CINEMA PENITENTIARY – an excerpt in which our young hero discovers the sub-run theatres in and around Seattle's Westlake area.

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You see above the “young hero” of CINEMA PENITENTIARY grown a bit older but still dashing.  Below him is Georgianna Carter, an early influence on White who appears in the excerpt below.  I took Bill White’s portrait at last year’s University District Fair, but he was not new to me.  I’ve known Bill since he was a teenager in the late 60s, but I did not know then about his enthusiasm for film.  Recently a movie and music reviewer for the Post-Intelligencer, this energetic “young” critic, poet, novelist and singer-songwriter has some time to give to reminiscing about his life with film since the P-I failed, and CINEMA PENITENTIARY is one issue of his new-found “idleness” that is still issuing.   Bill White knows whereof he writes.  His memory of the thousands of movies he has watched and studied since he first slipped milk money through the windows of box offices is extraordinary.  Many of his stories connected with Seattle theatres and the movies they show will flip readers, even those who did not spend the greater part of their summer vacations from primary school watching films first in Renton and then in downtown Seattle theatres.   Here follows an early issue from Bill White’s CINEMA PENITENTIARY.  For those who have not yet found it, a sample of Bill White’s reviewing appears below with the blog insertion that precedes this one.  There Bill reviews Forever Amber, which in 1949 appeared at the Colonial Theatre on 4th Avenue between Pike and Pine Streets.  Our critic also winds up in and out of the Colonial at the conclusion of this excerpt from . . .

Bill White’s CINEMA PENITENTIARY.

In 1958, I was seven years old and lived in Bryn Mawr,  a small community outside of Renton, Washington. My street  was originally named  after John Keats, but  after a year got the number 85. Somebody must have thought it  easier for a kid to find his way home  through numbered streets than named ones. In Renton, on Third Street, there were three movie theatres. On one side  The Roxy catered to adults but sometimes showed movies for the whole family.  The Renton, which was right across the street, had movies for normal teenagers, while The Rainier, at the end of the block, offered unsavory fare for the budding delinquents who passed weekend nights there. The Rainier was my favorite of the three theaters.

Since I went to the movies all the time, a kid in my class at school tried to impress me with the boast that he got to see movies on Saturday afternoons at the downtown YMCA for two cents. I convinced my mom to get me a membership and let me make the twelve-mile trip into downtown Seattle every Saturday with my new friend. For a while, I enjoyed the trampoline, the swimming pool, the wrestling matches and the pool table as much as the two cent movies.  Then I met a kid about three years older than myself who convinced me to forego the athletics and follow him to a real movie theater that was  five blocks away.

The Embassy's 3rd Avenue Entrance
The Embassy's 3rd Avenue Entrance

The Embassy showed a different kind of movie on each day of the week, and Saturday it was science fiction and horror.  That first Saturday, I saw “Invasion of the Saucer Men,”   pygmies with giant heads and long fingernails who stabbed lethal doses of alcohol into  the bloodstreams of teenagers, “The Devil Girl From Mars,” an alien bombshell who walked along deserted mountain roads in a sexy black costume on her way to destroy the human race, and “Night of the Blood Beast,” who  impregnated an astronaut with a litter of alien parasites and then stopped the male mother’s heart without destabilizing his blood pressure.

The Embassy was a masterpiece of spatial disorientation, due to its having two entrances, one on the corner of Third Avenue, next to the G.O.Guy drug store, and the other around the corner on Union, across from a pool hall that I did not discover until some years later.  The floor plan of the theater seemed to vary in accordance with the angle through which it was entered.  Finding one’s way out was even more difficult, and I was never sure from which exit I would emerge.

When I left that theater, having seen those movies, while Russian satellites spied on us from Earth’s outer orbit, in a year in which we practiced the duck and cover techniques of surviving a nuclear attack, at a time when our drunken fathers were beating our promiscuous mothers, when schoolmates would tell you the toilets were broken just to see if you would try to hold it in after lunch and shit your pants in class, in those times the titles of these  movies were poetry that I rolled over my tongue like the soft drool of melted salt-water taffy.

Had the movies existed only in the spatial time of their unreeling, they might have been forgotten.  They lived, however, in my lingering isolation from the real world.  I had searched the ordered and disordered faces on the screen for some familiar human expression, but found only odd approximations. And the oddest face belonged to Georgianna Carter, who posed throughout “Night of the Blood Beast” like a burlesque dancer on an archeological dig. Four years later, at the same theater, I would see her again, recognizing her right away, in a Jack Nicholson biker movie that was the only other thing in her life she ever did.

The Garden ca. 1950
The Garden ca. 1950. Photo by Robert Bradley.

On this first Saturday, coming out of the Third Avenue doors while Miss Carter wondered if humanity had been right in killing the  blood beast, I spied the marquee, two blocks up the street, of  another theater. From the outside The Garden  seemed fancier than The Embassy, if only because of its larger marquee.  Admission to The Garden was also a quarter, but you only got two movies instead of three.  And they changed twice a week instead of daily.  Since I didn’t want to worry my mother by arriving home four hours late, I waited until the next weekend to see the theater’s interior.

The Garden was like the Roxy in that it combined adult and family fare.  But instead of getting a preview of “Butterfield 8″ before a Jerry Lewis movie, the kids at the Garden got to see the whole movie.  It was like trespassing on the Roxy on Parent’s Night Out.   After a double feature of “Peyton Place” and “Love in the Afternoon,” I walked up Pine Street to 4th Avenue and discovered The Colonial. It was smaller that the Garden, and also offered bi-weekly double features for a quarter.

Since “Peyton Place” had been over twice the length of two horror movies, it was already getting close to the time my bus was scheduled to leave Second and Madison, so I shouldn’t have gone in, but I paid my quarter anyway, figuring that if I just watched one movie, I would be able to catch the next bus, and wouldn’t get into much trouble.

When I went inside, “Battle Hymn” was on the screen. One of the things about going to these theaters was that you never got there at the beginning of a movie. You just went in, sat down, and started watching the movie at whatever point you walked in on it.  Then, after watching the other features, you stayed and watched the beginning of the one you walked in on the middle of.  I didn’t even stay until the end of the first one, it being a pretty boring thing with Rock Hudson as an ex-bomber who built an orphanage for Korean kids who lost their parents in the aerial attacks for which he felt guilty.

The Colonial on the west side of 4th Ave. between Pike and Pine, ca. 1947.
The Colonial on the west side of 4th Ave. between Pike and Pine, ca. 1947. Photo courtesy Municipal Archive.

The first thing that struck me about The Colonial was the absence of a concession stand.  Even the popcorn came out of a vending machine.  No concessions also meant no authority figures in the lobby, and that gave a feeling of freedom to do whatever I wanted.

Unfortunately, it gave everybody else that same right, and four years later, during the summer I lived with my mother and sisters on Queen Anne Hill, the  summer I turned eleven years old and spent virtually every day in one or the other of these three theatres, a man changed seats several times before slipping into the seat next to mine, where he  made  a quick and clumsy  grab for my dick.

I ran out of the theater and up the street into a department store where I jumped on the escalator and rode eight floors to the restroom where I hid and panted and waited for the  fear to subside. Then I ran all the way home, not even slowing to look at the posters of future movie releases that filled the windows of a reprographics shop on Second Avenue in the near deserted area between downtown and Queen Anne Hill that came to be known as Belltown.

I never returned to The Colonial, but continued to patronize the Embassy until it started showing porno movies in the early seventies. It wasn’t that I had anything against porno; I was just afraid to go in there. I kept going to The Garden even during the porno era because they kept the place clean and ran advertisements in the daily newspapers. Sometimes the critics would even review them, which helped me pretend they were real movies, and not just smut.

The Colonial, October 6, 1966.  Photo by Frank Shaw.
The Colonial, October 6, 1966. Photo by Frank Shaw.

3 thoughts on “CINEMA PENITENTIARY – an excerpt in which our young hero discovers the sub-run theatres in and around Seattle's Westlake area.”

  1. Well, it’s about freakin time! Excerpt? Where’s the rest? I wonder if we could persuade Bill to follow this up with another 150,000 or so words?

  2. David, Ive got 60,000 words completed so far, the first 30,000 in fairly good shape.Let me know if you want to read it, and I’ll email you a copy

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