For the past year and a half, in my non-blogging life, I’ve been working as a ghostwriter, helping people compose and edit their memoirs. Listening to the stories of decades long past, learning about life in different cultures, hearing about those universal struggles that ultimately define us all … it adds up to an infinitely rewarding job, and one that I feel lucky to have (when I’m not tearing my hair out over delays and other issues, that is). My name will never appear on the cover of a book (at least, one of these books, anyway), but that doesn’t matter. Being the catalyst that allows someone else to tell their story is one of the most fulfilling feelings in the world.
I have a bit of a history in telling other people’s stories. Oral histories are something that I have enjoyed ever since I was an undergrad at Mississippi University for Women (the best college on the planet, in my totally unbiased opinion). In my senior year, I was an intern for the Southern Women’s Institute on campus (recently renamed the Center for Women’s Research and Public Policy). Part of my job at the SWI was to help with the transcription of interviews conducted with alumnae of the university from the 1920s through the 1950s (at the W, we lovingly call any alums who graduated more than fifty years ago our “Golden Girls”). These interviews were later edited by SWI director (and my personal mentor/role model) Dr. Bridget Smith Pieschel, and published in 2008 in the book Golden Days: Reminiscences of Alumnae, Mississippi State College for Women, 1926-1957. To listen to these remarkable women tell their stories (and, later, to read them in polished book form) was endlessly fascinating to me. I loved hearing about the history of my beloved college from women who had once been girls like me: Southern girls, girls who’d left home for the first time and entered a strange new world of (relative) independence, who experienced some of the same problems and joys and worries that I had faced that morning my parents dropped me off in front of my dorm freshman year. I learned about the roots of some of the W’s oldest traditions, and other things, too, like what the heck a “basque waist” is (I had no clue!). And perhaps most importantly, I learned that while life, as evidenced by these intelligent, talented, determined, beautiful women, doesn’t always go the way you plan, there is still value to be found in every experience, good and bad, and there is always, ALWAYS, something left to learn, no matter how “seasoned” you get.
In addition, my senior-year independent study project was the transcription of the 1936 diary of MSCW student Martha Smith (Dr. Pieschel’s aunt). In her diary, Martha writes about walking downtown to the local theater in Columbus to see a number of films throughout the course of the year. By this time, I was already a huge fan of classic film, and reading about her experiences in seeing these movies during their first runs was so exciting! (I am, and always will be, the hugest of huge nerds.) In the years since, I’ve been able to see many of the movies she mentions in her diary, and whenever I see one of those, I always feel a small, happy sense of connection to my fellow “W girl.”
Last year, when I began working on my first ghostwriting gig for a woman named Maria, I asked her one day, “Do you remember ever going to the movie theater when you were younger?” Maria was born and raised in Colombia, in the barrios around Bogota, and lived there until she emigrated to the United States at the age of forty. Her early life was marked by difficulty and heartbreak, and she did not have what we would deem a “traditional” childhood. I was unsure if she would remember ever going to the theater–I was unsure whether she had ever even had the chance.
But her eyes lit up, and she said, “Yes! I remember the first movie I ever saw. It was … let’s see, I think I was sixteen years old, so it must have been 1966. I remember dressing up in my cute little miniskirt to go see Acompáñame.” She sighed happily. “Enrique Guzmán. I had such a crush on him. And I loved the girl in the movie. She was so beautiful, and she could sing!”
“Do you remember her name?”
Maria thought for a moment. “Rocío Dúrcal. I wanted to sing and dance just like she did—she had such a beautiful voice! I wanted to be pretty and sing and dance and get attention, like she did.” She laughed. “I went to the theater to see that movie eleven times!”
“Have you ever seen it since then?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No, never again. I haven’t even thought about it in years.” She shrugged. “I don’t even know where to look for it.”
“Maybe I can find it,” I ventured. Not really expecting to find much of anything, I pulled up YouTube on my laptop, and to my surprise, there it was: Acompáñame, in all its scratchy, Technicolor glory.
Maria was shocked. “I can’t believe you found it! Can we watch it?”
I nodded and placed the computer on the coffee table, positioning it where we could both see it. And for the first time in forty years, Maria revisited the first movie she had ever seen.
There are no words sufficient enough to describe the emotion of that moment. Maria sat on the edge of the couch, her hands sometimes traveling to her face to cover her mouth in wonder. The smile never left her face. Her foot began tapping along with the music–she could still recall some of the words of those songs, and would sometimes hum or sing along. Occasionally, she’d lean over and quickly tell me what was going on (my Spanish is passable, but not nearly good enough to follow much of the rapid-fire dialogue), but for the most part, she was completely engrossed in the film.
When the movie was over, she looked at me with a wide grin and wet eyes and said, simply, “Thank you for letting me see my movie again.”
In recent months, it’s become a habit of mine to ask people about their first movie experiences. When I edited the memoir of a lovely Southern lady back in February, I asked her that question over dinner one evening, and she had me almost falling off the chair laughing while she related the story of the time she sneaked into a movie theater to see Jane Russell’s notorious turn in The Outlaw.
That night, I broached the subject on Twitter (“What was the first movie you remember going to see in the theater?”), and I got some interesting responses: from the younger folks, Disney was a popular first-flick choice (no surprise there), while others talked about drive-ins and cheesy horror flicks, or Steven Spielberg classics like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Sometimes the films were memorable; in some cases (to put it politely), not as much.
But one thing is certain: the experience of going to the movies is a rite of passage that transcends age or culture. It’s a memory that tends to stick with you, if you’re old enough to remember it, that is. And it’s one of those experiences that binds us all together. We may not agree on questions of politics or religion or social issues, but I think we can all attest to the power of the cinema. Even today, when there are so many options for viewing films at home, there is nothing quite like the feeling of actually going to the theater, sitting in one of those seats with your snack of choice, and letting the world unfolding on the screen envelop you and carry you away.
And that is why, in addition to our regular posts, we are dedicating the month of May to movie memories–the good and the bad, the entertaining and the laughable, whatever they may be. Carrie, Nikki, and I have spent the last two months asking people about their first experiences at the movies, and we have compiled them for you and will be publishing them on True Classics throughout the month of May. Some of our interviewees are fellow classic film bloggers who you may already know and love, but by and large, you’ll be reading the stories of “regular folks” ranging in age from mid-twenties to early-eighties, with all manner of movie experiences in between.
We hope you enjoy these posts, and that you will take the time to share your own memories either in the comments here, or on your own blogs, in the coming weeks!