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The revolt of the ’60s: Blame it on the movies

In the mid-1950s, when I was growing up in West Philadelphia, there were six movie theaters within walking distance of my house: the Byrd, on Baltimore Avenue; the Commodore, on Walnut Street; and the Locust, Nixon, Rivoli and State, all on 52nd Street.

The Rivoli seemed to show nothing but black-and-white films that no ten-to-12-year-old would consider, like Niagara or The Picture of Dorian Grey. The Byrd was good for catching up on Francis the Talking Mule or Ma and Pa Kettle. The Locust played sophisticated fare- also of no interest to my pals and me- like Mr. Hulot's Holiday or the odd British import.

The Commodore was the place where, during the opening of It Came From Outer Space, when the 3-D meteor shower rockets in toward earth, a new boy in the neighborhood, who'd seen it before, earned his spurs by flinging a handful of pebbles into the air and setting everyone screaming. The Nixon featured cinematic excellence in the form of Four Guns to the Border and Riot in Cell Block 11.

But the State had the best Saturday matinee.  Admission there was 15 cents (plus a nickel for candy bar or a dime for a bag of popcorn). For this outlay you got, maybe, a Joe Penner short, three cartoons, a chapter in a Don Winslow or Dick Tracy serial, and a double feature (say, The Crimson Pirate with Go For Broke). Sometimes you got to see filmed races between funny men in cars or on bikes. And if your ticket stub bore the winning number, you won a box of jujubes.

During yo-yo season, you could come on stage to perform tricks. Even if you lost in the first round, you'd receive a coupon for an ice cream sandwich.

Venturing downtown

Once you'd attained a certain degree of maturity and wisdom- which in my home occurred between the ages of ten and 11- you were permitted to take the 42 trolley (later bus) downtown, where another near-dozen, mostly first-run movies played. The Mastbaum, Fox, Trans-Lux, Goldman.... I forget the rest.  If we were unable to wait for their general release, it was here that my friends and I caught House of Wax and Rear Window and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Admission cost more and bought fewer extras at these palaces than in the ‘hood, but Center City offered other treats. Penny arcades filled with pinball machines. Army/navy stores loaded with the surplus from recent wars. Mustard pretzel carts and Horn & Hardart automats. Bookstores, where we peeked at nudist magazines until the owners threw us out.  Downtown took us a lot farther from our parents than 52nd Street.

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