How's Bayou? Single screams
It was a given that the huge, pulsing spider that crept ominously across the movie screen would devour my brother Don and me the next day as we played in the cane fields behind the rambling Queen-Anne-style mansion of Glenwood Plantation, where we were spending the summer in 1955.
Our friend Caesar, who loved to lead us into the fields, then desert us, assured us that was what would happen -- sure 'nuff, as we described the frightening scene we'd just witnessed at the single-screen Joy Theater in nearby Napoleonville, at that time a bustling little town on Bayou Lafourche.
Memories of the Joy, and of New Orleans' single-screen movie houses, flooded back as I flipped through a copy of Rene Brunet Jr. and Jack Stewart's There's One in Your Neighborhood: the Lost Movie Theaters of New Orleans, which makes its debut this Thursday, Nov. 1, at a book release and New Orleans nostalgia evening hosted by the Prytania Theater, the sole surviving single-screen movie theater in the city that is owned by, and almost synonymous with, the 91-year-old Brunet, who still collects tickets at the door most nights.
As you'd expect, Rene Brunet is a treasure trove of facts and amusing stories about his life in the movie palace business of this region. And Stewart is a lifelong aficionado of these architectural extravagances, who was a founder of the group City Lights, formed in the late 20th century to save the grand Saenger Theater from the threat of demolition.
Throughout the book, extensive and evocative musings by both Brunet and Stewart are interlaced with photos and factual tidbits about a plethora of neighborhood theaters, drive-ins, Uptown, downtown, West Bank and downriver. A beloved lady ticket seller held up at gunpoint in an exterior ticket booth? Strange fires galore that singed or destroyed facades and auditoriums? Free 52-piece place settings doled out one-piece-per-week to female moviegoers? It's all there in its glamor and factuality.
In the heady cinema-proliferation years of the early to mid-20th century, New Orleans was a living museum of architectural styles, from Moorish palaces, European arenas and Rococo extravagances to Art-Deco fantasies, riffs on vernacular Southern facades and sleek Modernist conglomerations pulsing with the novelty of rainbow, round-the-clock neon.
There are stories of reverse mirror-image-like fascination, including the builiding at 1309 North Rampart St. that eventually housed the Grand Theater, which began life as an Orthodox Synagogue to the Tivoli -- the largest and perhaps most elaborate neighborhood theater ever built in New Orleans, on Washington Avenue near North Broad, now serving as a funeral home.
The book is a fanatic's guide to a scavenger hunt for the connoisseur of converted theaters. Get in your car and look for remaining details, such as marquees or exotic towers, on now non-descript facades. See if you can spot the garden center on Jefferson Highway that opened in 1940 with Bing Crosby and Gloria Jean in If I Had My Way, or the Baptist Church on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard where at one Sunday service I witnessed a parade of ladies in hats that shamed the former theater's fluorescent lights in the shape of spaceships that hovered gloriously above them.
Come prepared for sensory overload at the extravaganza that Brunet, Stewart and publisher Arthur Hardy have planned for this Thursday, which begins at 5 p.m. and wraps at 10:30 at the Prytania, 5339 Prytania St. (www.theprytania.com, 891-2787). Admission is free.
Of course, there'll be book signings, Q&A with the authors, 1940s newsreels, 1950s cartoons, and a special showing of the 1962 classic, The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus. There's no telling who else will be there.
Maybe even the big spider from Napoleonville.
How's Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.