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The Sweet Smell of Escape

14 February 2012


Some of the most fun I have is every other week when the blogosphere comes alive with bloggers all writing on the same subject. Today’s #LetsBlogOff topic is “What smell brings you back to a time and place?”

Popcorn Palaces 1


“Popcorn Palaces”


Popcorn Palaces 2 It’s a sound as much as a smell, a smell as much as a taste, a taste as much as a memory, and always it is the onset of a journey, some of them profound, many that are heartfelt, wondrous, mysterious, adventurous, insightful, vivid, otherworldly. It’s popcorn, and it was to me the portal to all that was holy when I was growing up in Helena, Montana, in the 1950s.

One of the beauties of popcorn is popping it. I love the sound of the hard kernels pinging on the metal as they’re poured into the popcorn popper. The lid goes on, and you can hear the oil sizzling, then that wonderful wait for the first POP, followed at an interval by another and another, the intervals ever shortening until it’s become a machine-gun of popping, popping, popping; then the lid starts to rise from the volume of popcorn, and you can smell that glorious aroma.

Popcorn Palaces 5 All these years later, popcorn brings it back. I smell it in the kitchen as we’re preparing for another Saturday night of movies on the DVD player, but I have but to close my eyes, and I’m in a different world altogether, a world of plush red upholstered seats, sticky floors, a darkened cavern of a room, and a world more real than my own in those childhood years, when my greatest fantasy was to simply escape it all.

We grew up poor, as did most of the kids in our neighborhood. I know some people look back on days like that and say they didn’t know how poor they were because everyone else was poor too. But me and my siblings, we knew. When I had to go to school with a hole in one of my shoes that had gone all the way through the sole of the shoe, I knew. My father, thank god, was not one to drink up his wages, but their income was limited, and I was the oldest of five kids. I still remember the shame of wearing to wear those shoes until Dad’s next pay day, but it was the best that he could do.

Popcorn Palaces 8 But for kids growing up that way, the one big thrill was always the movies. It was another world, really. In those days a movie poster for the kind of fare that appealed to a ten or twelve year old ran something like this:

Centuries of Passion

Pent Up in His Savage Heart!

Amazing! Startling! Shocking!

“Creature from the Black Lagoon”

I would stand in front of those posters for an incredibly long time, intrigued to the very depth of my being. All these years later, my one regret about movies is the lack of those hokey posters, because to me, they were the very essence of movies, or at least of movies as a kid views them.

I read once that movies were extremely popular during the Great Depression because they were inexpensive entertainment. As a kid, it was pretty much the only entertainment budget we had. Walking into the lobby of the old Marlow Theater in Helena, Montana, you could smell the popcorn right away. Admission for kids at that time was twenty-five cents. I always managed to get at least one more dime, which was the price of a box of popcorn, and if I could eke out another nickel, some chocolate to go with the popcorn. Absolute bliss was entering with a full fifty cents, because that was admission, popcorn, chocolate, and a Coke. Man, life got no better than that!

I sPopcorn Palaces 7till remember a lot of the movies I saw as a kid, and I sometimes come across them on TV. To tell you the truth, I don’t even know how many hundreds of channels we have, just that most of them are showing garbage. How anyone can spend even one minute with those so-called reality shows is beyond me! But we do have access to a number of channels that broadcast uncut showings of classic movies, a fair number of which I first saw as a kid. It turns out that Audie Murphy, Steward Granger, and Victor Mature are not quite the thespians I thought they were when I first saw them some 55 years ago!

In 1964 I was in the Army and at my first duty station in West Germany. The post we occupied had originally been used by the Germans, but the Allies took it after World War II. Rather than raze the buildings, they simply kept what was there and remodeled the buildings to suit their purposes. It was a wonderful choice for a romantic like me because it meant that all the charm of that little post was preserved, especially the buildings round the square by the post entrance. It was a large area, perhaps a quarter mile or so on each side, ringed with half-stone buildings and paved with cobblestones. To help build morale, the Army had a small movie theater situated on one side of that square that ran several showings of one movie per night. Since so many of us made a habit of those movies, they kept repeats to an absolute minimum, running six different movies per week.

Popcorn Palaces 6 It will soon be some fifty years since I last walked across that cobblestoned square to the building that contained a number of other offices and one small area for the movie theater. There was an indoor box office where one purchased the ticket, then it was up a flight of steps to a proper movie lobby with popcorn being fresh popped right before our eyes! Even now, for so long as it has been, whenever I smell popcorn being popped, it takes me to back to that wonderful movie theater. As an Army cook, I had access to all the treats I could consume in the mess hall, so my enlisted man’s pay check went further than most. It meant that I always had money for the movies. And TWO bags of popcorn!

Since then, of course, Germany has reunited, and many of the posts, including my duty spots in West Germany and Berlin, have been closed. Not long ago I looked at both of them online and was rather startled to see nothing more than decaying buildings and weeds.

My absolute all-time favorite movie theater is the Marlow in Helena, Montana (also long since fallen to the wrecking ball), but my second favorite has always been that little theater in the post at Rothwesten. I just spent some thirty happy minutes looking at websites put together by former soldiers who were stationed in Rothwesten, but nothing really takes me back there quite so vividly as walking into a movie lobby and hearing-and smelling-fresh popped popcorn.


Technorati Tags: Let’s Blog Off,Smells that take you back

This blog post is part of a blog-off series with a group of bloggers from different professions and world views. To see how others handled this theme, please check out the postings below. We will add links as they publish.

    4 Responses to “The Sweet Smell of Escape”

  1. Bridget Willard  Says:

    POPCORN!!!! ah yes!

  2. Joe Dusel  Says:

    Nice post Joseph.

  3. Welshcakes Limoncello  Says:

    Love the way you have connected smell and movies.

  4. Raun Lauterbach  Says:

    Thanks for sharing these memories of military life. Wonderful memories!

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