One winter in the early 1980s, my home town in Southern Indiana got hit with a big snowstorm. Being enterprising young bucks, my friend Joe and I grabbed a couple shovels and started ringing doorbells, offering to clear sidewalks and driveways in exchange for a bit of legal tender. We finished the day sore and tired, splitting what we thought at the time was hefty bank. Our first stop on the way home was at The Ross...
The Ross was an old second-run, $1 neighborhood movie theater by our house. It was not a pretty place - a low-slung yellow brick hulk built right after World War II for Evansville's quickly growing East Side. It was originally a single screen house, seating about five hundred, with a giant plaster "whale" shape in the ceiling. The theater had gone downhill after the opening of several multiplex theaters in the late 1970s, was closed temporarily, and had recently changed ownership, re-opening as a two-screen house (the main theater and a second, tiny screen with seating for maybe sixty, in what felt like a coffin). It was strictly low-budget: it smelled pretty bad, your feet stuck to the floor, the popcorn was not recommended.
What drew us in that snowy day was not the feature, but the fact that the new owner had expanded his business by installing a VHS movie rental kiosk in the lobby. I think at the time there were probably fifty movies to choose from. I got a membership card and rented "Excalibur" with Liam Neeson, Helen Mirren and Gabriel Byrne. I was hooked on the movies.
In the years following, the Ross took up a special place in my life.
Summers were spent cooling ourselves in the iffy air conditioning, taking in repeat helpings of the 2:00 p.m. matinee of "Ghostbusters" (five times in two weeks), "The Karate Kid" (which, by chance, I caught on German television Sunday afternoon. Wow.), and other long-forgotten B-movies. We would scrape up a buck or two (begging parents usually worked), stop by the pharmacy or the convenience store across the street to load up on candy, then get our afternoon mind melt on... If we didn't have a buck, we discovered we could send one kid from the group into the theater to push open the emergency exit behind the screen in the big theater, then we'd slip into the house and "poof!" four for the price of one.
I remember later, when I was probably sixteen, my brother and I sneaking beers into the theater in the pockets of our army shorts. Also going on a couple dates there, making out in the back of the little theater when I was fourteen. Ah, youth.
The year I started high school, as I skateboarded past the Ross daily, I noticed new announcements on the left side of the marquee -
LIVE BANDS! Some local musicians had talked the owner into turning the key late at night, after the movies were over, and giving Evansville's young and angsty a place to rock out. Three bucks got you in. Bands started about midnight and played until they ran out of material. Eventually, the first six rows of theater seats were removed and a real stage built. We had ourselves a scene.
Friday nights we would start congregating on the sidewalks outside the theater around 10:30. Leaning against the salmon-colored stainless steel, vying for the little curb around the I-beam that held up the marquee, stealing each others hats, skating around the parking lot grinding the bike racks, making mischief, etc. Once the movies got out, we'd take over the house and dance all night, or stand around and look bored, or chat up girls, or sneak little bottles of vodka into the cry room...
The Ross scene included a bunch of friends (and my infamous sister "skunkmeat") who took the stage to sing and play, thrash out, get together. They had a haunted house and a movie premiere for "Sid and Nancy." They had midnight drag shows and "Rocky Horror." For a conservative town in the middle of nowhere, it was a kind of safe haven for people who didn't quite fit the mold imposed on them by school, church, family. It hung on for a few years, then the owner lost his shirt and closed the place in 1989, my junior year in high school.