Memories of the Military Movie ShowPosted: September 10, 2011
By Kim Medders
I have many wonderful memories of my life overseas, but one of my favorites is of the time I spent at the Minute Man Theater in Karlsruhe, Germany. Why the base theater? Well, through the early part of the 1970’s there wasn’t any English language television you could watch. German T.V. only broadcast in the evening, and unless you understood German, it was difficult to watch. I do remember watching Bonanza and laughing at how different the character’s voices were dubbed into German.
In many respects, life for a “brat” overseas was like stepping back to an “Andy Hardy” or “Ozzie and Harriet” time. You lived in colonies on posts that were little American islands in the middle of the culture of Europe. While you were encouraged to experience all that the host country had to offer, it was nice to be grounded with the security of the “Amerikanischer setzung”. The conservative mindset of most military personnel set up a lifestyle that was akin to that of the 1940’s and 50’s. The movie experience was no exception and resembled something from experiences my parents described from their childhoods.
First off, it was cheap entertainment. In 1960, it cost 15 cents for kids and a quarter for adults. Popcorn and candy were a dime and a nickel each. The average for a night’s entertainment for a family of four was $1.50. The playbill changed just about every evening, so if you wanted or could afford to do so, you could see a new movie every night. Also, the Minute Man was within walking distance of just about everyone’s apartment. If you missed a movie at one theater, you could probably catch up with it at one of the other base theaters as they made the circuit through the area. Some people complained that the movies were always six months old (usually those people who rotated in), but I didn’t mind.
The Saturday Matinee, or the Kiddie Show as it was also known, was great fun. First, you stood in line to buy your ticket with a bunch of excited little kids. Then into the lobby to wait in line to buy your popcorn or candy bar. The theaters in Europe did not allow drinks for some reason, perhaps because of clean up issues, but more likely to keep the G.I.’s from sneaking booze in. My favorite treat was popcorn, but I usually supplemented it with a Baby Ruth bar (it was 10 cents but it seemed like it was a foot long) or a box of Good & Plenty for a nickel. Good & Plenty was a good choice because the box when empty, served as a good noise maker if you kept the cellophane wrapper on it and blew into it.
With refreshments taken care of, you walked into the theater to find a seat. Most of the younger kids tended to sit in the first two or three rows. My favorite spot was front row center. Later when I was a teenager, I liked to sit in the back row, especially if I had a date. You sat, excited children running around, waiting with anticipation for the lights to dim. As soon as the lights went out we all stood with hands over our hearts, while a picture of an American flag was shown on the screen and the National Anthem was played.
The movie program for kids always started with a Republic serial. These were cliffhangers made in the 1940’s. They tended to be very violent with fist and gun fights. The good guy or gal would always get into some life threatening fix at the end of each episode where there didn’t seem to be any way they could get out of. You had to come back the next week to see how they escaped. My favorite serials were Rocket Man, Zombies from the Stratosphere, and The Purple Monster Strikes. Sometimes there would be a couple of cartoons. The main feature was a G rated motion picture.
Most of the time, it was a Roy Rogers or Gene Autry picture. I must have seen just about every Roy Rogers film ever made. I think Rogers, who was a big supporter of the military must have given the films to military. Whatever his motivation, it created a whole new generation of fans. I’d be sure to bring my cap pistol along to help Roy or Gene fight the bad guys. I know I saw Along the Navajo Trail a dozen times and enjoyed it every time! All too soon the show would be over and we would trudge back home to our apartments. When I was older, I used my little brother as an excuse to go to the Saturday matinee. He was six years younger than I was so I got to play that card for quite a while.
Some other experiences at the Minute Man weren’t as pleasant. I remember when I was six being kicked out of the theater for making too much noise. It was during a showing of Disney’s The Swiss Family Robinson. Dad had taken us all to the movies that day and I was real excited about the film. The idea of a family living in a tree house on a deserted island sounded good to me and I really identified with the little boy in the movie. Apparently I was too vocal in my enthusiasm and after warning me once, the manager kicked me out. I sat on the steps in front of the theater for about 45 minutes until mom and dad came out. I guess in 1960 you could do stuff like that. Now, you would be sued. Dad spanked me for getting kicked out. I didn’t get to see the end of that movie until I bought a copy for my kids about 1995.
Another movie I remember from the early 60’s was The Raven, starring Vincent Price. My next door neighbor James McGrows told me that it was pretty scary and even told me about this one scene where the corpse reaches out of a coffin and grabs Price’s hand. When it got to that part of the movie, I was so scared got up and went to the restroom. There were half the kids in the theater loitering out in the lobby either going to the restroom or getting a drink of water. The funny thing was years later my wife and I were walking through Wal-mart and I saw this movie on the video rack. I told my wife, who likes horror movies, that we had to get it because it was the scariest movie ever made. I couldn’t wait to get home and watch it. With nervous anticipation, I put the cartridge in the VCR and pushed play. We proceeded to laugh our butts off at this movie! It was more comedic than anything else and the “special effects” which I remembered being really good, were laughable. I finally did get to see the coffin scene and that was a little scary, I guess. I laugh at how my eight year old mind turned all of this into so much drama.
On my 16th birthday in 1970, I begged my folks to let me go see an “M” rated movie at the Minute Man. I took a lot of convincing, because there might be naked women in it. Finally they consented and even went with me. The movie was M.A.S.H. Seeing that film in a military theater was a hoot. The G.I.’s were rolling on the floor laughing at all the Army jokes in that movie. Sally Kellerman’s shower scene, while tame by today’s standards, was also a big hit with them and me.
The only other military movie experience of note for me was when we were posted at a small naval facility on the French Riviera near Nice. We were there to support the U.S.S. Springfield, the flag ship of the 6th fleet. It had a small shore base with a Navy Exchange/Commissary in one small room and a headquarters building. When the ship was in port, we got to take the launches out to the ship and watch movies on the mess deck. The sailors fed us ice cream and cookies until we busted. . I think it was the ice cream and cookies I got at those movies that influenced me to joined the Navy! When the ship was out, we got to use the USO in Nice or sometimes the C.O. would invite certain people to his office for private screenings of movies.
When I think of those golden days at the show, it always warms my heart. It was one of the things that helped me and other military dependents or “brats” stay grounded in our American identities. The memories of our lives on those little bases in foreign lands, popcorn, the Star Spangled Banner, and Roy Rogers, helped shape us into what we are today. With the downsizing and drawbacks of troops all over Europe, the last remnants our childhoods are fading away with each base closure. Soon, all that will be left will be we, the children of those who protected the world from tyranny, to sing these stories around the campfires. Hopefully they won’t be forgotten.