Thanks to the horror films, I became fascinated with Egypt and mummies. I haunted the Field museum in Chicago on weekends until closing time perusing their Egyptian collection. I bought mini statues of Bastet and postcards of sarcophagi and fantasized about becoming a paleontologist when I grew up. I watched all the old films on Chicago’s Shock Theater. I adored Boris Karloff and was fascinated with the idea that you could achieve everlasting life by drinking a cup of tanna-leaf tea.
In fact, my sympathies were always with the monsters in the movies. They seemed to have so much more class than the smarmy heroes of the films. I couldn’t understand why the heroine would choose her wimpy boyfriend over someone who offered eternal life. Even if Boris Karloff was a bit wrinkly, I felt he had a dusty suave dignity that was incredibly engaging. He was a Prince of Egypt after all.
So I was beside myself with joy when I learned that the 1959 film The Mummy with Peter Cushing would play in our neighborhood. The Theater advertised that the Mummy himself would appear in person! All my friends were planning to go. What could I do? Of course it was going the play at the Alex—the one theater in our neighborhood was taboo and off limits. It was on the east end of the neighborhood near Garfield Park in a dicey area now considered dangerous. The theater originally known as the Hamlin had begun its life as a vaudeville house. After vaudeville was dead, it was later remodeled to show films. By the 1950s, the theater showed only the cheesiest horror movies. The main reason it was off limits was that it didn’t employ ushers and was pure kiddy chaos every weekend. My mother forbade us from going to the Alex.
“No, the place has rats,” she responded to our pleas. “The popcorn has cockroaches.” “You will get sick—the answer is NO.”
I told Mom that it was unfair that my friend, Mary Lennon, could always go to the Alex and nothing happened to her, but Mom wouldn’t relent. The Alex was banned. I tried every angle but the answer from her was still no. I badgered her for weeks before the film opened but she wouldn’t give in.
I even tried to enlist my grandmother’s support to wear my mother down, but Gram, usually my ally, said, “Oh honey, I don’t know how you can stand to watch those movies. They frighten me.”
I was in a panic. I could not miss this film and a personal appearance by the Mummy.
I had one last chance. When we were kids the telephone that hung on the kitchen wall near the dining room was grafted to my mother’s head. When she was talking to her friends, she’d agree to anything not to be interrupted. She’d park on a folding stepstool with her Coke and cigarette and gossip with her old girlfriends from high school and premarriage days. That would be our cue to nag her for concessions. When she was thoroughly engaged in some juicy story, we would start badgering her for something we knew she wouldn’t allow if we had her full attention. Barb and I hatched a plot. While Mom was talking with Connie, her best friend for life, I broached the Mummy topic again in a low voice and mumbled something about going to see the film.
“Mom, please, I gotta go...”
“What, what do you want? Yeah, yeah, just go on, okay, just don’t bother me, I am on the telephone,” she replied.
I had her. She said YES. A few weeks passed and the opening was near. I nervously reminded her that she agreed to let me go.
“I don’t remember that,” she objected.
“You were on the phone,” I replied.
To her credit, she never reneged on those promises we extracted while she was preoccupied with a phone call.
“Oh. Alright. But you are not going to like it. That place is a dump,” she warned.
For weeks I boned up on my Egyptology by watching the old Mummy movies, reading Classics Illustrated, and perusing my grade school history book. When the big day finally arrived, Barb and I were excited and nervous. Before we left for the show, Mom took another opportunity to lecture us. She warned about the rats and cockroaches and told us not to go near the restroom because we might be molested by some dirty old man just hanging out trying to grab little girls. The cautionary tale didn’t deter us. We were going to see the Mummy in person. We set off east on Madison Street for the Alex, quarters in hand.
Nothing our mother said prepared us for what we saw when we crossed the threshold of the theater. We felt like Orpheus and Eurydice descending into Hades. It was anarchy. The concessions stand looked like it had been ransacked. Fortunately, we had our own treats in our pockets, courtesy of Gramps, because there was no way we would touch anything that came from behind the smudged, greasy glass display cases. The cockroaches didn’t have to look far for grub; there was popcorn all over the floor. Sticky soda had dried on the hexagonal tiles of the entry way and our shoes made suctiony noises as we walked into the auditorium. No one took our tickets because Mom was right—there were no ushers.
Barb and I tried to find seats that didn’t have the springs hanging out and sat down. We pulled our knees up and sat with our feet on the seat because we didn’t want those rats to nibble our toes. And then, the theater doors opened. The kids in the theater began to scream. Slowly, hesitatingly, a guy wrapped in ace bandages and gauze started down the aisle. We screamed too. Then, one kid ran up to him and tried to grab a souvenir, and then another and another. Like Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer, he was besieged by wild kids. They were trying to rip off the Mummy’s bandages!
The Mummy fought back, yelling, “Leave me alone, you goddamn kids!” but they didn’t stop.
Finally, he ran out of the auditorium cursing and then the lights went down.
We never heard one word of the film because the kids shrieked at the tops of their lungs throughout the whole movie.
What a bust. We were disgusted. Barb and I agreed we had wasted our quarters. We vowed never go to the Alex again and would only go to the Marbro. Mom was right. Again. We decided to mitigate our disappointment with Green River shakes at the Dutch Mill soda fountain.
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