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Personal Statement:

How I Came to Love the Classics

by Al Cunningham, age 73

October 26, 1999

Growing up in the '30s during the Great Depression was very difficult. Many people were out of work, and money for food and clothing was very hard to come by. My father was laid off from his job and unfortunately, we lost our home. Our family, like many others, was forced to go on relief (nowadays called welfare). It was a struggle for my folks to just put food on the table and I remember often going to school without a lunch many a day. 

In spite of the hard times, most everyone would try to scrape together enough money to go see a movie as often as possible, if for no other reason, than to be transported to a fantasy land where hopefully, one's blues would be chased away. Fred and Ginger -- Laurel and Hardy -- Gable and Harlow. They could make you forget your troubles for a few hours. The joy of a good movie could even make you forget you were hungry. At least for a while. 

Movies were one of my greatest pleasures and I would try to go every weekend, although that was seldom possible. It wasn't often that my folks were able to come up with the price of a ticket (ten cents), so I had to be creative and find other ways to find the money. Hunting for returnable soda bottles in order to get refunds was one of my methods. Another was searching the gutters along the curbs of the busy shopping areas. Occasionally I would find a few coins, but more often I found nothing. 

For just a few cents we kids could see a double feature, several short subjects, a cartoon and a newsreel. If we went on a Saturday matinee we would also be thrilled with an exciting serial presented in twelve or fifteen chapters, a new one each week. 

Sometimes the only way I could get to see a movie was to sneak in. My best bet was at a certain theater about five miles from home. Going there, I figured I had about a 50-50 chance of succeeding. Unfortunately, my only pair of shoes had holes in the soles, which were bigger than the size of quarters. Even though I would cut out pieces of cardboard and place them inside my shoes, the long hike would wear through them long before my journey had ended. Seldom was the time when my feet weren't cut or blistered. A bloody foot wasn't all too unusual, but hiking to see a good movie was well worth it. 

Many of the neighborhood theaters in those days would give away dishes. One night each week would be "Dish Night," and every lady in attendance would receive a free dish with the price of admission. Each week a different dish was available and by returning week after week, you could eventually collect a complete set. If you went to the theater on one of those evenings you stood a good chance of hearing a dish crash to the floor several times during the evening as one lady or another would accidentally drop their dish precipitating a round of applause from the audience. 

These were the days when many of the great classic films were made and I was there to enjoy their debut on the silver screen. As a young boy I recall enjoying most every type of movie Hollywood produced including westerns, musicals and adventure films. I especially enjoyed the many musicals made during the 30's such as the Gold Digger films, the Astaire-Rogers gems, those with Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, etc. The plots weren't always too great, but the music was impeccable with tunes by the likes of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. We're still humming them today. 

This period was long before the arrival of television. Radio was in its hey-day and most families spent their evenings gathered around the family set listening to their favorite programs. One of my favorites was "Lux Radio Theater," hosted by Hollywood director, Cecil B. DeMille. Every week he presented popular movies featuring famous film stars of the day recreating their film roles. Presenting a movie on the radio might sound strange to young people of today but, just think about it for a moment; The listener had to provide the visual aspect of the story using their own imagination. The program provided the dialogue and the music, and you provided the set decoration and costumed the actors. I would lie down in my darkened bedroom, close my eyes and listen, and magically, I would be at the movies. I couldn't have been happier, and It didn't cost a cent…it was all free. 

Yes, times were difficult; we didn't have many niceties, but we were a close family and our love for one another pulled us through some very difficult times, as did the movies. I often wish I could go back to those days, even though there wasn't any television, VCRs, computers or cell phones. It was a slower paced time and people were always ready to help one another. You could walk down the street at night and feel safe. It was a more innocent time in which to live and I believe the movies of that era reflected that. 

I am encouraged, however, by many of the younger generation whose comments I have read on many of the classic movie web sites I have visited. They show an appreciation for those great movies and actors of the 30s, 40s, 50s and even the great silent era. It doesn't seem to bother them if a film is in black and white as long as it is a well-written, well-acted, honest film. It will be up to them to help ensure that these great classics are preserved and appreciated. They are, after all, part of our heritage. 

(Please send your comments on this article to its author, Al Cunningham, at Thanks.)

© 1999 Al Cunningham

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