North by my Northwest
Recently on a hot august day I was on the subway going from Brooklyn to Manhattan to do my usual Tuesday chores there. I would need to go to the bank, the library, the post office and maybe to some bookstores. I looked up from my book that I was reading and noticed a 12 year old Brooklyn boy with his mother.
Now of course there is nothing unusual about seeing children with their mothers on the subway, but for some reason seeing this young boy and his mother sent my mind and memories reeling back to another hot August day some 49 years ago when I was 12 years old and on the subway going from Brooklyn to Manhattan with my mother. It was of course a different subway, a different Brooklyn and a different Manhattan. It was 1959. The subway cars were not air-conditioned and we were coming from a different part of Brooklyn then the Brooklyn I live in now. So it was Aug. 6th 1959 and my mother had asked me to keep her company because she had to do some kind of business in downtown Manhattan. “If you come with me, after we’re done with my business downtown I’ll take you to the Music Hall to see “North By Northwest”. My mother knew me well , and she knew that I would not say no to that offer. My movie going days with my mother were coming to an end as I was getting to be too old to go to the movies with her or so I thought, but as I said this was an offer that I could not say no to. For some reason the Music Hall would always open their films on a Thursday and on this hot Thursday Aug. 6th, North by Northwest was opening at Radio City Music Hall. We both loved Hitchcock, and Radio City Music Hall, and she knew that I was dying to see the movie ever since I had seen the ads for the film in the movie magazines that I always read. There was Cary Grant hanging on to Eva Marie Saint’s hand as he tried to pull her up Mount Rushmore. So after my mother did what she had to do, we got back on the hot subway and took it up to Rockefeller Center and the magnificent Music Hall my favorite movie theatre in all of New York. In 1959 all of the great movie palaces of Manhattan were still there, as was everything else that I loved about New York in the 50’s but there was no other movie theatre in the city that could compare with the Music Hall. If you were approaching the Hall from across the street on 6th avenue you would of course be struck by the beauty of the exterior of the building with its sweeping narrow plain marquee with white letters against a gray background that went around the whole building and announced the movie and the stage show playing with the film. This was a plain, simple but elegant marquee and it did nothing to prepare you for the spectacular interior that awaited visitors once they arrived inside. It was as if the marquee was saying “yes I’m plain but wait just you wait until you get inside“. Also rather simple and plain but beautiful and elegant was the Art Deco ticket foyer which had a low ceiling with 100’s of circular Art Deco light fixtures set into it. On the way into the ticket foyer you would pass the bronze-bordered glass display cases that held stills and specially made posters for the current attraction. The biggest case always displayed a very large color tinted still of a sometimes seminal scene from the current film that always pictured the major players, and the one for North by Northwest showed the leads in the auction house scene. This large still was surrounded by many smaller color transparencies of scenes from the movie and was lit from behind. Once inside the ticket foyer you would purchase your tickets and then enter through the rather plain and unimposing doors and you would enter into the The Grand Foyer which is one of the most majestic and beautiful spaces in all of the city and that’s when the magic would begin. “It’s so crowded here today,“ my mother said to the candy counter lady as we filled up on our snacks. “It’s been like this since “The Nun’s Story” in June the lady said. My mother and me got on the elevator to the third floor balcony and we could hear the grand organ piping away as we made our way out of the elevator towards one of the many doors that open up into one of the most amazing auditoriums in the world. The young usher opened the door for us and we found seats in the smoking section because my mom could not do without puffing away on her Raleigh cigarettes. Sitting next to us was a young black girl who was with her distinguished looking grandfather. Both were dressed in their Sunday best. Now this being 1959 I had never really come into contact with African Americans before or Negroes as they were called back then. To me Negroes were pretty much invisible except for our cleaning lady and the stereotypes that were still being presented in the media. This was new for me; a well-dressed black man with his young well dressed granddaughter. Before the film began my mother chatted a bit with him and the little girl, and then the lights went down and the huge curtain rose on the great Leo roaring away for what was to come. The Bernard Herrmann score began, the Saul Bass titles covered the huge screen and we were off. Of course I didn’t know who either of these major talents were at the time, but both would serve Hitchcock and other directors well for many years to come. The movie was everything I was hoping it would be and more. We both loved it and on the way out I took a few more of the programs for my ever-growing Music Hall program collection. On the way back to Brooklyn I told my mother about how nice the Negro people were who sat next to us, and she agreed that they seemed very nice and refined and were a credit to their race. On the way back to Brooklyn on the hot crowded subway I clutched my programs and told my mother how much I loved Cary Grant and how much I loved Hitchcock and his wonderful new movie and that I would see it again when it came to our neighborhood Loew’s theatre. Which I did. In fact I’ve seen the movie maybe 10 or more times over the years in revival houses, on TV chopped up with commercials and edited for TV, on video and finally on dvd. We both got quiet and sad as we both knew that my mother would have to go directly to my father’s luncheonette and do the night shift. I would have dinner there like I did on most nights and upon entering the store my father as usual just glared at us without a word or greeting and got himself ready to walk back to our apartment 2 blocks away.