In Greenfield, and other Pittsburgh neighborhoods in the 1950s, Leonard Perer ran movie houses. They were paradise, recalls son Alan H. Perer
June 20, 2010 4:00 AM
By Alan H. Perer
My dad was in the movies. Well, not actually in the movies, but he owned a few neighborhood theaters. And for a kid from Pittsburgh in the 1950s, this was as close to the movies as you could get.
He could have played a character actor in the movies like George Raft. He always wore a Dobbs hat over his bald head and he loved his cigars. You know, the ones they used to call tobies -- irregular shaped, like deformed tree branches -- called Marsh Wheelings (unless someone gave him a higher quality one).
Later I was told his father Jake used to roll those tobies somewhere ... I could picture my great grandfather's wiry frame sitting in a warehouse rolling them by hand with his thin crooked fingers matching the erratic shapes of the cigars.
But back to the movies.
The main one was The Park Theater in Greenfield -- a working-class tough part of town. Before 1958 or so, the neighborhood theater acted as a local community center. TVs were not yet an omnipresent member of American families.
The films (actually they were just movies then -- "films" belonged to the one or two art houses which I believed showed something sexy that mainstream people didn't go to) changed three times a week -- with double features each day. Not to mention the 33 cartoons on Saturday; but more about that later.
So my dad would show me the catalogs of movies -- big pictures in CinemaScope, or Panavision, whatever that was. And he would ask me what I thought. Of course, I had no idea and he made the decisions, but he let me think I was helping in an important undertaking.
And sometimes dad would take me with him to Film Row on the Boulevard of the Allies to pick up the heavy silver canisters they came in. I got to listen to him kibbitz, which was what he liked to do the most. He talked to everyone ... many times to my great embarrassment.
Like at a Pirates baseball game, even if he could afford box seats, he always bought General Admission and then schmoozed the usher with a few dollars, telling him he was Dr. Perer, and he was expecting an emergency call so he had to sit on the aisle. Meanwhile, I cringed every time someone came to sit in our section, believing that we would be exposed as frauds and shamed before one and all. But we never were.
And Leonard (his real name was Herbert Leonard but everyone called him Leonard and never Herbert) was in his glory carrying on with everyone around, handing out cigars and generally causing me to shrink lower in my illegal seat. I'd come home and ask my mother why Dad had to talk to everyone, and she'd say "That's your dad."
So we'd pick up the movies and I remember the huge rolls of theater tickets in various colors with different prices on them -- 15 cents, 10 cents for different days. And there were always newsreels, cartoons, previews of coming attractions, so you could be in the theater for hours and hours at a time, or so it felt.
My mother said one time Dad took me to the show and then left me there and came home for dinner. She said, "Leonard, where's Alan?" and he said, "Oh no, I left him in the theater." I of course was deliriously unaware of any of this -- I was in a world where time didn't really exist: the world of movies.
Everyone in Greenfield knew my dad. They would drop their kids off at the show and have him agree to watch them after the show when they would pick them up. And during the show my dad would sell candy from a long glass case/counter. I'm sure that my astounding number of cavities as a youth were caused by the mountains of Jujubes and Dots that I continually got stuck in my back teeth.
But what a life! This was my Hollywood. There was a projectionist named Rex. He drove a motorcycle and had tattoos. He would take me up into the projection room where he always had pinups -- I don't think they were naked (they wore swimsuits and nightgowns), but to me they were the greatest taboo stuff I could ask for.
And for some reason he had these big magnets in the shape of small rolls of money that he had everywhere. We would sit up there and I'd watch the movie through a little window -- with the hot white light next to me magically shooting out of the next little window. The movies were on more than one projector so they had to be changed during the movie, which I assumed required tremendous skill to coordinate smoothly. Messages were written on a clipboard and lowered to my dad at the counter -- what they said I had no idea. But Rex was about the coolest guy I ever met, with the coolest and most responsible and difficult job.
Sometimes, my dad let me be an usher. In those days, ushers carried flashlights. During the movie they could walk up and down the aisle shining the light in the face of anyone talking. Can you imagine what would happen today if an usher would do that?
On Saturdays I took all of my friends for free to the Cartoon Show. No mogul in Hollywood could have had more reverence than I did with my friends. And after each cartoon we'd call out the number -- to make sure we didn't get gypped out of our full 33. The Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, of course, were the best!
I still remember when the Lone Ranger first came out in a movie. It was a big hit in the early days of television and then there was a full length feature in color. The poster was a giant Lone Ranger with his hand on his hips -- and then there were little vignettes all around him. One day, however, someone drew a big penis with balls on the poster. I was outraged at this type of sacrilege.
Another movie I remember was "The Long, Long Trailer" with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez. Lucy somehow bought a long, long house trailer, and she and Ricky and Fred and Ethel had mishap after mishap in that trailer. It was so adult to watch that movie, and I felt so grown up because I must have understood the jokes.
Then once my dad took our whole family to Film Row to watch a screening of "Birdman of Alcatraz" with Burt Lancaster. We went into a little screening room with a few people and saw the movie before anyone else. What a glamorous life for a boy -- I thought it would never end.
I had no conflicted thoughts in that world of war, action, Westerns and comedies. Except one night -- in 1956 -- the movie was "Rock Around the Clock," and I was 8 years old. It was about this new thing called rock 'n' roll.
I was acting as an usher. Then that music started and people started getting restless -- I mean, they started moving to this strange and powerful music. I shined my light, and they told me to get the light out of their faces. Then they started dancing in the aisles and doing cartwheels and all kinds of acrobatic twirls.
And then ... a full scale riot broke out. Cherry bombs were set off; people were ripping out the seats and just going crazy over that music. And you know what? I was somehow feeling some powerful force -- until my dad came out on stage in front of the movie with a microphone. He was telling everyone to calm down and sit down. They were yelling at my dad and throwing food -- and whose side was I on?
It's the only time I ever felt torn -- I wanted to protect my dad and the show, but wow, that music. It was an overwhelming force.
I still don't remember how it all ended -- but I know there was lots of damage. And I knew that rock 'n' roll was some powerful force.
I think the riot signaled the end of my Hollywood life. My dad was human ... just a man trying to hold back the winds of change. He was a giant in the 1950s -- he loved Adlai Stevenson and Phil Silvers and Sammy Davis Jr. (the best). But powerful forces were about to crack the perfect simplicity and clarity of the times.
Rock 'n' roll, television, women's liberation, civil rights and enigmatic wars were all on the horizon. The neighborhood theater was about to end.
And while I'm sure he would have adapted and thrived in a different world, cancer took him at the age of 47. So he would always remain a giant in a much simpler black-and-white world.