"Remembering The Bob White Theater"
By Jeff Owenby
When I was eight years old, my parents had separated for nearly a year. My dad took a small studio apartment over a tavern on SE Foster Street. Next door and below was the Bob White Theater. My favorite memory of the Bob White is that it was next door to my dad's place. It was literally just a matter of footsteps to go to the movie! On my regular visits to my dad, The Bob White was always the Saturday night special.
This theater was absolutely nothing like the unfriendly warehouse feel of movie theaters today. The minute you entered the lobby of the Bob White, you were greeted by the ambience of red plush carpeting, Tuscan velvet ropes, dim lighting, and the smell of fresh popcorn. The muffled sounds of the movie playing from behind theater doors only added to the anticipation of the next showing.
A hallway illuminated only by meager lamp light led to a spacious balcony that overlooked a sea of auditorium seating. Giant pipes from the theater's vintage organ lined one wall like massive chimes. Each glance in any direction reminded you that you were in a special place that was more spectacular than most. The best part of all was that it was located in your own neighborhood. Like many of the indoor theaters of the sixties, the Bob White was a place of guaranteed entertainment. It was a haven, a place to escape too, and once inside, you really wanted to sit through every millimeter of film the projector had to offer.
The most exciting of memories for me were seeing the great movie legends on such a massive screen. Heroes, seen primarily on a small black and white television set dependent on rabbit ear reception, now appeared in living color literally larger than life. When they spoke they spoke in grand voices, amplified by theater speakers. A kid my age could easily fall in love with the leading ladies painted up with their red lips and heavy mascara. Likewise I found myself identifying with the muscle bound heroes, wanting to be just like them.
For under a dollar, I could see two movies plus load up on popcorn, candy and something to drink. Though the actual admission price escapes me, I do know that it was somewhere between the thirty-five and seventy-five cent range. With popcorn in lap, Pom-Poms or Jujyfruits in hand, and a Coke sitting on the floor in an ice-filled cup, I was ready. Cartoons usually preceded the movie followed by some newsreels of interest and relevance to the times. However, as interesting as they could be, newsreels usually fell victim to snack bar visits and jaunts to the restroom.
My favorite place was the balcony. It was great to look down. The feeling always left me with a sense of grandeur, sitting high atop a mountain waiting for the grand presentation. The balconies were usually empty, populated mostly by teenage couples that retreated to the darkness of the upper tier. It always amazed me at how determined they were not to see one minute of the feature film. They could've been kissy behind the school or in a parked car. Why waste valuable theater moments on it? They sat in the back, obscured by shadow while I sat in the very front resting my arms across the front rail.
On one special weekend, I went to see a "The Disorderly Orderly" starring my comic hero Jerry Lewis. In a scene where he accidentally shoves a bowl of oatmeal in actress Kathleen Freeman's face was absolutely dynamic! I could see him picking pieces of it off her face, and the screen was so huge, I felt like I was there.
I also saw "Boeing, Boeing" with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis, which was only so-so, but the best movie ever was "Man's Favorite Sport". I expected this movie to be a dud, and it ended up as one of my all-time favorites to this day. The scene on the floating sleeping bag raft was, and still is my favorite. The movie-for anyone who hasn't seen it, the film is about a bogus "fishing expert" (Rock Hudson) who's never even picked up a pole in his life. He's eventually blackmailed into entering a major fishing tournament at the idyllic Lake Winnipesauke. The Rock was as excellent as ever, and Paula Prentiss re-defined my idea of what the delightful bubble-headed actress should be.
My most enduring recollection of the Bob White Theater is of that one evening watching "Man's Favorite Sport", wishing I was at a lake resort fishing and camping. The girly scenes were easy enough for an eight year old to tolerate as long as there was enough guy time on the screen. Fishing, camping, falling into the lake, and floating away on a raft in a rainstorm were all elements that pleased me so much, and this movie had them all.
Sadly, the early seventies saw the Bob White in decline, showing mostly adult features, and heavy R rated films. Eventually, I lost track of the place until that one sad day when it was no more. My memories of the Bob White live forever on that one special Saturday Night with "Man's Favorite Sport". I wish I could go back again. I wish they could re-open, and show that same movie. I'd sit in the balcony, loaded up with popcorn, and re-visit one of the greatest experiences of my life.