Cracker Jack Logic

Cracker Jack Commercial (1967)

At the Grand Opening of Westlane Auto Movie, customers received a complimentary box of Cracker Jack and a 45rpm record from Sacramento Country radio station KRAK where the disk jockeys were collectively known as the “KRAKer Jacks”. Obviously, this was a tie-in with Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964), the film biography of Hank Williams, starring George Hamilton which was one of the first films to grace the wide outdoor screen designed to play 35millimeter films in scope or flat depending on which lens a movie required. The projectors in 1964 still operated on a carbon arc system. Two projectors alternated one reel at a time, requiring a change over every twenty minutes. Between change overs, a projectionist had to rewind reels, and monitor the image and sound. I was not present for the Grand Opening, but I found a box of leftover 45s in the stockroom. I listened to a few, but they were mostly mediocre cuts the radio station didn’t want.

When I arrived at Westlane, there were still several cases of Cracker Jack piled up in the stockroom cubbies that were used to segregate inventory items. These were not full-sized boxes of Cracker Jack like we sold in the Snack Bar. They were smaller, but still contained the famed candy-coated peanuts, popcorn, and a prize. They remained in inventory for almost 2 years past their expiration date. When I learned that they were supposed to be thrown out, I made it my duty to open every single package and rescue the prize from the already hardening gunk inside. There were puzzles, tops, trinkets, and charms, but the best prize of all was a flat plastic Cracker Jack whistle.

When I finished going through something like 300 Cracker Jack boxes, there were more prizes than I ever wanted. I set aside the ones that I found appealing and decided that I would share the wealth. The first batch of prizes that I took to school created a feeding frenzy. The bag full of loot was immediately filled with hands grasping for treasure as soon as I offered its contents. It was before class while students were accessing their lockers. The attack on the bag was surprisingly ravenous, and I was inspired to toss the contents into the air. As soon as the prizes hit the ground, a pack of kids was down on their knees. Every prize was gathered up. The bell rang. There was not a single prize left behind in the dimly lit hallway.

I still had a batch prizes left, so the next day, I announced that there were still more prizes available, but to avoid another greedy mob, I immediately tossed all the prizes into the air. To my surprise, not a single student fell to their knees. I had completely misjudged my audience. The novelty had passed in a day. The bell rang. While everyone else in the hall was rushing to class, I was on my knees gathering up the unwanted prizes that were so popular the previous day. The audience is unpredictable.

The Snack Bar at Westlane Auto Movie was designed to handle two lines, one on either side, leading to a cash register. During the time that I lived on the drive-in, I remember that only one line was in use most of the time, and one register. My mother was the person responsible for most of the monetary transactions. To expedite the sale of items during Intermission, packages were staged so that customers could grab them as they moved down the line buffet style. Cracker Jack boxes were usually on top of the counter lined up in three or four rows.

When I was asked to put out the Cracker Jacks, I would sometimes break up the monotony by creating patterns like an overhead shot in a Busby Berkeley movie. Most of the time people grabbed their box and moved on down the line, not really paying any attention to the way the product was being displayed. One day, after doing my Geometry homework, I thought it would be fun to write the formula for circumference of a circle in Cracker Jack boxes. It was easy to spell out “C=2 X π X R” and frame it within the remaining boxes.

On this particular night, a customer came in soon after I had done my arrangement. He stood there for some time trying to make sense of the unfamiliar pattern of boxes. After deliberating for a few minutes, he asked my mother what the formula meant. Her response was “I don’t know. You will have to ask my son.” She nodded in my direction and he glanced at me briefly before turning back to the Cracker Jack equation. He had no intention of asking anyone what the formula meant. He immediately got to work rearranging the boxes into the usual military rank and file. Taking the long way out to avoid me, he bypassed the register without purchasing a single item. From this random incident, I came to an important conclusion about human nature. If a person is faced with a pattern that does not make sense to them, they will rearrange it into a pattern that does. I dubbed this principal “Cracker Jack Logic”.

Mike Maginot is a writer and photographer. His books, Auteurs, Adaptations, and Outsiders and Belevedere Street are available from Amazon. Belvedere Street can also be ordered from your local independent bookseller.

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Habits Forming

Emerson ID

Switching schools in the middle of the Fifth Grade was not easy. My new classmates were way ahead of me and the teacher and students all did their part to make me feel stupid. My parents were called in, and it was suggested that they might hold me back for a year. They threw me in a room with the other dumb kids and a tutor for a couple days a week, and to my relief, I managed to matriculate into the sixth grade at the end of the school year.

My grades were always poor. I suppose being absent for twenty-six days in the first grade and thirty-six days in the third grade were a contributing factor. Having the measles was not so bad, but bronchitis almost killed me. I remember making bargains with God, or was it the Devil, to survive.

My teachers provided me with homework, but I was more interested in listening to Little Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding on the radio or watching TV. Game shows played day and night. I especially liked the ones with celebrity panelists like Password and To Tell the Truth, but even Let’s Make a Deal and The Rebus Game were more engaging than doing homework. My Uncle David liked watching a show called The Dating Game. Nana did not approve of the concept or the suggestive questions that were asked by the host, Jim Lange.

Adapting to trailer life meant making the most of what I had to work with. I still watched way too much TV. In those days, the Sacramento stations would sign off at night, so I would switch to the radio and search the radio dial for old radio shows or DJs that played musical artists that I had only read about in books. I have vivid memories of coming across a station in Seattle playing Dinah Washington, Brook Benton, and Billy Eckstein.

My mother had her soaps, just two, One Life to Live and General Hospital. I had mine, Dark Shadows. When school was out, I would take the back road along the irrigation ditch from Pioneer Elementary School to Westlane Auto Movie. It was a good short cut while it lasted, but eventually they put up fences and a gate making it difficult for me to get home in time to spend quality time with my favorite vampire, Barnabas Collins. Taking the longer route along the frontage road adjacent to Interstate 80 sometimes made me late. My only consolation was reruns of Gilligan’s Island. My father sometimes reprimanded me for laughing so hard at such a stupid show. It was good that the plots on Dark Shadows moved along at a snail’s pace, so missing an episode or two did not upset the continuity.

It took me awhile to adjust to living in a trailer. We were seven miles from downtown Davis. It felt like I was living on a farm. We were surrounded by fields of tomatoes one year and then honeydew melons.  In Oakland, I could walk to the store and other places. Nana had a washing machine, and our mail was delivered to the front door. No such luck living at Westlane Auto Movie. Driving to the store, laundromat, and Post Office was a regular part of our routine six days a week.

I got a new library card, but as my interest movies, music, and old-time radio grew, I would often spend time in the bookstore next to Baskin Robbins Ice Cream Parlor while my father and mother took care of the usual downtown business. The books that caught my eye were biographies and autobiographies of people who made me laugh, Laurel and Hardy, W. C. Fields, The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, and Mae West. Paperbacks were affordable on my allowance, the money I made doing chores like stocking the cigarette machine, putting away the inventory, and folding pizza boxes and snack trays.

At the bookstore, I found books about Harry Houdini, Louie Armstrong, and a book called The Great Radio Heroes by Jim Harmon that got me searching the radio dial for rebroadcasts of old radio shows like The Shadow and The Lone Ranger that were still being broadcasted on the airwaves for a new generation of listeners. Arch Oboler, of Lights Out fame, was alive and well, producing a revival of some of his best radio plays on a syndicated show called The Devil and Mr. O. Oboler was a master of stream of consciousness story telling. I would listen to this syndicated show in the dark to get the full effect of what he called “the theater of the mind.”

In 1968 and 1969, I spent most of my time at Westlane Auto Movie. There was school, trips to town, but most days were divided between the trailer and the snack bar. The only real change of scenery was spending a week or two, during the summer at Nana house or a Christmas time visit to see my cousin’s in Fremont.

When my grades were bad, and they usually were, my father would take out his old report cards and show me all the As and Bs that he received in High School. He kept these in a box under his bed that also contained programs from shows that he had gone to see in San Francisco when he was a young man living and working across the Bay in Oakland. He had a taste for light operas like The Merry Widow and The Student Prince, but he also saw touring companies of Mr. Roberts with Henry Fonda and Diamond Lil with Mae West when they came to town. He took in Spike Jones and his City Slickers more than once when they came to the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. Of particular interest to me during my adolescence was a souvenir program for Good Night Ladies. It was filled with pictures of woman wearing lingerie. The show subtitled “Ladies’ Night at a Turkish Bath,” was a romantic comedy, but the program made it look more like a burlesque show.

Also in the box was a collection of mimeographed parodies of popular poems, some as risqué as the lingerie pictures. They were filled with double entendre, some contained dirty words, and sexual slang dating back to World War II. Needless to say, this ancillary ephemera, made a deeper impression on my psyche than father’s academic record or the lesson that he was attempting to teach me.

My grades did not improve when I went to Junior High School. My favorite part of the school day was a free period that butted up against my lunch period. Because so many fast-food joints had opened in Davis, the students were gifted with an open campus. I would often spend my free time wandering around the quiet downtown area.  I would visit the Pharmacy where they had a discount record bin, also known as “cut-outs,” because there was a chunk cut out of the record sleeve to denote its discounted status.  I would peruse the Stationary Store where there was an abundance of novelty items like the then popular Newton’s Cradle to amuse me. And, of course the Bookstore, where I would seek out my next paperback purchase.

The only classes that I enjoyed when I was in Junior High School were English classes. In Mr. Hancock’s class, I got a chance to act in plays and do a lecture on film advertising. When I pointed out that one of the reasons that Bonnie and Clyde was so popular was because of a clever ad campaign, Mr. Hancock cut me off before I finished. I was giving too much credit to promotion and too little to the film which he obviously liked very much. He also didn’t consider some of the books that I read as literature. I was reading things like The Films of W. C. Fields and The Films of Jean Harlow which were mostly picture books, but they did contain biographical essays, film synopses, and reviews that I found interesting and would turn out to be useful to me in the future. He considered the page count cheating when it came to how much recreational reading I was doing.

The open campus situation allowed me to take up smoking for a short time. I had no problem with buying cigarettes since one of my Drive-In jobs was loading the cigarette machine. I didn’t steal the cigarettes because I knew my parents were inclined to make up any monetary shortages. I put my money in the machine and chose the package that caught my eye. It was True Menthol. The design on the label looked a little bit like a peace sign.

For a couple of weeks, I would take my free period/lunch period walk into town and smoke. I suppose if I were a social smoker, I might have kept up the habit, but being a solitary smoker, the habit didn’t take. I remember my father saying to me around this time, if you want to start smoking it’s fine with me, but you will have to pay for your own cigarettes. Since I was already paying for my own cigarettes using my allowance, I discovered quickly that I had less money to spend on books and records, so I quit.

Mike Maginot is a writer and photographer. His books, Auteurs, Adaptations, and Outsiders and Belevedere Street are available from Amazon. Belvedere Street can also be ordered from your local independent bookseller.

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Physical Education-Part One

The Cliff House Before I Was Born

I have never been a great swimmer. In the Summer of 1964, I took lessons at a public pool on Foothill Boulevard in East Oakland. I don’t think my father, a land lover, would have paid for them unless he was coerced by my caregivers, Nana and Grandma. My instructor taught me how to do the jellyfish float and how to dog paddle across the shallow end of the pool. Upon completion of the course, I was given a certificate declaring me pool worthy.

Grandma thought this was enough education to take me on bus excursions to the Sutro Baths in San Francisco and the Marin Town and Country Club in Fairfax. At both locations, I avoided the deep end and mostly clung to the edge of the pool. Inspired by Houdini’s underwater escapes, I would put my head underwater and count the number of seconds that I could hold my breath. I wanted to be prepared in case some one handcuffed me, put me in a trunk and threw me in the ocean.

Grandma took me to Ocean Beach, a cold windy beach below what was once the Old Cliff House at sunset. She had shown me post cards of the fine old hotel lit up at night. Old photos are a great way to see things that are no longer there. She was excited to show me the seals that gathered on the rocks, but they were so far away it was hard for me to see more than their silhouettes. Grandma pointed out where the grand Cliff House was once located. I could see it even though it wasn’t there anymore. Unfortunately, I was underdressed and unimpressed with sea and the seals who were also trying to stay warm huddled close together on the rocks. I just wanted to get home, get warm, and get under the covers. The sea was not for me.

When I was in the sixth grade, I drown for the first time. I was at a pool party at Beaver Tupper’s house in El Macero, a suburb near Pioneer Elementary School in Davis. I was told by my parents that people with money live in El Macero, so I would go there to trick or treat on Halloween. I had spent the morning with some classmates going door to door offering to clean people’s cars for a school fundraiser. I remember there was one man who was going to stiff us because he didn’t think that we did a very good job. After all of our hard work, he was only going to give us the small change that we found in his ashtray. We pointed out that we had supplied our own soap and ammonia, and he finally coughed up a couple bucks. You don’t mess with an angry mob of sixth grade boys. They could come back and do some real damage to your property.

I thought it was cool that Beaver had a pool at his house, I decided to jump off the diving board like everyone else was doing, but I overestimated my aquatic education. I found myself underwater in the deep end of the pool looking up at the sky, I had forgotten how to float. I was choking on chlorinated water at the bottom of Beaver’s pool. The sky disappeared. I didn’t pass out, Beaver and the others were coming down to save me. I would spend the rest of that day in the shallow end of the pool. I would have to drown another day. That day came during one of my PE classes at Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School.

My parents had purchased enough of the required gym clothes, including a new swimsuit, gym shorts, gym shirts, gym socks and a jock strap, for me to begin the seventh grade. These “educational” expenses were outside of our household budget. My father sat in the car and smoked while my mother helped me shop. We bought less than the required number of outfits. We would make a second trip when my parents could afford it.

I heard horror stories about locker room bullies when I was in the sixth grade, so I was not looking forward to taking Physical Education. Because of a childhood disability, my father was able to skip PE and play chess while the other kids played sports. I envied my father, but I had no apparent disability to get me out the required course. There was little emphasis on any sort of physical education in our household. My father never followed sports. The only sports program that I remember us watching on television was the Olympics. Which isn’t to say my father wasn’t athletic. In his youth, he would ride his bike from Oakland to Los Angeles. An old press clipping, saved by my Aunt Margie, named him and some of his friends when they were almost run over while bicycling to Yosemite.  

As it turned out, the horror stories that I heard were true. I wasn’t in the locker room for two minutes before the older boys were snapping towels at each other’s genitals. I vowed from then forward never to take a shower at school and get out of the locker room as quickly as possible at the end of the period. I wanted to protect my manhood.

So, the very first day of swim class the coach orders everyone to get into lines on the side of the pool, jump in, and do a lap.  He just assumed that everyone in his class knew how to swim. When it was my turn, I obediently jump into the water, and once again, I drown.

“Why didn’t you tell me that you didn’t know how to swim?”

“You didn’t ask.”

From then on, I was left to myself to work on my strokes. Eventually, I was able to swim back and forth across the pool. No rescue required.

I was introduced to several sports in junior high, everything from flag football to golfing. The only sport that appealed to me at the time was archery. I bought the cheapest bow that I could find and a few good arrows. I would hang my target, an old dart board, on a speaker post for practice. Admittedly, I preferred watching Robin Hood movies to hitting a bull’s eye, so I never became a good archer.

There was a park across the street from Emerson. Catty corner to the school pool. I would often go there just to swing on the swing set that was so much higher than the one I had at home at the drive-in. I would swing as high as I could and jump when I was as high as I could go. I enjoyed the sensation of flight so much more than jumping into a pool. While I swung back and forth, I would sing songs or recite comedy routines that I had memorized from listening to my collection of comedy albums. I still prefer a swing to a swim.

Mike Maginot is a writer and photographer. His books, Auteurs, Adaptations, and Outsiders and Belevedere Street are available from Amazon. Belvedere Street can also be ordered from your local independent bookseller.

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Serial Killer

Holding My Turtle

The notorious Zodiac Killer had a positive effect on my life. When I started Junior High School in 1968, the school bus would come all the way to the front gate of the drive-in theater where I lived. I was supposed to be waiting at the gate. Because I would often stay up late at night watching old movies or reading, I got into the habit jumping into my pants fireman style at the very last minute and making a mad dash for the bus. Since it was obvious to the students already loaded on the bus that I was the kid who lived at the drive-in, I would often be hassled by older kids asking me to give them a pass to the movies. Getting to school was not pleasant. I kept my head down and avoided making eye contact.

My parents were good about writing me a note when I didn’t feel like going to school, which was often, so I was absent so often that by 1969, the school bus stopped coming all the way to the drive-in theater gate. I had to drive my bike to the gates of State of California Forestry Service and Fire Protection Facility, which was a couple miles away, chain it to a fence, and then be hassled by hooligans who by now recognized me on sight. The only good thing that came out of that time was that someone had dumped a bunch of girly magazines close to where I hid my bike behind some bushes. After a few days of consideration, as to whether or not it was a good idea or not, I put the magazines in my backpack and took them home for further perusal.

I was not looking forward to making the morning drive to the Forestry Service once the weather started getting windy and wet, and there was little hope that I might find anymore hidden treasure. Thankfully, on October 15, 1969, the Zodiac Killer declared that he would bomb a school bus. My father took the Zodiac’s threat to heart. From that day forward, as long as I went to school in Davis, he would drive me to school in the morning and pick me up at the end of the day. We would often stop at the Jack In the Box, near the Post Office, where I would always ask for extra secret sauce on my cheese burger. Usually, we would get milkshakes; one chocolate, one vanilla. Thank you, Zodiac.

Mike Maginot is a writer and photographer. His books, Auteurs, Adaptations, and Outsiders and Belevedere Street are available from Amazon. Belvedere Street can also be ordered from your local independent bookseller.

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15 Acres of Asphalt

WestlaneGrandOpening

Westlane Grand Opening

Between 1966 and 1972, Westlane Auto Movie was my home. It was a drive-in theater in Davis, California that played first and second run features ranging from family fare to exploitation films. There were blockbusters that ran for several weeks like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and art house films like The Conformist (1970) that might appeal to the more sophisticated UC Davis students or aspiring cineastes like me.

Westlane Auto Movie was situated between downtown Davis and West Sacramento off a strip of Interstate 80 called the Yolo Causeway. You could see the marquee from the highway.

Drive-in patrons would take the Chiles Road exit and follow the frontage road to the marquee. From there they took an access road towards the movie screen following the fence around the perimeter until they reached the gate to the box office.

The Trailer

The Trailer

The transition from Belvedere Street, in Oakland, to Chiles Road, in Davis, wasn’t easy. I was moving from Nana’s three bedroom house in the Fairfax District to a two bedroom trailer on the backside of 15 acres of asphalt.

In Oakland, I could holler to a friend from my bedroom window. Here on the drive-in, sequestered between crop fields that alternated annually between tomatoes and sugar beets, I was isolate from other kids. Yes, there would be kids using the playground located between my trailer and the Snack Bar on the weekends and there were kids at school, when school was in session, but most days my world was my mother, my father, and me.

I was told that I could bring my bike and a few books, but most of my stuff would have to be handed down to my cousins. I could keep my parakeet and my turtle, but the majority of my books, records, and toys would go to Uncle Gene and Aunt Sue’s kids.

I was able to sell my comic book collection to my cousin, Kim.  Kim and I were born a couple days apart, so there was always camaraderie between us. Admittedly, I was envious of Kim’s Disneyland memorabilia. My theme park experience was minimal. I had been to Children’s Fairyland in Oakland and Santa’s Village in Scotts Valley, but Kim had brochures showing Space Mountain and the other wonders of the Magic Kingdom, located in a faraway place called Anaheim.

DIAL H FOR HERO

Dial H for Hero

When it came to comic books, I went for troubled Peter Parker (Spiderman) and Bruce Wayne (Batman) types. I was also developing an interest in a series called Dial H for Hero that started in 1966. I had five issues and considered them very special.

After selling all my Fantastic Four, Thor, and Superman to Kim, I pretty much lost interest in comics except what I read in the funny papers. About the only hold out was Mad magazine which I enjoyed reading through High School and beyond.

My new bedroom was small. My bed, which amounted to a box spring and a mattress, sat flat on the floor. The remaining space allowed me access to the closet and drawers.  I was able to shove my father’s smallest book case into a cubby above the built in dresser to store my paperbacks.

My bedroom walls would transition from cards with silly sayings that I purchased at the stationary store to postcard size replicas of classic movie posters bought at a downtown bookstore.  I still have one of the cards. It says, “Keep Your Eye on the Ball, Your Shoulder to the Wheel, Your Nose to the Grindstone, Your Feet on the Ground.  Now – Try working from that position.”

The Marx Brothers

The Marx Brothers

During the Junior High years, images of Mae West, W. C. Fields, and The Marx Brothers were displayed, posters taken from albums that featured dialogue from Paramount and Universal films then owned by MCA. The albums were distributed on the DECCA label. These albums, narrated by Gary Owens of Laugh-In fame, had beautifully illustrated pop-art covers.

Comedy of Terrors Poster

Comedy of Terrors Poster

My final wall display would include one-sheets from 2001: A Space Oddysey, Serpico, Comedy of Terrors, and Let It Be which were first displayed in the coming attraction frames in the Snack Bar.

I finished my fifth grade curriculum at Pioneer Elementary School where the standards were much higher than Horace Mann in Oakland. Efforts were made to improve my academic skills and prepare me for the future. I wasn’t the best student. I seldom did my homework preferring to watch TV shows and movies on the big screen outside and the little black and white screen in the living room.

I loved doing the TV Guide Crossword Puzzle with my father. I found a couple of paperback books called Trivia and More Trivial Trivia and began memorizing ephemeral information about pop culture. I began collecting comedy records and joined the The Nostalgia Book Club, later it would be called The Movie Book Club and I signed up for a subscription program with the Cadillac Press,  publishers of books like The Films of Spenser Tracy and The Films of Errol Flynn. I started collecting old radio shows on reel to reel tape and long playing records (LPs) of popular music from 1920s, 30s, and 40s.

During the summer, when I wasn’t visiting Nana in Oakland, I would try to beat the heat by reading directly beneath the swamp cooler in the hallway of the trailer or I would hideout at the Snack Bar which miraculously managed to stay cool even when it was 107 degrees outside. I would alternate between the stockroom, the projection booth, the office, and the men’s restroom.

During the wet and windy winter months, the drive-in would be closed. I was always worried that the trailer would blow over in the wind and the rain, but it never did.

Westlane Auto Movie began showing porno in the mid-seventies. After a few years of exposing Causeway travelers to a quick flash nudity or sex, the theater closed down in 1982 and was completely demolished in 1992.

Mike Maginot is a writer and photographer. His books, Auteurs, Adaptations, and Outsiders and Belevedere Street are available from Amazon. Belvedere Street can also be ordered from your local independent bookseller.

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