A Shadowland Afflicted
Ghosts of movies past haunt the projectionist of a fabled Atlanta theater closing its doors for good. Written by Nick Zegarac.
Blewey Huett was an old time projectionist still working seven days a week inside the cramped backroom overlooking the upper balconies of Atlanta’s luxurious Loew’s Grand downtown Theatre. He was a diehard movie lover; a man enamored with those flickering images on celluloid that passed through his fingers en route to the giant projector’s wheel.
To those who only knew him from work, it must have seemed a very lonely life. But Blewey – short for ‘Bernard, Wilson’ – knew that only in movies did life itself become a palpable eternity. Only on film could he live, then relive, another life time – so many, in fact – until even the most tangible elements of his own seemed pallid by direct comparison.
“Time to lock up,” said Fredric Regal, the proprietor of the Grand.
Only this time, he meant it for good. Over the last decade the cavernous movie palace had lost a lot of money. It was no longer the profitable venue it had once been, just like the movies themselves. A seemingly indestructible and uniquely American cornerstone had been brought to heel at the will of its own government and through fickle audience tastes. At one time, at least these had been easy enough for Hollywood’s dream merchants to gauge.
But by 1978 the moguls had gone. There was a genuine sense of fear creeping into the industry and a very real understanding that the glory days were regrettably behind them. This was probably just as well. For, had the Mayers, the Selznicks and the Lemmles of yesteryear lived to see this day they might have wept more than their usual quota of glycerin tears.
It was not lost on Blewey Huett that, like the Grand herself, he had strangely become a relic from another time while still living in his own. But now that painful moment had arrived. It was time to declare them both legally dead.
“I’ll lock up, Fred” said Blewey, “I just want to run a reel before I go. Just one more for old time’s sake.”
“If you played it for her, I suppose you could play it for me,” joked Fred with a smile, misquoting one of Blewey’s favorite lines.
But the old projectionist had already become whimsically sad.
“I’ll be in the office,” said Fred, “See me on your way out for your pay. I’ll leave you to your memories.”
Blewey waited until the doors to the auditorium had closed behind his boss. What he had to say required no audience. And Fred wouldn’t understand his sentiment anyway. For forty years the Loew’s Grand had simply been a paycheck to him. But to Blewey Huett…well…it was part of who he was. This had been his home. She had been his life. Not all of it, perhaps, but a good enough chunk that deserved so much more than just turning out the house lights and twisting the key into the stage door exit’s padlock.
“You’re a grand old girl,” Blewey quietly whispered, gently running his fingers across the faded red top cushion of the seat nearest him.
He stood there for a moment, his heart sinking as he took in this spectacular view for the very last time. The faux marble trim of the proscenium and elegantly framed Roman columns towering on either side of the screen had worn badly these last few years. The red velvety sheen of the presentation curtain was dated and dingy, what with no money to have it taken out and properly cleaned or better still, replaced as they had been by MGM from royal blue with gold trim in 1955.
Those were the days when studios owned theatres. Or was it the other way around? The days when the business of making movies had been artistic rather than beholding solely to the bottom line. Before HUAC, the suburbs, and television had chipped away at the venerable star system. Before the Consent Decrees. Before.
But now it was all ‘after’: long after the fall of Hollywood itself, with only remnants of that ancient flower in showbiz glamour left behind to be fondly remembered and faintly admired, even as it moldered in the dusty annals of history. No, thought Blewey to himself, it had all come to a sudden fade out much too fast.
He had started working as a projectionist’s assistant at the tender age of fifteen in 1929, just as sound was coming into its own. He could still remember those first curious pops and crackles coming off the large synchronized wax record dizzily spinning next to the film reel, and Al Jolson’s thinly effeminate voice declaring for all to hear, “Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”
Jolson had been quite right. For in the many years that had followed, Blewey Huett had chased one magic shadow after the next up there on that expansive blank screen. Each time the giant canisters containing the newest feature arrived from Hollywood, he raced them up to the top of the stairs, gingerly unpacking their oversized spools as though he were coddling a small child.
In many ways, the history of the Loew’s Grand belonged to them both, though not exclusively. Blewey had met David O. Selznick here for the first and only time back in 1939, shaking the old time producer’s meaty hand a mere four hours before the world premiere of Gone With The Wind, and savouring the absolute hysteria that was going on just outside the theatre. After that thunderous open night applause, Blewey’s proposal to Caroleen Jenkins, a girl he had known for only five months, seemed almost apropos. Carl Jenkins did not approve of Blewey Huett. He was a high school dropout with no future ahead of him. But to Blewey’s everlasting amazement, Caroleen Jenkins had defied her father’s request and said ‘yes’. It was the start of a very good life together.
Even so, Blewey now saw the whole thing in reverse, flickering at twenty-four frames per second before his eyes. Fade up on ‘A’ reel of their sparkling courtship; that awkward first meeting at the reunion dance. Blewey could almost feel the crinkle of his starched white collar constricting around his neck. He relived each stolen kiss against the moonlit arbour behind Caroleen’s parent’s house. More intense pleasures were to follow in the backseat of his older brother Chuck’s borrowed car.
But like the greatest of love stories, theirs had come with more than a hint of melodrama along the way. Blewey fought the Nazis in Oran, North Africa, but saw Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca millions of miles away from his beloved Loew’s, huddled in an army tent not far from the reality of that city. How different he found it in life; dull and frankly, uninspired, without the colourful refugees, moody Max Steiner score or even a hint of evocative moonlight filtering through the Venetian blinds of that upstairs apartment he briefly shared with a nameless woman who ran the small concession for soldiers just below.
As the armistice neared, the Allies sent Chuck’s body back to De Brook to be buried near his broken hearted fiancée, Mildred’s home. He had fallen at the Battle of Triest, and for a while thereafter every war picture that Blewey Huett ran at the Loew’s Grand left a distinct lump in his throat. But nothing could discourage his passion for the movies. And it was a passion – perhaps even an obsession – the greatest in his life. For, it nourished his heart, his mind and even his soul where reality frequently disappointed and even threatened to crush his dreams underfoot.
On the home front, Blewey settled into the best years of their lives. He went back to projecting movies, raised a pair of keen and handsome children with his wife – Mark and Sarah – and moved his growing brood to a small suburban home on a quiet, heavily treed street that vividly reminded him of the fictional town of Carvel that MGM had lovingly recreated in all those Andy Hardy films. After so many years of uncertainty, of struggling to make ends meet and going off to war, a new and most gratifying cadence came into all their lives.
In his head Blewey perennially prepared a vacation for his family to Hollywood. But then, almost as quickly, he would change their destination to someplace closer to home, perhaps fearful that the one dimensional back lot magic coming out of his projector would somehow evaporate as easily as the stardust, once seen from the graceless vantage of a three dimensional world. It was better not to know for sure.
In 1954 Brigadoon came to town – a lush and lavishly appointed Metro musical starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. The film quickly became Caroleen’s favorite, and she hummed its score incessantly throughout their home morning, noon and night. For that film’s premiere, Blewey met producer Arthur Freed and his daughter, Barbara. This of course, was exciting news. But after the premiere, Blewey recalled a rather sullen Arthur Freed standing alone inside the cavernous lobby.
“Is anything the matter, Mr. Freed,” said Blewey.
“It didn’t really work, did it?” Arthur inquired sympathetically.
“The picture,” insisted Arthur, “It’s getting harder to fool an audience. Money’s tight. Mayer’s gone. But I’m still here. Maybe I’m just losing my golden touch.”
“My wife doesn’t think so, Mr. Freed,” replied Blewey enthusiastically.
In an attempt to impress he had quite forgotten himself. Caroleen had seen Brigadoon the night before its premiere, and, without paying for the privilege. Now, Blewey just stood nervously by. He could lose his job for this and he knew it. But Mr. Freed simply smiled and patted him on his shoulder.
“Well, God bless her,” Arthur said, “Hope there are more people like her in tomorrow night’s audience.”
A week later a film reel arrived from MGM. But unlike other canisters, impersonally stickered with only the theatre’s address and indentifying title and reel number, this one came by special delivery, and with a handwritten note taped to its front; ‘To Mr. Blewey Huett…with thanks. A. Freed.’
With great eagerness, Blewey called home to Caroleen.
“Get down to the Grand right away,” he said, before hanging up the receiver and rushing upstairs to cue up his present.
There they were – all of them – all the outtakes from Brigadoon. Gene Kelly tripped on a paper mache rock and momentarily lost his temper, kicking a few sprigs of heather aside. Cyd Charisse was glimpsed sipping a Coke near the plywood and straw thatched abode that her Fiona Campbell supposedly lived in. But perhaps most delightful of these hidden gems was the fleeting glimpse of director Vincente Minnelli sprinting away from the set as Jimmy Thompson began to lip sync ‘Come To Me, Bend To Me’ – a poetic pas deux that regrettably had not made it into the final cut.
It was a good thirty minutes before Caroleen arrived at the theatre, and well past midnight. But when she did, slightly disheveled and most assuredly out of breath, she looked as though tightly woven curlers had been freshly plucked from her auburn tresses, expressly for the occasion.
“What on earth?” she exclaimed.
“Come,” said Blewey, escorting her to his choice seat, eighth row, center before encouraging her to sit, “I’ve a surprise for you.”
Without another word he ran away to reset the projector.
“This had better be worth it!” shouted Caroleen, slightly annoyed.
In all her years of living with her husband, she had never quite managed to acquire his innate love of the movies. Although she also had her favourites, these were strictly as a way of passing the time. But as soon as the images began to flicker to life on the screen, Caroleen realized how special this moment was between them. From now on this would be ‘their’ reel.
Over the years Blewey had taken great pains to secure Arthur Freed’s gift in a special hiding place inside the theatre’s loft, lest one of the overzealous cleaners from the night crew toss it into the ash can without recognizing its true value. However, the last time Blewey had shared this reel with his wife was on Saturday, November 23rd, 1963; the day after President Kennedy was shot. They had needed a Brigadoon just then. Camelot was gone forever.
The years had rolled on, as effortlessly as twenty-four frames a second, through the lives and loves and love lost. From his tight little corner inside the Loew’s Grand, Blewey Huett travelled to many lands. He had seen great wonders of the earth and outer space. By his own account, he had experienced the scope and breadth of human evolution; all of it paralyzed in the dark.
But darkness itself had crept beyond the stage that previous winter, had afflicted Caroleen with a most devious malignancy that no amount of fantasy could cure. She had died quietly in his arms and in her last hushed gasps of farewell he had heard the mysterious echoes of ‘The Heather on the Hill’ – remembering how, in her stocking feet, she had come to the front door to greet him one late afternoon with a smile and a song, and his heart had broken then at the thought of never hearing it again.
Now, he would cue up their most precious memories once more – one last time to scorch them into his memory, before going home to an empty house.
The familiar countdown leader before the outtakes began to flash on the widescreen, and then the journey into yesteryear began. Gene Kelly tripped on a paper mache rock and momentarily lost his temper, kicking a few sprigs of heather aside. Cyd Charisse sipped her Coke near the plywood and straw thatched hut of Fiona Campbell. Vincente Minnelli darted across the scenery without the benefit of an audio track, waving his hands wildly about for grips and crew to clear the set before Jimmy Thompson’s outtake.
Only this time there came a jump cut that Blewey did not recall. The scene leapt ahead to a master shot of the cyclorama, brimming with heather and rolling hills carefully crafted by MGM’s art department. The image seemed to interminably linger on the screen. Perhaps the film had become stuck in the projector. But no, the heat of the lamp would have burned a hole through it by now. And the image on the screen, though void of actors, was hardly static.
A soft breeze created by an off camera fan was gently caressing the fields of artificial grass. It tugged at the limpid bowers of the wire trees in the background. Suddenly, a swallow flew overhead, then another, strangely passing beyond the cyclorama clouds and off into the horizon. The Grand’s sound system caught the first distinct notes of a cricket rubbing its legs together, then the chirping of birds, and finally a faintly pleasurable humming from off camera.
The cavernous interior of the Grand filled with a soothingly warm gust of air, the clouds in the cyclorama slowly sailing across the screen from left to right, as though suddenly brought billowy and creamy to life. Blewey rose from his seat.
It was not his mind playing tricks. He came to the proscenium in an almost hypnotic trance, the light bouncing off the screen somehow warm and inviting; not the heat of projected kilowatts striking the white surface, but genuinely balmy and mingling with a distinctly sweet odour of the outdoors.
‘Come to me…bend to me…’ a voice encouraged from the other side, ‘Kiss me good day. Darling, my darling, t’is all I can say.’
Blewey extended his arm toward the screen, but withdrew it ever so slightly at the last moment. He was suddenly frightened.
‘Just come to me…bend to me…’ the voice whispered, ‘Give me your lips. And don’t take them away.’
Blewey reached out for the screen. But to his amazement he could not touch it. Instead, his hands passed through to the other side of the image, soothed by a temperate cast of sunlight.
“Welcome home, darling,” said Caroleen.
She crested over the distant hillside, hurrying toward him with quick light steps, her soft reddish locks and soft pink skin glowing like a mirage. But she was real, and lovely, and, young again. Blewey stepped beyond that fine line separating the Grand’s ghostly interior from this strange new world. The speckles of age instantly vanished from his skin. His hair thickened. His sight came into focus. There would always be a Brigadoon. No need or even desire to look back. Everything was ahead of them now, the future marching onwards as it should, only this time towards a strange new eternity. Fade up on a lush orchestral arrangement and a glowing sunset to complete their golden afternoon.
Quite suddenly the screen went black. The film in the projector had run out. Blewey Huett was gone – relocated, you might say, to that fool’s paradise only possible in the movies. Only now he was a part of that mythology he once held so dear. In life he could never have lived as his heroes had done on the screen. Yet, he had been blessed to know them all, and that had been quite enough to sustain him until this flickering moment of twilight came in search of his afflicted shadow land.
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9 Responses to “A Shadowland Afflicted”
Wonderful; one of the best on this site.
This is my favorite yet.
Wonderfully and breathlessly written! It kept me in my seat but on my toes until the very end. What a gift of a story!
What an amazing story!
good story but just a minor thing, how can a person work 8 days a week when there is only seven days in a week?
Perhaps the author meant he was overworked (like “giving 110%”) but it does look weird so I changed it. Thanks!
Of all the stories, this one was the best ever! Its a wonder, how amazing how you folks have brought the art of story telling back to life!