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April 18, 2000

Dusty files of old Perry newspapers, along with other reliable sources, continue to tell us about the popularity of the many movie houses that have existed here through the years. Sadly, all of them are now gone so today we have only the warm memories of those happy hours spent snuggled in their comfortable seats to remind us of the joy they once brought to Perry audiences. That was years ago, in the days before TV, when Hollywood studios were the dispensers of drama, comedy, romance, music and history for most of the world’s population. The education we thus acquired may have been badly skewed and otherwise flawed, but most of it was beautiful to watch. Images were offered for our approval on silver screens in thousands of movie palaces, some grand and huge, others small but comfortable, placed there by anonymous projectionists and their carbon arc lamps hidden in mysterious, cramped booths at the rear of the theatre, and we were swept away by the magic of it all.

I grew up thinking Claudette Colbert, in her 1934 black and white version, was the real Cleopatra. In 1964, when Elizabeth Taylor shocked us all in a Technicolor version of the Queen of the Nile, it was hard to dissociate the earlier movie, directed by no less a luminary than Cecil B. De Mille, from the new pretender, even if it was four hours long. Likewise, Boris Karloff is still the one and only real Frankenstein monster because of his superb but scary performance in the 1931 film by that name, although my movie encyclopedia lists at least six other versions released through the years. I saw them, Claudette/Cleopatra and Boris Karloff/monster man, when I was a wide-eyed and hopelessly enthralled movie aficionado, not yet in my teens but learning about the world in the offerings distributed by such studios as Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, 20th Century-Fox, Columbia, Universal, Republic, Monogram and the others.

The purpose here is not to compare the qualities of old films with the more recent versions, or to maintain that in general the old films were superior. Obviously technology has brought movie making to a new plateau of realism and quality, something the industry’s pioneers could not have envisioned, and less stringent sexual guidelines now prevail, going ‘way beyond the old acceptable levels. The point is simply that young minds in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were crammed with whatever Hollywood placed before them, and the offerings generally were magical and moralistic, thanks to the Hays Office and others who passed judgment on what the studios could release. All of their productions eventually found their way to the Roxy or Annex Theatres in Perry, or to other film houses that came and went here through the years, and I was generally in the audience for the premiere local showings. My generation was greatly influenced by the movies and many of us are sad to see what has happened to the industry in more recent decades.

But, whether we are watching contemporary productions with their realistic violence, romance and even their excesses and extremes, or reflecting on the more moderate movieland styles of yesterday, we have to acknowledge that motion pictures of all ages have entertained us, challenged us and offered us a window on the world. Television has largely preempted the movies with its 24 hours per day programming, but watching a small screen from a sofa at home with a remote channel changer in one hand is nowhere near the same thrill as going out to the movies. TV commercials interrupt the shows too frequently on non-cable channels and the commercials are notoriously boring. Perry has had many movie theatres through the years, but now we have none. I greatly miss them. I don’t watch the video tape version of “Gone With the Wind,” although it’s on file in my TV cabinet, but I would make a very determined effort to see it again for the umpteenth time on the large screen at any theatre in a 100-mile radius. I just wish we had one of those again in Perry, but for several practical reasons, that is not likely to happen. Maybe if Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart were still with us, we could dare to dream about it, but their equal is not fashionable today so our hopes would seem to be in vain. Pity.