There are certain long, lazy stretches of summer that take you back to childhood, and right now we’re in one of them. It’s the heat, mostly, bullying the rest of nature into silence, the sky gone white in surrender, birds too pooped to peep. Dogs spend days grudgingly relocating themselves from shadow to shadow, and there’s that odd, omnipresent drone that comes from the combined sonic frequencies of cicadas, telephone wires, distant planes, and a million air conditioners set on stun.
We all have common memories attached to such weather. Lying on hot poolside flagstones or burning sands of a town beach. A Creamsicle melting in a cartoon puddle of orange and white. A hamburger cooked long enough to double as a street-hockey puck. And then there are memories specific to each of us, little bookmarks on strange chapters of our lives. How else to explain that hot summer days make me think of the Creature From the Black Lagoon and the great Coolidge Corner Matinee Riot?
The exact year escapes me, but it’s August in the late ’60s and I’m still a kid. It’s so hot that suburban Boston feels like the vinyl front seat of a ’64 Rambler that’s been left in a parking lot all day. Everyone’s covered in a sheen of irritated sweat, especially my mother, who gets to send me off to day camp during the week but is stuck with me and my whiny sisters on the weekends. On this particular morning, I’m perusing the comics section of the old Herald Traveler (sorry, Globe colleagues), trying to plumb the Zen antics of Ernie Bushmiller’s “Nancy,” when I’m transfixed by the following movie ad:
“Fright Show!” “Monsters in Person!” “Goes Into Audience to Get You!” I’m so sold, particularly since I’d recently discovered the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man on one of the local channels showing all the Universal horror classics on weekday afternoons, when I should have been doing homework. So I browbeat my mother into loading me into the family station wagon and driving me to Coolidge Corner, which she was more than happy to do.
During this period, the Coolidge wasn’t the beloved indie-movie treasure it is today. It wasn’t even the classic revival house it became in the early ’70s. It was just the neighborhood theater and kind of a dump. And because it was the only place that bothered to program Saturday matinee kiddie shows, I spent a fair amount of time there watching the most surreal film product ever aimed at the preadolescent brainpan.
There were a lot of Don Knotts comedies, such as “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” in which the comedian turned into a fish, or “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” whose eerie organ score haunts me to this day. There was an extremely frightening Mexican Santa Claus film — no, not 1964’s infamous “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” but something involving tentacles that had me briefly considering a conversion to Judaism. Do you know there was a full-length Topo Gigio movie starring the annoying mouse puppet from “The Ed Sullivan Show”? I do. I saw it at the Coolidge.
This blistering afternoon I filed into the theater with about 300 boys my age, all excited, our scalps glistening under identical whiffle-cuts. We filled the house, clutching our candy of choice (Junior Mints, always Junior Mints, even after I visited the Welch’s candy factory on my friend Jimmy Welch’s birthday and saw how they were made). If there was air conditioning, it wasn’t working, so in desperation we bought those fake oranges with straws sticking out, filled with noxious but ice-cold orange pop — an early byproduct of fracking, I’m guessing. The movie began.
You didn’t have to be a future critic to realize within minutes that this was one of the worst films ever made. All of us figured it out and started banging our plastic oranges against the armrests in chagrin. Where were the monsters?
Decades later, leafing through a book called “Incredibly Strange Films,” I came once more upon that movie ad — it was like biting into a rancid madeleine — and an interview with director Ray Dennis Steckler. His chief claims to fame are the 1963 drive-in anti-classic “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies” and 1965’s “Rat Pfink a Boo Boo,” a Batman and Robin parody so named because the film lab screwed up the title and Steckler couldn’t afford to fix it. “The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters” was actually cobbled together from three separate “Lemon Grove” shorts, a series of low-budget Bowery Boys rip-offs in which Steckler himself played an imitation Huntz Hall. Which, of course, meant nothing to a kid. All we knew was that this was unfunny sub-“Monkees” slapstick with no connective plot tissue whatsoever.
So by the time the Frankenstein monster started chasing Steckler and his colleagues through an onscreen forest, we were primed for something, anything, to happen. At the very least, we wanted our parents’ money’s worth. And then it came: The curtain at the side of the stage parted, and the Creature From the Black Lagoon himself appeared. Live! In Person! Coming to get us!
Within seconds, the air was filled with 300 hard plastic oranges aimed directly at his head.
Let us pause to rewind and imagine the scene backstage some hours earlier. The film cans have arrived from the distributor and, with them, a box containing a limp, malodorous rubber Creature suit. The assembled staff of the Coolidge swivel their gazes as one to the lowest man on the theater’s food chain, the teenage usher working there for the summer. He protests, backs away, but has no choice. Come show time, into the costume he must go.
He had obviously been instructed to walk up the theater aisle all the way to the back, across, and down the other aisle, waving his arms and making vague boogedy-boogedy noises. I credit him with getting about halfway. At every step, boys pummeled him with their tiny fists, bit at his calves, showered him with half-masticated Good ’n Fruitys, Sugar Babies, and Swedish Fish. All of our frustrations with the movie and the heat and our aimless little lives boiled over and took as their target a monster we could actually beat into submission. With a muffled roar of terror, the Creature wrested itself free of the mob and fled into the lobby, never to be seen again.
The place was pandemonium — sheer whiffle-cut madness. The movie came to a close, but no one paid any attention, so juiced were we on our triumph. Of course all 300 of us were instant best friends, and by a kind of tacit hive consensus, we told our parents nothing of what had transpired. Just got in the way-back seat and went home. How was the movie, honey? S’OK. What’s for dinner?
How could we explain that we’d just had one of the best, most ecstatic movie experiences of our lives? Almost 50 years later, when the telephone wires are humming in the heat, I still feel that way.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.