At the Jubilee Cinema, the manager carries an imitation pistol in the John Dillinger style.
Lynn Athlone was supposed to meet me at the Jubilee Cinema, to see George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. I waited in the foyer till just before showtime but Lynn did not turn up. “The bum,” I mumbled to myself, although had I known why Lynn couldn’t make it, I would have felt more kindly.
Not one to waste the price of admission, I saw the film alone, sitting frozen and wide-eyed till the very end. It wasn’t the action on the screen that scared me; it was the people in the surrounding seats. They were passing around one of those economy bottles of imitation vanilla extract and drinking from it. They had probably bought it at Murlane’s Pharmacy, across the way. Imitation vanilla extract is a by-product of our lumber industry. I had learned this in my school days when we studied a bit of forestry, and thought of it again that night to distract myself.
The two balconies of the Jubilee had been roped off for years, and the main auditorium was jam-packed. One burned-out light bulb hung from a wire in the middle of the ceiling. Five people were standing in front of the screen, where the orchestra pit used to be, and playing a game that looked like Drop the Handkerchief. They were noisy but no one dared interrupt.
I found out later that Lynn Athlone had been trying to park her van outside the Jubilee, right around showtime, when two men began punching each other on the sidewalk. This grabbed her attention, and she tried to intervene. Lynn often took that sort of action. A police officer showed up and yelled at all three of them and a gawky crowd gathered. Lynn took a running shove at the officer and was hauled off to the city jail two blocks from the Jubilee. The men who had been fighting took this opportunity to run away.
I didn’t know any of this until Lynn was set free. I knew only that I had left the theatre feeling alone and jittery, with nowhere to go but my room at the rooming house. I was nineteen years old and had already reached a cul-de-sac. The next morning I awoke to the sound of Lynn knocking on my window and mouthing words about her experience behind bars.
I opened the window and said, “However did you get through a night in jail?”
She said, “I told myself to take a deep breath.”
“I said don’t forget to exhale.”
That happened in 1976. A week after Night of the Living Dead night, Lynn Athlone took off with someone else, never to return. I stayed put, rarely travelling beyond Murlane’s Pharmacy and my neighbourhood theatre.
The first time I went to the Jubilee was when I saw Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. You couldn’t see alternative or underground films anyplace else. Whenever a double or triple bill came around, there I was.
The film I loved best of all was Jump for Joy. The plot had to do with a nurse who was secretly in love with her doctor-boss—Dr. Dill. This nurse’s name was Mattie, and Dr. Dill barely acknowledged her existence. Mattie became addicted to a drug called Mummifier. It was easy for her to obtain a regular stash because workers at the hospital were barely supervised. In fact, Dr. Dill was in charge.
Over the course of the film, Mattie spent more and more of her off-hours in a lounge called the Kon-Tiki, where she got wasted on Mummifier mixed together with a pretty drink called Polynesian Angel. It had a wedge of canned pineapple on top. The Kon-Tiki, conveniently, stood across the parking lot from the hospital. Mattie looked pathetic going back and forth, because it was clear she couldn’t help herself.
Finally she lost her job, even though Dr. Dill could have come to her rescue. The closing scene showed Mattie outside the Kon-Tiki, falling face forward into the rose bush. Yes, there was an out-of-place rose bush beside the entrance doors. You could almost smell the lush blossoms. They were the same glowing colour as the letters of the Jubilee’s EXIT signs, to the left and right of the screen.
The soundtrack for Jump for Joy was pretty much the same as the soundtrack for the final part of Scorpio Rising—songs like “Point of No Return” by Gene McDaniels, “I Will Follow Him” by Little Peggy March and “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris. In other words, the sound was borrowed and had a last-minute feel to it, but worked fine just the same.
The reason Jump for Joy had me mesmerized was that it was almost word for word the sort of screenplay I could have written. I wouldn’t have called it Jump for Joy, though, because there was no jumping—not even a film technicality like a jump cut—and there certainly wasn’t any joy. I would have called my film There’s a Better World Than This If Only You’d Look.
I felt such a connection to the film that I asked the manager of the Jubilee, “Who in the world directed this? There aren’t any credits at the end.” There was only a quick fade to black, followed by the word FIN.
The manager, whose name was Lorraine Lennon (no relation to John; I asked her), said, “The director is a friend of mine, but I can’t tell you her name. I’m not allowed.”
“You really can’t tell me her name?” I asked, in the timorous voice I used to use when I knew the answer was no.
“The director prefers to remain anonymous,” said Lorraine. “I’ve been showing her film as a favour, to help her career along.”
Lorraine didn’t go on to explain how she could help this director’s career if the director wished to remain anonymous, so I concluded something else: Lorraine didn’t give me the director’s name because she thought I was the type of person who bothered other people. I wasn’t.
I actually admired Lorraine Lennon because she used to carry an imitation pistol like the one John Dillinger was famous for. In other words, she carved a pistol out of soap and then, since you couldn’t very well pack a white pistol, blackened it with shoe polish. It looked like the real thing—a John Dillinger gun, the kind that helped him escape from prison.
Lorraine had occasion to use her Dillinger gun, one night when she was staying over at the Jubilee. She had placed an army cot in the corner of the projection booth, for nights when she was too tired to trek home after showtime. Around two in the morning, she heard a noise from the auditorium. Grabbing her imitation pistol, she ran down the narrow stairs and hid behind a pillar till she figured things out.
The noise came from an inebriated customer who had been sleeping between two rows. Somehow Lorraine hadn’t seen him when she closed up shop. Now he was awake and in a panic, having forgotten where he was. After all, the Jubilee was pitch black, except for its rose-coloured EXIT signs. When this man saw the overhead lights fade up, followed by Lorraine waving her Dillinger gun down the aisle, he hollered, “Don’t shoot, lady, don’t shoot!” Then he made his way toward the foyer.
“Hold your horses,” said Lorraine, following him. “I have to unlock the door before I can let you out.” She felt as though she were in her very own Wild West movie. Well, thirties gangster movie, if you want to carry the Dillinger metaphor a bit further.
When she tried to unlock the door and clutch her pistol at the same time, the pistol embedded itself in the door handle. The customer didn’t notice and left without incident. He would have left without incident anyway, sounds like.
Lorraine Lennon carried out another notable action, this one to do with the Jubilee marquee. One night, three letters on the sign all burned out at once. The letters were J, U and E, so the sign now read Bile Theatre. This felt like a message from beyond, although the message wasn’t too illuminating.
Lorraine did not have the money to fix the lights, so she disconnected the wiring of the remaining letters, and the sign didn’t say anything any more. Well, it said Theatre. Not long after, the interior lights of the Jubilee went out as well. They went out for all time because the Jubilee Cinema went broke, Lorraine Lennon went on to manage the theatre at the university across town, and the old neighbourhood continued on its downhill journey.
The Jubilee got its name when it was built in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. There is now a parking lot where the Jubilee once stood. That’s the Jubilee Parking Lot to folks like you and me, because we are beacons that glow in the decades-old darkness.