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This article appeared in the October 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.

For those of you still hung up on Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Chinatown or Raging Bull as your all-time favorite flick, The Terror of Tiny Town is the only epic western you will ever see in which thirsty cowpokes burst into a saloon by walking under the swinging doors.

This gentle narrative on life, movie nostalgia, the price of popcorn and human kidney capacity had its origins about 2:20 p.m. on a hot and lifeless day. My wife and I decided to put up shovels, rakes, water bottles and insect repellent and escape to the movies.

Somewhat out of cinematic touch, we read through the newspaper critics’ list of available flicks — a task as virtually meaningless to us as a Lady GaGa fashion statement — and decided on Despicable Me. We had our reasons: The movie began as 4:25 p.m., was over by 6:30 p.m. and the movie promo explained,  “In a happy suburban neighborhood surrounded by white picket fences with flowering rose bushes sits a black house with a dead lawn.”

What’s not for a gardener to like and/or sympathize with about that?

So, OK, we actually do attend a fair amount of movies; my wife will stay up until at least 11 p.m. watching the Oscars; and the most memorable interview of my life was being seated across an oak hotel table from John Wayne. Wayne had gotten a roaring, 90-miles-an-hour police escort from the Louisville airport to the Galt House just because he was The Duke. Before leaving the airport he had walked over to Courier-Journal photographer Bill Luster — a short man with a big resume — kneeled down beside him, put a hand on Luster’s shoulder and asked, “How’s this little fella?” Once at the hotel, Wayne climbed out of his limousine, shook hands with all the cops, waved to his fans and strolled into the Galt House like he owned the place.

My other enduring memories of that day were that Wayne was a little shorter than I had expected and I’d heard him being imitated by comedians so much over the years that he didn’t sound like John Wayne.

I knew of what I heard. My early movie adventures had began in our small hometown theater — a Last Picture Show in waiting — with its John Wayne westerns and Saturday afternoon cartoons. It was there I saw The Wizard of Oz transcend from black and white to color as Dorothy stepped through that door, a moment as enduring and profound in its own childhood way as first learning the truth about Santa Claus.

My favorite old Louisville theaters include the Showcase Cinemas on what was once suburban Bardstown Road, a theater with huge screens and an always-crowded parking lot the size of Montana. The Showcase was the site of thousands of first dates and creator of lasting memories and marriages — all of it beginning in 1965 and continuing for 40 years.

It was the late, great Vogue Theatre where I first — and last — saw that mesmerizing all-midget western The Terror of Tiny Town. For those of you still hung up on Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Chinatown or Raging Bull as your all-time favorite flick, The Terror of Tiny Town is the only epic western you will ever see in which thirsty cowpokes burst into a saloon by walking under the swinging doors.

It was this 1938 release that quite possibly led to that immortal rallying cry: “Shoot low men — they’re riding Shetlands.”

Happily, movie-watching verite has come full circle of late, with offerings of Alfred Hitchcock works of art in the grandly ornate Palace Theatre, even as some of the scenes and dialogue are so dated they’ve become laugh lines where drama was intended.

There is nothing in the modern movie houses to evoke or create such memories or ambience. The lobbies are sterile food courts, the theaters are stair-step boxes and the sound volume on the movie previews is Def Leppard on steroids.

Then there is the price of popcorn. The odor filled the lobby as we walked in to see Despicable Me. Our matinee tickets cost $14. Our grocery-bag-size popcorn, a large drink and a medium drink cost $16.25 — with free refills.
“It is ridiculous,” said the popcorn-counter kid, who may not be destined for a career in capitalism.

Yes, it is ridiculous — but we are there and we pay it. Probing more deeply into this than perhaps might be necessary, I read a Stanford University economist’s theory that overpriced popcorn is an overall good thing because it lowers the movie ticket cost.

Yet another Left Coast liberal.

Seeking some recovery of financial pride — and unwilling to swill endlessly from a paper cup with the movie bathroom a half-mile away — I took my free refills going out the theater door on the way home. They were still sitting on our kitchen table in the morning. There’s a sad movie in there somewhere.

Photo: Louisville Magazine

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Didn't I tell you? I run this place! Not much goes on here without me knowing...I'm always watching.

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