Charlton Heston and Nova are Riding Down the Beach or Movie Mishaps

… Or Movie Mishaps

Over breakfast with friends at our local built-in-the-1700s general store, we shared some stories of the funny and unusual things that happened to us in our decades as moviegoers. They laughed and smiled at the surprising and unusual experiences I had spent those many hours in the dark with the scent of popcorn and musty cigarette smoke in the air. I share a few of those stories here.

The Elwood

You might say I was born in a movie theater. My father and his brothers owned several. The Elwood and Mt. Prospect in Newark and The Palace and Pix in Orange, New Jersey. From the time I could walk, and likely even before that, I went to the movies every Saturday afternoon for the matinee, usually to the Elwood.

My earliest memories of the grand old Elwood were the lush red velvet curtain that would open dramatically at the start of each movie, signaling that something magical was about to happen; that my uncle Lou had a gun and a holster strapped to the arm of his desk chair in the office (Newark was a little tough even back in the 50s); and the popcorn.

It wasn’t just the taste and the fun of eating popcorn. It was also the fact that they served the popcorn in a manilla envelope. Why? Because the Levin brothers leased out the concession stand, and they got us popcorn for free if they took the popcorn without the container. So, they would give me an office envelope and the concessionaire would fill it up with freshly made hot popcorn. Early lesson learned: often the container is more expensive than what it contains.

Elwood Theater Newark NJ

The Elwood Theater

Imitation of Life

Movies are an “Imitation of Life.” Sometimes poignant. Sometimes scary. Often surprising. And a few of them stick with us forever. From the time I was six years old and living in East Orange, I would hop on the bus on the corner of Munn Avenue and Central Avenue and ride the #24 to the Hollywood Theater (Yes, age 6).

The Saturday matinees typically featured kids’ movies—Sinbad, Tarzan, and Godzilla. It was 1959. My reading skills were limited at that age, and I struggled to make out the name of the movie on the marquee, but I did recognize the ‘Air Conditioning” banner that hung from it. I figured it would be one of my usual favorite heroes.

But as often happened when I showed up at the movies, what I expected to see was not what was showing. That day the movie was Imitation of Life, starring Lana Turner and Sandra Dee—the tragic story of two friends, one black, one white, whose friendship and lives are torn apart by the racism and cultural antagonisms of the 40s and 50s.  I sat there eating the last of my popcorn, crying my eyes out.


Movie makers are always experimenting with ways to enhance the theatergoing experience. Today we have 3D and IMAX as examples. Back then, it was Cinemascope and the erstwhile Smell-O-Vision. I would put Smell-O-Vision in the same category as the ill-fated 45 RPM record players that were mounted in some 1950s cars. The needles would jump with every bump in the road. With Smell-O-Vision’s successor, Odorama, they gave you a scratch-and-sniff card with multiple scents.

Then, a number would appear in the bottom right corner of the movie screen when something odiferous was happening and you would scratch off the corresponding number on the card. From horse manure to the smoke from a fired gun, your olfactory senses could be engaged.

This stood as one of many failed experiments in the theater that go along with seats that vibrated at the particularly high action moments and probably a few other dumb ideas that I can’t remember. Feel free to add your memory of such craziness to the comments below.

Love in the Park

I not only love movies, but I even made a movie with actors in college. I felt a sense of pride for that Love in the Park which we shot on Super 8 film at Genessee Park in Rochester NY and various surrounding locations. The year was 1972. Only a single copy of the final film existed and remained lost for 50 years.

Five decades later, I accidentally and serendipitously found the original Super 8 film mixed in with many other antiquities on one of my overstuffed bookcases. The discovery led me to connect with some old friends (actors in the film) and to recapture the delight of being 22 years old and in love. I wrote a short story about it four years ago which you can read here. It’s called Love in the Park.

In the Line of Fire

July 4th weekend 1993 and the new movie In the Line of Fire starring Clint Eastwood, hits the theaters. Back then, you couldn’t reserve seats. You had to show up early and sometimes wait in a long line to see popular new movies starring your favorite actors. I was a big Clint Eastwood fan. And my wife Amy and I wanted to see that movie that weekend.

Arriving at the theater, I learned the movie was sold out. Not one to take NO for an answer, I asked if there were any seats available in the theater, even single seats. The box office person mentioned that a few scattered single seats were unoccupied, and I bought two tickets. To my surprise, Amy and I could sit together because the first two rows of the seats were empty. Wasn’t that odd?

When the movie ended, I made my way to the box office and asked about the two rows of empty seats. The ticket taker explained to me they always left empty seats even for sold-out movies.

Coincidentally, my wife’s cousin happened to be the CEO of General Cinema, the owners of this theater. I wrote him a letter explaining what I found and that it is possible that they might increase their earnings by actually selling all the seats in the theater. No, I had never met this cousin before, but I knew he had a close relationship with my father-in-law and might react to the personal connection.

In the letter, I offered that if he found my observation and suggestion helpful, all I asked for in return was two lifetime free passes to the General Cinema movie theaters. Why not ask? Too much? You never know.

A couple of weeks later, I received a friendly letter from the General Cinema CEO thanking me for my suggestion and sending regards to my father-in-law. No free passes!

I don’t know if General Cinema ever changed their seating policy. I suspect not and they did file for Chapter 11 a few years later. Coincidence?

Planet of the Apes

This might be the greatest movie ending of all time (at least for me), but not for the reason you think. It’s 1971, and Amy and I are sitting in Strong Auditorium, the classic, comfy big theater at the University of Rochester. The movie that night was the original Planet of the Apes. You know the story, but with two minutes left in the film, the celluloid melts on the screen. You can see the film curdle and drip and even detect the odor of burning plastic.

Yes, every movie appeared on celluloid film, not digital in those days. If it got too hot, the heat of the projector lamp would sometimes dissolve the film. As the audience grew restless in their seats, the projectionist came on the loudspeaker and said, “I’m working on it. Please be patient.”

A few minutes later, the film restarted and Charleton Heston on his horse reappeared again, only to melt on the screen 30 seconds later. I remember at this point rhythmic clapping from the agitated audience. A few minutes more go by. Finally, the unseen projectionist comes over the loudspeaker again with this, “Charlton Heston and Nova are riding down the beach when they discover the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand.”

I know the original ending came as a surprise twist for most moviegoers, but the narrated ending by the projectionist made it extra special for us. I will never forget it.

I have more fond memories of my time in the dark with the bag (or an envelope) of popcorn. My father and his brothers are long gone now, as are all of those wonderful movie theaters. But the memories live on.


For another personal movie story about my father and one very special theater, read my Missing the Ghost in the Palace Theater. And if you have any sweet memories or perhaps mishaps at the movies, please share them in the comments below. I will see you there, popcorn in hand.

Catch up on my original fast-paced thriller NOT SO DEAD and the Sam Sunborn Series They are available on Amazon and
If you like short reads you can really finish, grab a copy of my short story collections: The Last Appointment: 30 Collected Short Stories
Or my children’s adventure book: Nougo and His Basketball.

And read for FREE some of Charles Levin’s short stories:

I’m Processing
Books Unread
Nora Delivers the Package
The Permission Slip
10 Life Lessons I Learned from Playing Poker
Missing the Ghost in the Palace Theater
Moon Landing Memories
Word Drunk

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  1. Simon Levin on June 4, 2024 at 4:40 pm

    Hi Charlie. Great stories and the writing to bring them to life. Like you, almost every Saturday, I went to “work” at the movies. I had the advantage of it being rare “father-son” time. It curtailed my Little League baseball career somewhat, but I saw a lot of great movies and spent time with our father, which at the time I didn’t realize was going to be so short. When I got to work, my first job was to paste together those beautiful giant movie posters that would appear on the outside walls of the theater advertising coming attractions. At that time they came in three or four sheets that had to be glued together. If you had one today it would be very valuable. Anyway, I am sure I murdered the job. My next job was to walk the neighborhood (alone) and distribute brochures door to door. I have never admitted it and always felt guilty that (here goes) most ended up down a sewer. Whew! Got that off my chest. Sorry Dad. Now for the popcorn. In my day, the snack stand was a new innovation and we still owned it. The popcorn was not made in the theater but shipped in giant bags almost as big as I was so when I got a”bag” of popcorn, they gave me the entire giant bag! I would sit in the center of the theater and all the kids would want to sit with me where I would share my popcorn. Do you think my father and uncles figured out why popcorn sales were down when I was around? I guess I wasn’t cut out for the theater business. But my favorite times were the rides in the car alone with my father driving on Park Avenue and through Branchburg Park where, when the cherry blossoms bloom, they rival the famous cherry blossoms in Washington DC. Thanks Charlie for the opportunity to remember. Love, Simon

    • Charles Levin on June 4, 2024 at 6:22 pm

      Thanks for sharing those beautiful memories. Your recollections made me smile. I wish I had had the opportunity to know our dad better. But I do have those wonderful memories and it’s great to share them. Love you, brother.

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