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Follow the North Star to Happiness
Follow the North Star to Happiness

Follow the North Star to Happiness

JPYoungJPYoung

Long Ago and Far Away

The relics from another time were still in operation…

Peter Black’s small city on the shores of Lake Michigan, and especially his neighbourhood, was like a pleasant dream. It was a carefully preserved living museum of things that had long gone elsewhere; drugstore soda fountains, dimestores where you could still buy things for a dime, and the End of the Liner Diner that had once been a streamlined railway car. Across from the End of the Liner, the city’s streetcar ended at or began from the Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee Electric Railroad whistle-stop Glen Flora Station. The trolley hummed its way to Peter’s neighbourhood that was halfway to ‘downtown’. He jokingly called the cluster of buildings at the corner of North and Ridgeland Avenues ‘uptown’. Unlike downtown they were single level with no upstairs apartments.

Across the street from the gas station and garage was Louie’s, a fantastic Italian restaurant and bar. Louie’s bordered a family-owned supermarket that looked ultra-modern when it opened in 1939, and still looked ultramoderne de 1939. Next to it was a Jewish delicatessen with the best and biggest sandwiches in the world that served philosophy alongside your pastrami and pickle. The jovial owner chastised Peter by telling him ordering pastrami on white bread was a mortal sin. Sometimes he made Peter a New York City concoction he called an ‘egg cream’ that Peter believed was for people who couldn’t afford a milkshake.

Kitty-corner was his neighbourhood movie theatre, the North Star.

The first word was its location on North Avenue and being on the North Side of the city when it first opened, but the postwar suburbs on former farmland now had the neighbourhood’s name demoted to ‘Near North’. The second word reflected that the cinema was created by and still run by Mr. Starr who modestly dispensed with the second ‘R’. As well as his cinema, he ran the two projectors; his wife sold tickets and refreshments. With its Grecian drama masks, red curtains and seats, it was a palace of delight.

The motto of Mr. Starr’s domain was ‘Follow the North Star to Happiness’. Unlike many advertising mottoes, this one lived up to its name, for your time at the North Star was fun. Every Wednesday night Peter and his ladylove Katrina joined the other Down and Outers, Ray, Stash, Joey and Angie who rode the streetcar from downtown for a discount spaghetti dinner at Louie’s and a double feature.

Andy Starr was once a young former doughboy back from Over There. He invested his savings and inheritance into turning an old North Avenue laundry into a theatre. It brought not only happiness and laughter, but it was an imaginary ship that took its passengers to lands of adventure, luxury and excitement in far-off places or in times gone by. During the Great Depression he installed sound equipment but kept the organ that his wife would still play when he relieved her at the popcorn stand.

Closed on Sundays, Mrs. Starr played the organ at their church and the pair had a Day of Rest.

The North Star had always been charitably called a ‘second-run theatre’, but many of the films he showed were old enough to be museum pieces. Downtowners would scoff that they were old films; the Uptowners replied, ‘They’re new to us’.

Mr. Starr explained how before the United States Supreme Court’s Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948, major studios such as MGM demanded NINETY PERCENT of a theatre owner’s take for the privilege of showing their movies. The other large studios or film exchanges also demanded very high cuts from the owner’s profits.

The neighbourhood theatres successfully fought and often won more audiences than the mainstream theatres as they showed double features of things their audience wouldn’t admit they enjoyed; singing cowboys and other cheaply made Westerns, actioners, potboilers, detective mysteries. horror, monster and recently, science-fiction movies, teenage films for the young, classic revivals for the old and lurid exploitation films for the curious. The latter promised far more than they delivered, giving everyone unintentional laughs and making them feel superior.

There were also lucky ticket draws with donated prizes.

The movies were enjoyed with small bags of popcorn, confectionary from the Hollywood Candy Company of Centralia, and ice cream cups. They were washed down with cold soft drinks in summer or hot chocolate, coffee, or tea in winter.

The studios screened by the North Star were minor at best, Poverty Row at worst; formerly Monogram, Republic, PRC, Eagle-Lion and now American-International and Filmgroup, or re-releases of much older films by companies such as Realart and Astor Pictures. When you heard the names Bela Lugosi, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, you knew the North Star was showing them.

The North Star was a refuge from the problems or monotony of the customers’ homes. Mr. Starr explained that it wasn’t what they showed, because the desiderata screened demanded one’s total concentration. In return the viewer would be protected from facing their problems, telephone calls, chores, and nagging spouses or parents.

Peter struck up a growing friendship with Mr. Starr as he did with the other denizens of his neighbourhood; all of them always had time to chat. The ancient ones resembled and were regarded as wise prophets of the Ancient World.

His conversations about movies with Mr. Starr led to invitations to join him in his projection box decorated with old film posters. Between changing the reels they’d drink coffee, chat about movies or swap army stories where they marvelled that some things never changed. The only others he ever had in his projection box were Miss McGillicuddy and her adopted son Maynor who’d eagerly watch the movies and learn conversational English.

Mr. Starr not only loved movies, but he strongly resembled Andy Clyde and dressed like the guardian of the stage door in so many Hollywood musicals. It was rumoured that he was secretly a millionaire through wise investments or having a mysterious mineral mine in the Wild West. That seemed to be the only explanation for his still operating his theatre; Peter believed what really kept him going was his happiness as he looked out of his projection box.

‘Pete, do you know it’s coming up to 40 years since we opened this place?’

‘FORTY YEARS! Wow!’

‘Yup, we started up not that long after I got out of the Army. I stayed behind for the Occupation of Germany. I guess if we’d have remained, there wouldn’t have been a Second World War.’

‘I guess that’s why they sent me there too, Mr. Starr.’

‘Anyway, it’s time to retire.’

‘You can’t do that! What would we do without you?’

‘Television…no one’s going to the movies like they used to.’

‘A lot of us are still going to the show! TV’s no fun.’

‘Pete, it’s more than watching things for free on the Idiot Box…people have changed. They don’t want to talk to each other anymore.’

Peter paused in thought,

‘I know what you mean, but not everyone’s Slaves of the One-Eyed Monster.’

‘That sounds like one of the double feature movies I show to the teenagers!’

‘For us too! Joey hides below the seats, Angie grabs Ray and Katrina hugs me! Stash touches Joey during scary bits and he jumps up in the air! You never have that much fun watching TV!’

The sound of Mr. Starr laughing made him feel better. He continued,

‘Besides enjoying one of your movies with the crowd, there’s the fun of anticipation! Watching the trailer and looking at the poster gives you something to look forward to, then talking about it afterwards. With TV you’re on your own. You switch it on, then flip the channels looking for something to watch…You know, the drinkers at Louie’s feel the same. They talk to each other over their drinks instead of sitting at home. But to be honest, they do go to Louie’s after the evening news and go home before the 10 o’clock news. Newsreels were fun, but not exactly breaking news.’

‘That’s one of the many things that’s changed. The other is that people don’t go out as much as they used to.’

‘Maybe those raising families don’t, but us single folks, teenagers and kids do! And your senior citizen nights really pack the place! Didn’t Ronald Reagan once say that Americans may have the best kitchens in the world, but that doesn’t stop them from going out to restaurants? You give us someplace to GO!’

‘I’ve been doing this for so long…’

‘Why don’t you take a week or two off for a fishing trip and just try the quiet life for a while. It may drive you nuts after a couple weeks.’

‘My son runs the place when we’re on our yearly vacation, it would be unfair to impose on him too much.’

Peter looked out the window of the projection booth,

‘I remember the time you had me up here one Saturday afternoon. Man alive, the energy of those kids during the Westerns and slapstick comedies! You could propel a spaceship to the moon with it!’

‘This Saturday will be the Last Round-Up. Look, I bought a big box of sheriff badges from the dimestore to pass out to all the kids…why don’t you have one too, Pete.’

‘Thanks! I can’t say no to that!’

Peter pinned on the toy tin badge. Mr. Starr’s expression turned into joy, for he saw Peter as a youngster with cap pistols who lived for the cartoons, serial chapter, comedy short and double feature of the Saturday Afternoon Matinee. He gave a small discount to the kids who came dressed as cowboys and cowgirls, even if it was only a hat, neckerchief and cap gun holster on their belts.

His joy turned to his business expression.

‘Uh oh, time for the reel change.’

As Mr. Starr expertly counted the dots in the corner of the image on the screen, he simultaneously shut off the old projector and started the new one, then he took off the old reel and wound it back. As he was doing that Peter’s imagination took him into the Wild West, where he not only shot the bad guy’s six-shooters out of their hands after his lightning-fast draw, but he ran a frightened Bela Lugosi and Frankenstein out of town, and rescued Katrina the new schoolmarm who purred, ‘My hero!’

‘Last reel…you think I should shout out to wait for me after the show to make an announcement? It may be better than standing on the stage and telling them before the next performance. That might ruin their happiness, but I’d have to do that as well. You can’t leave without saying goodbye, it just ain’t polite.’

Peter’s face concealed what was going through his mind…

Near the end of the film, the army surplus field telephone in the projection booth rang; his wife had an excited voice,

‘Mister Starr! There’s going to be a riot here! Come right down as soon as the film ends! Please!

She hung up.

When the film ended and the lights went up, Mr. Starr looked out of the projection booth at his crowd. There seemed to be a lot more people than when he started his films.

‘We want our money back! We want our money back!’

‘I may need you, Pete! Two old soldiers are going to have to do some military policing!’

As they raced down the stairs, his wife opened the doors to the seats. Mr. Starr dashed in, Peter and Mrs. Starr proudly walked arm and arm behind him.

They were met by loud cheers. Ray, Stash, Joey, Angie, Katrina and Rico raised a banner on stage reading,

HAPPY 40TH ANNIVERSARY! MAY THERE BE MANY MORE!

Mrs. Starr played her organ as everyone sang, For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.

Mr. Starr didn’t know whether to smile or cry…so he did both…

FIN

Author Notes: I am the author of three Extra Dimensional/Ultraterrestial military science fiction novels MERCENARY EXOTIQUE, OPERATION CHUPACABRA and WORK IN OTHER WORLDS FROM YOUR OWN HOME! as well as two travel books THE MAN FROM WAUKEGAN and TWO AUSTRALIANS IN SCOTLAND (all from Lulu.com). I live happily ever after with my wife in paradise (coastal Kiama, NSW Australia).

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JPYoung
JPYoung
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Posted
13 Dec, 2023
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