I was saddened to learn about the death of actor Dan Haggerty, who passed away at the age of 74. Haggerty starred in the 1974 wilderness-themed film The Life and Time of Grizzly Adams.
This movie has a special significance for me, and so in threading the projector of my memory vault, I recall . . .
One of the first movies I remember seeing in a theater was The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, starring Dan Haggerty, playing at the Capitol Theatre in downtown Rome, New York.
The experience was memorable because my parents were bickering at the time. It was a Sunday, a bleak winter night in the 1970s. I had begged our parents to take my sister Lisa and I to see to the movie. They had agreed a few days earlier, but now as we prepared to head out into the snow, Mom refused to go. She tried to foil our plans, saying we had misbehaved and should be punished.
I don’t remember what we had done to raise my mother’s ire. Lisa and I had probably fought that day or caused some chaos around the house. Mom was the disciplinarian in our family. And if we acted up she would whip our bottoms with a wooden spoon, the same spoon she used to stir the pot when she cooked her Italian marina sauce.
As my parents continued to argue, their voices echoed throughout the house. I think my mother was saying how Dad let us get away with everything and how she resented her role as enforcer—the parent who meted out punishment. “You shouldn’t reward them by taking them to the movies,” she told my father. “They don’t deserve it.”
But Dad stood up for us. “No Carm, we promised them,” he insisted. “We can’t disappoint them now. We’re going.” And I remember Mom saying, “Fine. You always give in to them anyway.”
And so we left the house, the blowing snow and the frigid air hitting us as we piled into the car and then drove from our rural road in south Rome to downtown. Everyone was quiet in the car as the heater roared and the windshield wipers flapped back and forth.
We parked in an alley near the city parking garage and walked on the icy sidewalk toward the Capitol on West Dominick Street. And then I saw it—the glowing marquee advertising the movie.
Dad bought our tickets and we entered the lobby, warm air brushing against me as we walked across the salt-stained red carpet toward the concession stand. And I instantly forgot about my parents fighting.
I was hooked by the movie-going experience, the smell of popcorn and the colorful display of candy under the glass. I think we bought popcorn, sodas and Milk Duds. And inside the historic theater, I looked up and peered at the gilded railings along the steps leading to the balcony.
Mom led the way toward a row near the front. She placed my sister and me in between her and Dad, our bodies creating distance between them.
Once the movie started, I got lost in the story of the mountain man played by Haggerty and the life he lived in the wild with his bear Ben. I was struck by the cinematography, the beautiful nature scenes showing the mountains of the western U.S.
We kept quiet on the drive home. But I think Dad asked us if we enjoyed the movie. We said we did and my sister and I thanked both of them for taking us. Mom didn’t say anything.
At home we all got ready for bed. And my parents did not argue any more that night. I think by then Mom had moved on from fighting to the next stage—the silent treatment.
I remember being tired but renewed by the power of cinema. I realized here was a place of refuge. By going to the movies, you could escape your unhappy household; inside the movie theater the arguments of your parents ceased and their squabbles faded away. It didn’t matter that your parents would soon be divorced or that your family did not have much money. Nothing mattered in the cinematic realm except sight and sound—images on the big screen and the characters and plot of the story as it unfolded before you.
I would carry that lesson with me throughout my adulthood. Whenever I felt lonely or caught up in the troubles of life, I could always find comfort and emotional succor inside the darkened atmosphere of a movie theater.
I first wrote about that experience in a poem that appeared in my chapbook Outskirts of Intimacy, published by Flutter Press in 2010. Here it is.
First Time at the Movies
A Sunday night in Rome, New York,
the middle of winter in the 1970s.
I remember neon lights that spelled out:
“Now Playing . . . The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams,
Starring Dan Haggerty . . .”
Snow traipsed in on the red carpet,
salt stains in the Capitol Theatre’s lobby,
gilded railings leading to the balcony,
which looked to me like bleachers extending from heaven.
We hurried down the aisle and piled into the front row,
Mom placing my sister Lisa and me between herself and Dad.
We were the buffer zone in those seats that strained our necks.
With the aroma of buttered popcorn swirling around me,
the burgundy curtain slowly parted, revealing the silver screen.
As I chewed on Milk Duds and nibbled black licorice,
the projector flickered and the soundtrack crackled.
And I recall squeezing my sister’s hand,
unable to control my first-time giddiness.
Mom and Dad ignored our exuberance,
kept scowling in unison, caught up in their own close-up shots.
But I took it all in, mesmerized by the Magic Lantern’s dancing light,
instantly hooked by the cinematic illusion.
And as I focused my gaze on the wide screen surrounding me—
the altered reality created by the camera lens ignited my imagination.
I was no longer trapped in a scene charged with domestic quarrels.
I was cut loose from the tentacles of my family—
free to get lost in Tinseltown’s glittering lights and make-believe magic.