When I was a boy, going downtown to the movies (we invariably said, "The Picture Show") what we meant was we were going to the Paramount on 3rd Street, which was the main thoroughfare in the capitol city, at the time. To say it was special is, I believe, my first experience with the concept of the classic understatement.
Cinema was never used in my crowd to speak of the movies. It could be said that "cinema" was the generic term that was used by "professionals" and Europeans, who, by the way, were understood to be rather otherworldly, in much the same way that an Aardvark would seem to be were it to appear on Pontiac Street where I lived.
If someone had said to me that cinema was the generic term for movies, I would likely have blushed since generic sounded to me like something one did not speak of in mixed company. That's how off the beaten track we were in our little community.
When it came to the Paramount on 3rd Street, however, no term could be too fancy for the experience. Even people who looked to be European would "Ooo" and "Ahh" upon entering that gilded and plushly carpeted foyer after the ticket booth, which itself was majestic in its throne-like setting.
We were plain folk, and we lived among plain folk. We were dutifully awed upon visiting high end clothing stores, funeral parlors and the Paramount on 3rd Street. After painted wood or cracked linoleum floors, ankle deep wool carpeting, brass sconces and filigreed plasterwork on high arched ceilings seemed to be completely otherworldly, and of course, it was. I always felt as I ascended those broad stairs to the grand mezzanine, pretty much, as I am sure, I would have felt entering the Louvre in Paris, where Europeans live, I am told.
All of this preambling was only to introduce one to the grand salon or auditorium with its central stage that would accommodate a full scale Shakespearian production - orchestra pit and all. I always liked to sit toward one side or the other - not in the center section. That way I could look at one side of the room with its box seats and long curtains and subtle lighting that magically dimmed as the camera began to roll.
What's particularly odd, I don't have many clear images of what movies I saw there, except one. My mother wanted to see it. I believe it was called Mr Skeffington, or something like that. It stared two of the most boring personalities ever to "trod the boards" as it is said: Bette Davis and Claude Rains. Of course this might have had more to do with being a thirteen year old boy than the actual abilities of the actors - but I doubt it. My mother was so pleased. I never changed my opinion of those actors even unto this day. I am sure I saw film there that was wonderful, but I am mystified as to my unfailing inability to recall any of them. Go figure.
My most recent rationale for this strange omission is that I was more impressed by the place than I was the program - whatever it might have been.
When you looked up - and you always looked up - there were stars twinkling in the distant reaches of the sky-like ceiling. When house lights came up at the end of the program the illusion was broken, of course, and there were little lights that tried to illuminate the pathway as you made your way to the restroom and then outside into the humid South Louisiana evening.
There was always a bit of sadness when we left that well crafted emporium of unreality. As I write these words, I am poignantly reminded of that same sense of longing to extend that lushly carpeted escape from what I knew to be my real life.
The North Baton Rouge bus made its way up Scenic Highway (no one ever explained to me what the "scenic" referred to) with refinery flares illuminating the night sky for miles around, rumbling sounds that shook the earth, and smells of petroleum refining and chemical processing that occupied the next several miles between the highway and the river. When we passed Hunt's Florist, I knew my stop was coming up. I rose, pulled the cord and walked to the front of the bus. Descending to the sidewalk I always felt it was a bit ironic (though I am sure I did not understand the concept at the time) that after an evening in the elegance of the downtown Paramount Theater I was let off in front of our very own Istrouma Theater - a cinder block neighborhood movie palace only two blocks from my bedroom. No carpet except in the foyer and definitely no stars in the ceiling, but there was a Buck Rogers serial every Saturday afternoon where 25¢ got me inside with a box of Milk Duds. And as an extra added attraction on one weekend, the very car in which Bonnie and Clyde were riddled with bullets was on display on the sidewalk out front. Yes - I put my finger into many of the bullet holes in that car. Awesome!