There has always been a movie theater in Little Aleppo, but very few customers showed up before the invention of electricity. A community is made up of people, but a neighborhood is built out of bodegas and pizzerias and friendly crossing guards. A neighborhood has a soapbox preacher on the corner wailing at the top of his lungs about Hell, whom everyone at least pretends to respect, and a drunk next to him who isn’t bothering anyone, whom everyone looks down on. A neighborhood has a storefront that churns through businesses three, four, five a year, and a bar that’s too loud at night, and a school that’s too loud in the morning. A neighborhood has a barbershop and a bookstore, and it also has a movie theater, which has been run by the Incandescente family for a hundred years. It is called The Tahitian.
(This was not the first choice for the name. Gussy Incandescente was like many Americans in that she did not speak a word of French, but believed it to be the fanciest of all the languages. Luckily, one of her projectionists had been raised in Montreal and helped her pick the most exotic and high-toned name for her cinema. Unluckily, that projectionist secretly despised Gussy and the name he helped her come up with was “The Merde” and had it not been for the intervention of a passing Tahitian named Pomore Ponui, that would have been on the marquee. The projectionist was fired and in tribute to Pomore, the place was named The Tahitian. Also, Gussy’s idiot brother had recently bought several hundred slightly-fire-damaged tiki torches, and everything just kinda came together.)
The Tahitian was a palace. It sat a thousand customers, two thousand if they were all Siamese twins, and the seats were made of blood-red velour so thick that you could write your name with your finger, and then erase it with your palm. The orchestra pit was half-under the stage, which was under the 100-foot screen, which was behind a curtain that was drawn and opened before the main feature. Families and respectable types sat in the floor seats, single men and the quietly disreputable were confined to the mezzanine, which was split in half by the projectionist’s booth, and there was also a balcony. We’ll get back to the balcony.
It was a nickelodeon at first, but there were several others within a streetcar’s ride, so Gussy concocted a plan, which Pomore –whom she had married–talked her out of because the plan was to set fire to all the streetcars. Instead, The Tahitian would charge four-and-a-half cents for a ticket, but only sell two at a time. The strength of this plan was bolstered by the fact that Gussy’s idiot brother had recently bought several tons of counterfeit pennies that they could give out as change. Gussy and Pomore bought several pieces of lakefront property with the proceeds from that idea, and the fake coins still pop up in Little Aleppo cash registers to this day.
Shorts at first just like Vaudeville, one after the other, men robbing banks and men robbing trains and men robbing stagecoaches; some of the reels would have a lady in them, and others would have a dog. These were silent films, of course, but the theater was anything but: Little Aleppo audiences have always believed that the movies were a form of living theater. There were vendors bellowing in the aisles about their old-timey food–eels and meat pies and pickled measles–and the crowd sang like South American soccer fans along with the popular songs of the day, as played by the 5-14 piece orchestra.
(The precise number of musicians that might turn up on any given night was dependent on an almost-infinite permutation of factors: too drunk, too sober, not able to cop, pissed off a cop, pawned their instrument, pawned someone else’s instrument and got his ass kicked, or just plum forgot. One summer, the orchestra went on strike after they discovered Gussy’s checks were just as good as her pennies. The work stoppage lasted several weeks until a very large man from the Musician’s Union visited and informed Gussy that, unless the musicians were paid, he would set the building on fire. She paid them. The large man then turned to the musicians and informed them that, unless the union was paid, he would set them on fire. And that’s the story of how The Tahitian became a union shop.)
Gussy and Pomore saw the talkies arrive, which were very popular, and then the screamies, which were not. By the time color saturated the screen, they were fading out, and the two of them moved to Palm Springs and lived in a house shaped like a flying saucer that they called Penny Lane. Their son, Irving Incandescente-Ponui, took over The Tahitian on the morning of Friday, October 29th, 1929. That afternoon, the Depression started. Irving tried calling his parents several times, but they would not pick up the phone.
Irving needed a plan, but if there’s one thing guys named Irving are good at, it’s coming up with a plan; his was the Good Life. Little Aleppo had always been broke, but now it was poor: the former is the low ebb between windfalls; the latter is adrift in the doldrums. Men did not have the money to afford barrels, and so stood nude but for the suspenders draped pointlessly over their shoulders. Women sold their children, and then themselves, which produced more children, which they then sold. Many soup kitchens opened, and Soup’s Kitchen opened, which was a taco truck that Soup was living in, and I don’t know why he has the Time Sheath, but rest assured that I am going to speak to him about that.
So Irving gussied the place up, with no help from Gussy, who was still avoiding his calls. He bought a cadre of orphans and trained them in posture, and smiling, and using flashlights to point at things, and then he bought them all uniforms with epaulets the size of snow tires, and dinky round hats with chinstraps, and made them ushers. The orchestra was long gone, but Irving spent some real money and bought an organ. It rose from beneath the stage, pipes emerging first, and then the glorious machine: it had four keyboards, and buttons you pushed, and levers you pulled, and the organist had his back to audience, but his bench was hollow and you could see his skinny legs search for the right foot pedal, completely independent of his arms. Only rarely did the mechanism that raised and lowered the organ fail.
During the Second World War Two, no man was admitted to The Tahitian unless he was wearing a military uniform and smoking. A woman had to wear a floral print dress and have drawn lines up the back of her legs with a pencil because she did not have enough ration tickets for nylons.
Irving had a good run. He considered himself an impresario, and if you define that word as “someone who can put on a good show with a bad act,” then he was. He would try anything, especially after teevee came around, to bring in a crowd: he wired the seats to zap the patrons during a truly execrable horror movie called Satan’s Lightning, and everyone was having a great time until that poor woman spilled her soda on the wires. To Irving’s credit, he reupholstered that seat in black.
In 1958, The Tahitian was converted into a drive-in movie theater, but not on purpose. Irving took this a sign, because how could he not? The Tahitian went to his son, David O. Incandescente-Ponui, who was a complete asshole in every way. He was cheap and lazy and didn’t know anyone’s name. (Irving hadn’t known anyone’s name, either, but Irving was known to get lost in his own office, so people didn’t mind; David O. didn’t know anyone’s name because he didn’t give a shit.)
The old palace collapsed in on itself slowly. The ushers, who were in their fifties and had–most of them–never even been outside the walls of The Tahitian, were expelled like eunuchs from the Forbidden City. The organ was lowered for the last time, and the keyboardist sold for parts, and the curtains stolen by a semi-defunct choogly-type band to use as a backdrop. David O. wouldn’t pay for the big films, so the program got progressively skankier: action flicks, and chop-socky, and finally it was just a fuck theater full of pud-pullers, the insolvent, and locals who had come in specifically to vomit on the carpet.
The Tahitian screened Debbie Fucks Everything That Moves on September 15th, 1983, and then it closed. David O. was found stabbed to death in the middle of Little Aleppo, and all the eyewitnesses agreed that–while none of them had seen anything–it definitely wasn’t a group of elderly men in tattered uniforms with epaulets the size of snow tires, and dinky round hats with chinstraps. The crime remains unsolved.
But just like a rose grows from shit, David O. had a daughter, and she was a good egg; naturally, he hated her. Her idiot brother got the money (what there was of it) and Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, got The Tahitian. She figured the old girl just needed a new coat of paint, and also a new everything else. She did not have the money to fix it up, but she was smart and articulate and driven and good with people. None of those qualities will cover the cost of renovating a theater, though, and she could see her ruined birthright through the window of the bookstore with no title, where she worked for Mr. Venable, who liked Gussy very much, and showed it by speaking to her sarcastically and firing her at least once a week.
“You think you own a theater, and you think this because you are dumb. I think you own a Historical Landmark, and I think this because I am smart. Did you notice how I capitalized those words? You’re fired,” Mr. Venable mumbled into his chest without taking his eyes off a copy of Pride or Prejudice, which he enjoyed hate-reading. Gussy had never known anyone else who heckled books.
When the projector first snaps on, that sudden burst of photons from the lens nailing dust mites like they were escaped convicts against the prison wall, and the film pops and whirs green scars microscopic on the stock but twenty feet across on the screen and time stops and the movie starts: that’s what Gussy’s head did, and back among the shelves there was a book that was glowing.
“Didn’t I tell you to throw out those bioluminescent books? They creep out the customers! And didn’t I fire you?”
So Gussy grabbed the glowing hardcover and pretended to throw it out but really put it on another shelf just to annoy Mr. Venable, which is where she found a book entitled Starting a Non-Profit Corporation and Raising Money from Rich Fuckers to Save a Historical Landmark for Dummies, and had she not grown up in Little Aleppo, she would not have believed the coincidence.
It turns out that she was good at raising money from rich fuckers: Gussy could schmooze and finagle, and wheedle and cajole; all kind of fun verbs. Soon the renovation was underway full steam and she had to quit working at the bookstore with no title, but she still stops in once a week so Mr. Venable can fire her. Gussy shored up The Tahitian’s bones, and restored all the sconces and hangings and carvings that her great-grandmother had insisted on, and–just like her great-grandmother–refused to learn what any of it was actually called, referring to it collectively as “all the fancy shit on the walls.”
The raccoons that had established a semi-advanced society under the stage were captured and later sold to a drummer, and after many hours of being cursed at by men with dirty hands, the organ, that glorious machine, rose from the shit and let out a blast that would have sent the walls of Jericho tumbling down and did, in fact, collapse a small portion of the theater. Soon there was a screen behind the organ, and a curtain right in front the same blood-red as the thick velour on all of the seats except for one, which was black.
Everyone in Little Aleppo came for the Grand Reopening, which was so anticipated that general consensus had capitalized it. General Consensus, a former English teacher who went insane and now walks around in an army helmet with his dick out, argued that you weren’t allowed to just go around capitalizing things willy-nilly, but no one listened to him. Gussy had arranged for spotlights outside, the giant ones on the truck that swivel like mambo dancers, and she saved some money by hiring Precarious Lee to arrange the lights, but Precarious may have overestimated the number of lumens required for the job, and it is entirely within the realm of possibility that several nearby structures were set ablaze, and also maybe a couple planes were downed, but that’s not the point of this story and mistakes were made and lessons were learned and life goes on.
Though there was a new ticket machine, run by computers all modern-like, Gussy had printed old-fashioned tickets for the Grand Reopening that zipped out of a little slot, and then you walked into the lobby with all the wonderfully, cheerfully, joyfully fake Tiki bullshit and a ceiling so high that the sky was jealous. While you were in the lobby, you could get yourself a snack, and as you entered the auditorium, you handed your ticket to a tiny, ancient man in a brand-new uniform with epaulets the size of snow tires, and a dinky round hat with a chinstrap.
Precarious sat with Big-Dicked Sheila up in the balcony, which had resisted all attempts at gentrification. You could order tapas to your couch in the mezzanine, and there were cupholders everywhere you looked, but the balcony stayed weird. Reprobates, snorers, the criminally smelly: these were the balcony patrons. Knife fights were rarer than they used to be, but the number of stabbings remained troublingly high. Folks fell off a lot, and it was good forty feet down, but these victims of gravity were invariably so fucked up that they were loose as rag dolls when they hit the ground, and walked away unharmed. It was a balcony half-full/half-empty situation.
Gussy had chosen the movie for opening night, and she had picked a seemingly odd one, but she had her reasons. It was Sullivan’s Travels by Preston Sturges, and it was made a long time ago, back when men were named things like Preston Sturges. The movie was about a director who made comedies, successful ones. Like all funny people, the director was a self-pitying and pretentious little shit, and so he quits making comedies and strikes out across America to meet the common man, so he could tell the story of their suffering. The common man hates when fancy fuckers pull that kind of bullshit, and they beat him half to death and steal his money, and he winds up in a labor camp.
And the guards screen one of his movies. The prisoners–the wretched of the earth, missing teeth and without a dollar to their names–laugh. And keep laughing, despite the armed guards glowering and the uncomfortable seats that most certainly are not made of blood-red velour so thick you could write your name with your finger. The director remembered something from a book he’d read once: the poor will always be with us. Least you can do is tell ’em a fucking joke.
Precarious was bored–there were no car chases–but Sheila liked it, and they smiled at Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, on the way out. Creepy Ernie had fallen out of the balcony, but he was fine. Mr. Venable did not fire her. The Tahitian lived again, a palace in the middle of the weird side of town, and there were movies every night again in Little Aleppo, which is just another neighborhood in America.