Rialto Tales: Part I: Father Meets Son

The Rialto Theatre, 1941
Now Demolished

This story is Part I of a series I’m writing called “Rialto Tales.” It’s all in that messy, first-draft stage right now.

Charles Coburn, manager of The Rialto Theatre, sat at his narrow wooden desk and leaned his face in close toward the mimeograph machine that sat atop the desk’s left-side slide-out shelf. As he painted the machine’s tumbling cage with dark-purple ink, Coburn talked to the boy who stood beside him; at attention; dressed in his usher’s uniform, navy-blue, double-breasted jacket with faux brass buttons.

Coburn spoke in mild tones to his young and newest employee, but for a short while the boy didn’t hear the man’s words. Instead, the boy watched and wondered why his manager had so early-on seemed to take him into this narrow, inner-sanctum of an office and there treat him to what felt like privileged information.

Coburn’s hair, a muted combination of grey and light brown, was cut and trimmed into the shape of soft brush bristles, according to the style of the day, summertime 1964, a year for Frankie Avalon the crooner, Leslie Gore insisting with a sultry voice that the party belonged to her, Elvis the soon-to-be king then considered the epitome of physical beauty.

At regular intervals Coburn would reach up with one arm and run the fingers of his ink-stained hand through his hair. Behind this man the boy could see the inside snugness of the theatre’s ticket booth. Sunshine streamed through the booth’s window and sprayed a hazy rainbow halo of light above Charles Coburn’s head, thereby revealing the man’s sweat-glistened scalp.

“You see, young man, this is one way we plan to bring new visitors to The Rialto. Every two weeks or so the movie distribution companies mail us these advertisements for their upcoming shows. We cut ’em up, rearrange them here, then paste them down again to create our own Rialto Theatre flyer.”

Coburn snipped away at black-and-white photos, headlines and cut lines, titles and subtitles as he spoke. He used a clear epoxy glue, squeezed through a soft-metal tube to reapply the tiny slips of paper on a fresh sheet of cotton bond. The boy enjoyed the aroma of the glue and felt his spirits lifted by the accompanying lightheaded sensation.

“Now we’ll give the glue a chance to dry before we run the flyer through the mimeograph machine. So tell me, then, Christopher, tell me just a bit about yourself.”

The boy felt caught off-guard. He was not accustomed to being asked to explain himself; and he considered that there wasn’t much to tell. His fingers fiddled with his jacket’s metal buttons. The uniform’s padded shoulders weighed him down. He stared at the mimeograph machine’s inky cage in order to avoid Coburn’s eyes.

“Well,” said Coburn, “I know you live on East Lindley Avenue, right here in Tuckersville. That right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You can call me Mr. Coburn if you like. Charles will be fine once we get to know each other. But sir isn’t necessary. Okay?”

“Yes . . . Mr. Coburn.”

“So were you born hereabouts then?”

“Over in Seashore City, sir . . . Mr. Coburn.”

“Well, Christopher, I was born here, too, but I lived for the past ten years in France and Italy. There in Europe, you know, the movie theatres are more fancy, more special to the viewing public than they are here in The States.”

“Fancy, Mr. Coburn? How come?” said Christopher.

“Every performance is a show. If you want to learn the why’s and wherefores, then I’ll teach ’em to you as time goes on. But first we have to bring more folks into this part town. No sense in performing in front of a half-full auditorium, now is there?”

“I guess not,” said Christopher.

35 East Lindley Avenue, 55 years after the fact
Dwindled, Dusty and Dead

“Well, the glue should be dry enough by now. Want to give this machine a whirl with me?”

“Yes, I’d like that, Mr. Coburn.” Christopher, felt his mouth spread its way into the shape of a broad smile. For the first time since taking this, his first formal job, at the age of fourteen, he allowed himself the slight pleasure of believing that he just might be happy here inside this theatre with this man who seemed to welcome a young boy into his fold. This swollen feeling of inclusion was unfamiliar to the boy.

“Now see here, there’s a metal clip that we need to lift before we ever so gently slip the top edge of our flyer under here and then press the entire affair flat and unwrinkled onto the inked cage. Then we turn the crank . . . here try it, Christopher.”

Christopher grabbed the crank’s handle, twisted it forward and stared as a duplicate made its wet way around and through the machine. At the time, he could not have described the way he felt with words, but many years later, as he stood on a boardwalk path within the town where he was born, he’d feel unafraid to tell himself that during the summer season of 1964 he was loved.

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