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In Our Own Backyard...I'll see you at the movies

A day at the movies can be pretty much anything you want it to be. It's a fantasy trip of sorts, where you can pick your own personal destination.

When I was a little girl, a day at the movies meant a trip to either the old Rialto or Rapids Theater in Grand Rapids. It was quite a luxury to have two theaters to pick from, though each featured only one screen instead of the multiplexes that we have today.

The line at the ticket window often led all the way down the street and around the corner. Youth tickets were 25 cents and candy was a dime. With tickets in hand, my friends and I would wait around only long enough to buy buttered popcorn or a box of Jujubes, and then in we'd go to scope out who was there and search for the best seats.

The theater was always redolent of the smell of stale popcorn and the musty scent of the faux velvet red upholstery on the seats. The concrete floors were slightly sticky from years of spilled drinks and we didn't dare touch the bottom of our seats for fear of finding countless wads of gum stuck to it.

In those days, the ushers not only took your tickets but carried flashlights with them to seat latecomers who arrived after the lights had gone down. The flashlights would often reappear during the movie, when a group of kids was acting up or making too much noise. The usher would flash the beam straight in the eyes of the guilty offenders and put them on notice that they would be thrown out of the theater if they had to be warned again.

Both theaters had exit doors at either side below the big screen that opened directly out into adjacent alleyways. The big trick for a lot of kids was to try to sneak in one of those doors without paying. They, too, were often greeted by "the flashlight" and hastily expelled.

I recall mostly going to Roy Rogers and Gene Autry cowboy movies when I was little, but about the time I became a preteen my friends and I switched to Elvis movies, Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon in the Beach Blanket movies and the mindlessly wonderful Gidget movies (James Darren as "Moondoggie" was my first real movie star crush!).

It wasn't until I was a teenager that my mom and dad allowed me to go to my first horror movie. It was called "The Premature Burial" and as I recall, my friends and I screamed all the way through it, particularly when they unearthed the guy and found he was still alive!

Though it seemed my mom and dad seldom went to the movies in those days, I do recall a time when my dad and one of his buddies announced they were going to a movie one night. I vaguely remember a lot of teasing and speculation over whether they were going to see French film star Bridget Bardot. As it turned out, they were actually going to see "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

I've seen a lot of movies since the days of my youth, many of which stand out in my mind, and many more that were forgettable. More often than not these days, it seems we end up watching movies at home in our living room. As comfortable as that is (and the popcorn is free!), it still hasn't managed to replace the experience of going to the movie theater. There's something spellbinding about seeing a movie on the giant screen with a hundred or so other people laughing or crying or screaming that makes it unlike any other movie-watching experience.

My husband and I went to a local theater to see the movie "42" a couple of weeks ago. It's the life story of fabled black baseball player Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League baseball and went on to achieve great success.

As we sat waiting for the movie to start, I studied the makeup of the crowd as they came in to the theater. I noticed there were a number of young boys who were there with what looked to be their grandfathers, and I was certain those grandfathers could remember in real time the days of Jackie Robinson and wanted their grandsons to know the amazing story. There were a lot of other older folks, but there were young folks as well, ones who likely hadn't even heard of Jackie Robinson until the movie came out.

But to a man, woman and child, as soon as the movie began, we were all spellbound. It was the kind of real-life story that hooked us in and kept us engaged to the point that we were startled and disappointed when the end rolled around, even though it had been going on for two hours.

And as the music swelled and the credits began to roll, something magical happened that I've never experienced in a movie theater before. The crowd stood up -- and applauded.