Cowboy “babysitters” at the cineplex.

by Jimmie Meese Moomaw

I have absolutely no recollection of the first movie I ever saw. To my knowledge, Mama and Daddy never went to the movies–never, not once. All the movie memories I have are of me going alone or with or to meet friends at the theater. The very earliest memories are of the double-feature cowboy movies that were shown every Saturday, complete with a running serial, a new cartoon, and a “newsreel” of world news narrated by a baritone with stentorian tones (similar to James Earl Jones) who could make the report of a minor disaster sound like Armageddon.

In retrospect–and I cannot for the life of me figure out why–I loved those Saturday cowboy shows. Every one of them told pretty much the same story: some  bad guys or some fake Indians created troubled and the hero chased them down and won whatever battle they fought. There was lot of gunfire, but no blood. Everyone died a sanitized death, jerking backwards when hit, sometimes with a visible hole where the bullet entered, but there was never any blood.

There were two strata of movie cowboy heroes. At the top, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry reigned, each with his own mark of distinction: Autry played a guitar and sang, and Roy had his palomino, Trigger. Down from there were the likes of Sunset Carson, Lash Larue, Tim Holt, the Lone Ranger, and (last and also least) Don “Red” Barry. For the few years in which we had an actual rodeo in my small hometown of Brookhaven, several of those second-tier cowboys came to ride a pretty horse into the ring at the beginning of the show. Once we he came to town, Tim Holt posed for a picture with a group of us children (Ed. note: in the photo below, Jimmie is the little girl in the checked dress in the bottom left-hand corner).

(photo courtesy of Jimmie Meese Moomaw)

“Red” Barry was apparently so taken with how much South Mississippi resembled the “wild West” that he returned to nearby Silver Creek to film Jesse James’ Women (1954), which he also directed. It was a wholly forgettable film which featured Don being pursued by various women whom he tried (with variable success) to resist. Betty Brueck, the local sheriff’s daughter, was cast as one of the women chasing Barry, and Ann Foggo’s daddy (who was in the movie business by virtue of his position managing two of the town’s movie theaters, the Dixie and the Arcade) arranged for Ann and a couple of us to drive to Silver Creek to watch the filming. We remained at a distance and saw little action except for one memorable scene in which Betty Brueck rode a pretty fast horse across a shallow stream. A couple of years ago, I looked up the film and bought a copy just to see the scene I had watched being shot all those years ago. The acting was laughable, the plot flimsy, and Betty’s big scene had been cut!

Because Mama and Daddy were especially busy working at the Pure Oil Service Station, my “babysitter” was those Saturday movies. We had three theaters in town: in addition to the Dixie and the Arcade, there was also the Haven. I usually went to two of the three every Saturday and watched double headers at both. Sometimes I saw each one twice, because sitting in the dark in a comfortable chair was a lot more exciting–and more comfortable–than hanging around the station (where I’d be forced to sit on an upside-down trash can and listen to Daddy’s customers gee-haw with Mama and tease me). So instead, I watched the movies and ate popcorn all day long.

One of the first non-cowboy movies that I remember seeing is Charles Vidor’s A Song to Remember (1945), a fictionalized biopic of the life of composer Frédéric Chopin. It stars Cornel Wilde, Merle Oberon, Nina Foch, and Paul Muni and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. I was eight years old when I saw it, and I still have vivid memories of the movie. Cornel Wilde was beautiful and elegant and sensitive and romantic, and he became–and remained for a long time–my favorite male actor (incidentally, Jennifer Jones was my favorite actress). But the biggest impact the movie had was to introduce me for the first time to classical music. I was familiar with Gene Autry’s version of “Here Comes Sandy Claws” (at least, that’s how he pronounced it), and I listened to the Grand Ole Opry with Mama and Daddy and was familiar with the twanging music of Roy Acuff and The Sons of the Pioneers, and knew all the words to virtually every song in the Baptist hymnal. But the first haunting sounds of the polonaise just blew me away.

 

Born and raised in Mississippi, Jimmie Meese Moomaw, 75, taught communication courses on the college and university level for forty years before retiring from Georgia State University a decade ago. Now she serves as a political consultant, writer, and popular public speaker. Her memoir, Southern Fried Child in Home Seeker’s Paradise, was published in 2010. Moomaw currently resides in Avondale Estates, Georgia, with her “Wonder Dog,” Wren.

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