changed. At the beginning of March I saw Old Yeller, a Walt Disney film. Disney was always good at bringing your emotions to the forefront and Old Yeller was no exception to that rule. This film reminded me of Elvis Presley’s record Old Shep. The emotional manipulation happened mostly in the editing suite where the shots of bears, raccoons, hogs, cows and canines were all stitched together to help tell the story and evoke a sentimental response from the audience.
The Sequoia was a wonderful cinema and I loved going there. If I hung around any part of it while downtown it would be in the tiled alcove behind the box-office where I would study the posters of the coming attractions. Many of the films we watched were rubbish but the ritual of going to the pictures was wonderful. I loved the red carpet as you entered, the candy counter on the right side of the lobby, the steps up into the auditorium, the previews, the cartoons…the works.
I wouldn’t begin to know how many westerns I saw there and I recall being particularly fascinated by quicksand in cowboy movies. Of course I never encountered quicksand in real life and its representation in westerns was often different. In some films it was a boggy swamp and in others it was actual sand that looked like you could walk on it until it started sucking some poor person under its surface.
The main excitement of a western was seeing the good guys shoot the bad guys for, in the 1950s, bad guys rarely won. The films which came out of Hollywood in that era all had to adhere to strong censorship. Swearing was limited to Damn and Hell and only in pictures intended for adults. Nothing stronger was ever uttered on screen. That’s not to say that westerns were tame or timid. The bad guys who rode into town to challenge Kirk Douglas’s Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral were downright ornery and we felt no pity for Lee Van Cleef when Douglas hurled a knife through his heart. Kirk’s character got dragged into an alliance with Burt Lancaster’s virtuous Wyatt Earp and the good guys won again. I actually felt like I knew these movie stars personally as I saw them in so many different films. I also felt like I knew Elvis Presley as I had such an intimate relationship with his records. There was an Elvis record called One Sided Love Affair and its lyrics describe perfectly the relationship I had with actors on the big screen and performers on record. Idolatry was nothing new and human beings had been worshipping the famous forever so my illusion of friendship with the likes of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly was part of a well established pattern of mass marketing.
At the time of his induction, Elvis held the number one spot in the hit parade with Don’t/I Beg Of You. I hadn’t yet lost my fascination for Presley but I certainly didn’t buy this single. In fact this was the year that I stopped buying and collecting singles. There were reasons why I stopped though I wasn’t conscious of them at the time. My ex-best friend Glen Pritzker had skipped a grade and was no longer in my class. Glen and I had always gone to Village Music once a week to pick up a copy of Radio KOBY’s Top 40 sheet from the stack on the counter at the record shop. Sara Wilcox who ran the shop always welcomed the two of us like valued customers. There was a sound proof booth where we’d go to listen to the many records Sara played for us. I don’t remember her ever being too busy to play whatever we wanted to hear.
Glen and I both followed the charts as a hobby and noted the weekly fluctuations up or down of records we liked. The cost of a single was about 75¢ which was a lot of money. The reality was that I could only buy a single when my mother gave me enough for one which wasn’t often. Sara’s indulgence of Glen and I was key to my passion for collecting singles. Most of the stores in Mill Valley at that time regarded unaccompanied children with suspicion and contempt. Both the five and dime stores which I regularly frequented, Ben Franklin and Bennett’s, were staffed by adults who clearly didn’t like children which is odd considering that most of their stock was candy, bubble gum, toys, trading cards and games. They were always so hostile to kids. They’d keep a beady eye on you while you browsed in case you stole anything. At the Bus Depot both Margo and Brun would regularly tell boys reading the comic books to put them down. So it was a blessing that Sara wasn’t like that at all.
Though Glen and I were there once a week, it was maybe once every five or six weeks that we’d actually buy a single. Many of the records I had to wait for or just hear on the radio. Once I had a single I would play it at home over and over and sing along with it. Playing a 45 took me into a special world each time I’d drop the needle down onto the groove of the spinning disk. But all that activity had occurred when Glen was around and he was no longer here. I remember buying Tequila by The Champs. I loved this record and played it over and over but the rest of the hit records I simply heard on Radio KOBY. Sweet Little Sixteen by Chuck Berry, Get A Job by the Silhouettes, Sugartime by the McGuire Sisters and At The Hop by Danny & The Juniors. These and countless other tunes I heard enough times on the radio to remember them to this day.
Rock and roll was not the only music I liked. I enjoyed all the musicals my parents played like Oklahoma, Porgy and Bess and Finian’s Rainbow. I also loved Beth’s classical recordings like Scheherezade, Beethoven’s 5th and Schubert’s The Trout. The attitude of most adults towards rock and roll was pretty snooty and I remember never playing my Elvis records when Blackie or Beth was around.
I was by now a committed reader and collector of MAD Magazine and those guys were constantly making fun of Elvis so I kind of took those attitudes in my stride and accepted them as the norm. I first discovered MAD when I was eight and it was still a comic book. It’s transition to a black and white magazine mystified me at first and I went a whole year without buying it but then in 1957 I started again and became addicted to its humour and art work. Though I would never sit down and read a book I would devour each new MAD from cover to cover. My favourite artist was Wally Wood and I became a lifetime fan of his work. He illustrated a take-off of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not which Ernie Kovacs wrote called Strangely Believe It! and I loved it. Wood’s animals were adorable, his women were gorgeous and the details of his military hardware was breathtaking. His style in the monochrome magazine had evolved in a more photographic way. Humorist Henry Morgan wrote a piece called 12 Bottles which Wood illustrated brilliantly. “I had twelve bottles of whiskey in my cellar,” wrote Morgan. “And my wife told me to empty the contents of each and every bottle down the sink – or else!” Wood’s black and white pictures of Morgan as he begins emptying the first bottle down the drain with the exception of one glass “Which I drank!” By the fourth bottle he is so inebriated that Wood shows his face as a blur of two images. His hallucinations in the background include a tiny spider who grows in size, a bottle with arms and legs and an army of tiny one eyed space people.
Wallace Wood clearly loved horror movies as much as I did and MAD ran a piece on how horror movies had changed since I Was a Teenage Werewolf had become such a sensation. It was called ECHH, Teen-Age Son of Thing with a preposterous story but Wood drew all this amazing detail in the background of each box like a child taking a tarantula spider for a walk on a leash and a vulture who kept appearing in different panels. This was part of the fun of reading MAD, to examine all the little details in the background.
The other magazine I would be collecting as soon as the second edition was published was Famous Monsters of Filmland which I absolutely loved. No other magazine gave the time of day to scary movies so to finally have one devoted to them was a rare treat. My parents had a subscription to The New Yorker which arrived in the post every week and though I never read the text I would go through each issue examining all of the many cartoons. My favourite cartoonist was Charles Addams who always told a weird or sometimes grisly story in his beautifully illustrated pictures. My sister Nell always got Screen Stories Magazine which I also enjoyed looking at though, again, never reading the text and one of the films featured turned up soon enough at the Sequoia which was Peyton Place. When I saw it at the Sequoia it connected with my childhood memories of New England with its distinctive seasons. The sight of stone pathways surrounded by grass made a particularly strong impression on me when I was about four in Connecticut. Of course the main subject of Peyton Place was sex, a subject I was slowly coming to terms with.
I loved my parents very much but when it came to sex education they short changed me. I remember talking to my mother while she was in the bathtub one day and she told me things about her naked body. “This is where the seed goes in,” she said pointing to her vaginal area, “And here is where the baby grows,” indicating her tummy. She also told me about how her breasts grew and filled with milk when she was pregnant. Now all of what she told me was true and I’m sure she felt she was explaining the facts of life to me but the bit she left out was the sexual act. That was something I didn’t get briefed on until I was in the third grade and walking home from school with my neighbour Peter Cowger. He told me in great detail about copulation between men and women and seemed kind of surprised that I didn’t know about it. I was silently shocked. “Beth and Blackie did that?” I was horrified. Perhaps if I had gone to Beth there and then she might have soothed me through this trauma but like so many other inner events in my life I said nothing.
I guess as time passed and I grew older I got more comfortable with the concept of sexual intercourse but that initial explanation was a terrible thunderbolt. So at least I was able to understand the soap opera that Peyton Place was. And what a soap opera. It starred Lana Turner and a host of other famous actors and she actually got nominated for an Oscar for her role but the week after I saw the film at the Sequoia my attention was grabbed by a front page headline in the Chronicle: Lana’s Daughter Kills Gangster. Girl Tells Cops Hood Threatened Actress. Cheryl Crane, Lana’s daughter was booked for the murder of Johnny Stompanato, a well known hoodlum who, it transpired, was Lana Turner’s sometimes violent boyfriend. The Chronicle was full of gruesome details for days after this and the memory of Peyton Place faded.
Another film involving sex came next to the Sequoia The Long, Hot Summer starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. This was a southern drama involving a ‘Big Daddy’ type character played in larger than life style by Orson Welles. My next viewing was Billy Wilder’s Witness For The Prosecution with Charles Laughton as an English barrister defending Tyrone Power on a murder charge. Seeing movies like this was engaging and in a peculiar way kind of educational. The ways of life portrayed were nothing like the town I was growing up in. All the drama was robust with people confronting each other in ways I was not at all used to. But then that’s what the Sequoia was there for, to take me to far off places and worlds I had never seen. I guess I just wasn’t content with Mount Tamalpais, Old Mill Park and life in general in such a beautiful place as Mill Valley.
For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history Natalie Snoyman can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org