We have learned from our friend Bill White – now living in Ilo, Pero (see the snapshot below) – that for a year of his early adolescence he lived on Lake Ballinger and remembers it fondly. And he has written about it too, in CINEMA PENITENTIARY, his manuscript about growing up with movies. Bill, you may remember, before moving to South American, wrote movie reviews for the Post-Intelligencer and other publications. In place of Lake Ballinger, here Bill poses for Kelly Edery White, with his current waterway, the Pacific Ocean from the harbor of his home now in Ilo, Peru.
Although I was living on the lake the whole year, it seems than i mentioned it only in the first paragraph. so maybe it is not appropriate for the blog. but here it is anyway, there is a bit more about the region as a whole, which might be of interest to your readers.
EXCERPT from CINEMA PENITENTIARY
by Bill White
After my mom got married, her new husband took us so far North we weren’t even in King County anymore. The house was on Lake Ballinger and to get there we had to walk up a private street. We had a dock and a rowboat, and every day after school I’d row out to an island in the lake where I’d stay until dinnertime.
On the other side of the lake was the Shriner’s club. If I came too close to the shore, half a dozen fez-topped apes would run at me with waving arms and holy-war expressions. I had seen these characters before, passing themselves off as Seattleites as they waved demurely from their float during the Seafair Parades. I used to think they were harmless weirdos, like the clowns and the pirates, just some old men who liked to dress up and ride in parades. It wasn’t until I had to share my lake with them that I discovered them to be nothing more than hog-greased tyrants.
My school was brand new, and so far away that I had to ride a bus. There was no movie theater within walking distance, so I made do with television shows, which were the main subject of conversation in the lavatory. “So is the one-armed man real, or do you think Kimball really did kill his wife?” some guy asked me while I was trying to take a leak between classes. “What do you think?” I sneered, zipping up my pants and leaving without washing my hands or waiting for an answer.
On dead weekend nights, my stepfather took the family to the Sno-King Drive In, which was North almost all the way to Everett, a town famous for the stink that came from its paper mills. We saw some terrible junk up there, the worst of which was a Bob Hope double feature of “Call Me Bwana” and “A Global Affair.” Now that I think about it, I don’t even know if my mom actually married the guy or not. I don’t remember any wedding or anything. Just us being packed up and moved out of the Queen Anne mansion and into this house on the lake. The girls were told to start calling the guy “papa,” but I wasn’t told anything, so I kept on calling him by his first name. He always liked to leave the drive-in before the second feature had ended, and I learned quickly that it was no use to raise a complaint.
My real dad returned to Seattle on a temporary project with Boeing, and my older sister and I spent several weekends with him in Ballard, where he had taken an apartment to be near his mother, who was sick with cancer. My sister was already sixteen, and would spend most of the weekend with her friends from Queen Anne, while I went to the movies with my dad. Even after he moved on to his assignment in New Orleans, where he once got caught in a flood and spent two days in a tree fighting off snakes, I kept going out to Ballard to visit with my grandmother, who was nicknamed Mop Mop.
We even saw a few movies together. During the World’s Fair, she had taken me to the Cinerama Theater to see “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm.” Now we went, in a party of lesser relatives, for “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World.” It appealed to the older people, who recognized all the old-time comics, but to me it was just a bunch of exaggerated expressions on oversized heads. Still, I loved those red, stuffed rocking chairs and a screen that wrapped itself right around my eyes.
Mop Mop lived in a spooky apartment complex filled with Senior Citizens, so the whole place had that old people smell. There was a manager who was always outside interrogating strange people who had wandered onto the property. He was more like a gatekeeper than a concierge. The most memorable thing about her apartment was the T.V. Guide that was always on the top of the set. I had never seen one of them before except in the check-out line at the supermarket, and didn’t realize anybody actually bought them. I thought they were just there to browse through while waiting in line to buy groceries.
Ballard is a Scandinavian neighborhood adjacent to the Western end of the ship canal, a manmade waterway connecting two freshwater lakes with the saltwater Bay. There is a difference in the water levels of the fresh and salt water bodies, so they built the Government Locks, an enclosure where the water travelers are quarantined while the water level is adjusted so they can move from one body of water to the next. The Locks are a popular tourist attraction that also boast a salmon ladder where kids and other curious characters stand around to try to get a glimpse of some fish. As it was close to Mop Mop’s apartment, we often went there for a Sunday afternoon picnic to eat some of the pies my stepmother had baked.
School chugged along until a day at the end of November when the boys and girls gym classes were combined so we could learn square dancing. I liked the way everybody got a turn to dance with everybody, but just as my turn came up to dance with the girl I had my eye on, an announcement came over the public address system to tell us that President Kennedy had been shot.
My dad came by to get my sister and me that weekend, and we watched the funeral on Mop Mop’s T.V. Dad started crying during the ceremony and I asked him why. “You didn’t even like Kennedy. Why are you so sad about him being dead?” He took me by the shoulders and answered emphatically. “When a President of the United States is assassinated, it doesn’t matter what you thought of him, it is a national tragedy.”
Although I wasn’t in drama class, I auditioned for the school play and got the lead role because I played the cornet and the play opened with the kid blowing some notes into the phone to impress a girl on the other end. It had been written in the 1930’s and was called “Make Room For Rodney.” I can’t remember a thing about it except for playing the first bars from “Blues in the Night” and then hollering egotistically into the phone.
We performed the play at in the middle of December and I got razzed by a lot of the guys in the hall for being in it. Later, on a Monday afternoon right before Christmas vacation, a girl came up to me in the cafeteria and asked why I hadn’t been to school the previous Friday. I told her I hadn’t been feeling well so had stayed in bed and read Harold Robbins’ “The Carpetbaggers,” and she answered that she hoped I was feeling better. After I told her that I was, she said she had been planning to ask me if I wanted to go with her family to the drive-in movies that weekend. I asked her what was playing and she told me “In Harm’s Way.” I couldn’t imagine going to see a war movie with a girl, so I just walked away without saying anything, and she went back to the table where her friends were and she never spoke to me again.
It was unusual to be approached like that, because hardly any of the seventh grade girls wanted anything to do with the seventh grade boys. They were all hanging around with guys in the eighth or ninth grade. But when I got to the ninth grade, all the girls had boyfriends in high school. It seemed I never got old enough to do anything.
A movie theater opened sometime after the first of the year. It was a warehouse of a building called the Lynn Twin because it was split into two auditoriums. It was set alongside Aurora Avenue, which was the primary interstate thoroughfare before the freeway was built. In order to get there, I had to be driven by new new-stepfather, and often would be asked to take my little sister along with me.
I liked taking my sisters to the movies, having been doing it since the oldest among them, who was four years younger than me, had the interest to come along. As the other girls got older, I started taking them as well. My older sister was usually too busy with her boyfriends to take them, but before she discovered boys, she would frequently have charge over me at some parent-sanctioned event, such as Walt Disney’s “White Wilderness.”
That was 1958, and my dad drove us there and dropped us off. We had to wait in line for almost three hours, as the next show was sold out. Consider that the theater held 1,500, and you will get an idea of how popular Disney pictures were back then.
Northgate was the country’s first open air shopping mall. It had an Indian theme, and there was a big totem pole at the Northern entrance. One of the things that mystified me about the theater was a section that was enclosed in glass. I later learned this was the crying room, where mothers sat with their crybaby kids.
My dad was always late picking us up from the movies, usually because he would stop to have a beer at the tavern on the way and he could never have just one. There were times we waited for hours outside a theater before he finally showed up. This new stepfather was always on time, an attribute that did not make me like him any better,
My sister and I saw a Robert Mitchum movie at the Lynn Twin called “Man in the Middle.” Neither of us got much out of it, but Keenan Wynn had one line that became a staple around the house. He was playing a soldier accused of murdering a British officer in India near the beginning of World War Two. Mitchum was the officer assigned to his defense. “You make me want to throw up,” he said in answer to something Mitchum said. I don’t remember why he said it, but we sure had fun saying it to each other in the months after seeing the movie.
We got a lot more out of the ”The Miracle Worker,” which we had seen the year before, shortly after being schooled with the blind children at John Hay. That movie not only gave us some empathy for the handicapped, but lent us many gestures to imitate in play, especially one in which Helen Keller curled her fingers and back-handed the side of her head. We used to do that when we wanted to irritate our mother.
It was sometime in the Spring that our English teacher told us we had to write an essay for a national contest. Remembering that movie about Helen Keller, I decided to read some books to find out more about her because I thought she would make a good subject. My essay won the prize, but I didn’t get anything. The prize went to the school, not the student.
One thing I found out when researching Helen Keller was that the movie was based on a play by William Gibson, the guy who had written “Two For the Seesaw.” That made me realize how much stuff we learn about just because some guy gets the idea to write a play, or a book, or make a movie or something. Without that play, there would have never been a movie, and all those people like me and my sister who saw the movie might never have known about Helen Keller. Even if we had learned something about her in school, we never would have thought of her as a real person. We had even gone to school with blind people, but knowing them in real life didn’t help us to have any compassion for them. But seeing the movie did. Even though it might have looked like we were just making fun of Helen Keller when we played finger games and tried to say water, the truth was that somewhere deep down we were discovering what it meant to empathize with someone.
Once in a while the Lynn would show some scary stuff, and I got to go alone. The poster for “Strait-Jacket” warned that it would vividly depict ax murders. It didn’t. At least not the way “Deep Throat,” a decade later, would vividly depict blow jobs There was one good shot of George Kennedy getting his head chopped off, but the rest of the murders were shown either in shadows on the wall or isolated shots of Joan Crawford swinging an ax.
“Dead Ringers” was the co-feature, with Bette Davis playing twins. It was more serious, and much duller, that the Crawford picture. I had seen the two actresses together a couple years earlier in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” but knew nothing of their past careers as glamorous movie stars. I wasn’t yet old enough to stay up all night watching old movies on television.
Seeing the titles “Love With the Proper Stranger” and “The Stripper” on the Lynn Twin marquee gave me an instant boner. When I found out that “The Stripper” came from a William Inge play called “A Loss of Roses,” the movie made more sense to me. As “The Stripper,” it was a cheat, but “A Loss of Roses” signified that it was supposed to be a sad movie, not a sexy one. “Love With the Proper Stranger” was, like “Two for the Seesaw,” a movie about a guy and a girl who did a lot of talking with each other. I was too young to understand a lot of what was going on, but I loved eavesdropping on the adult conversations, and looked forward to the time when I would be talking about things with girls as they lounged around my apartments in their underwear.
At the end of the school year, I went to my first party and kissed all the girls. I went from one to another, trying each of them out and liking them all. Unfortunately, we moved out of our house on the lake right after school ended, so I never saw any of those girls again, and had to start from scratch.