“It’s just as I remember it” is never how it was.
Entering the cavernous interior of The Eagle for the first time in more than fifty years, plunged into darkness on a glaringly bright afternoon in September 2021, I can’t believe it was always this enormous. Then again, my memories are mainly of darkness, of far corners lost in shadow, a ceiling mostly imagined. And as a kid, I didn’t spend much time thinking about the areas I couldn’t see. My eyes were fixed on the luminous screen. Nothing else mattered unless it blocked my view.
Having recently moved to back Los Angeles after leaving in 1970, I was delighted to learn that The Eagle, the theater of my childhood, was being restored by the Vidiots Foundation; and ecstatic to be given a tour of the work in progress. My memories were so vivid that I approached the visit with guarded enthusiasm, expecting to find it somehow reduced–smaller and shabbier than I remembered, in the usual way of childhood memories. Instead, the opposite occurred. The details I remembered were accurate but the scale of it had eluded me. It was huge! Even taking into account the absence of seats, the fact that some of the walls were now simply scaffolding and the floor a maze of trenches and mounds of excavated earth, it was difficult to reconcile my memories of an intimate movie house with this vast, dark memory palace.
Of course, I had never seen The Eagle empty or quiet. My earliest memory of the place is one of total chaos—a wild commotion in the dark. A weekend matinee. A tumult of children swarming over seats, running up and down the aisles, screaming and laughing and pelting one another with candy. I remember the candy and the parentless dark and the anticipation of the overamped crowd, waiting for the movie to start.
The movie? Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Funny and frightening, the jumble of images take precedence in memory over the behavior of the crowd. And right around here, my recollection of that specific day begins to blur into a montage of every movie I saw at The Eagle between the years 1965 and 1970, age five through ten, when I lived in Eagle Rock.
We had moved from an apartment in Glendale to a shabby house on the hillside on College View. My mother was a teacher at Glassell Park Elementary, and every morning she dropped me off with my younger brother at a sitter’s house in Highland Park, on her way to work. There we joined a pack of children, some of them foster kids and some just there for the day like us. As a kindergartner, I joined the mob of older kids and trudged to Monte Vista Elementary daily for a couple of years. Eventually we moved to a house on Norwalk Avenue, only a few blocks from Eagle Rock Elementary, so I could walk from home to school. Every day that walk took me past The Eagle.
On weekdays, the theater was camouflaged among ordinary buildings and kept its secrets close. After school we flocked to the candy store next door to the box office, stocking up on trading cards (baseball cards for those who cared about such things, Odd Rods for those like myself who preferred monsters); candy buttons that you peeled from paper strips; sugar necklaces that dissolved against your skin, becoming disgustingly sticky ornaments.
The candy shop was in direct competition with The Eagle for our allowances, but I don’t remember anyone being stopped for bringing in outside candy, which I generally preferred to the dusty Necco Wafers or glutinous Raisinets the Eagle sold. Milk Duds were my diet of choice. (And the mere thought of Duds evokes an image of a lone box caught in a narrow spotlight, like a frame from Eraserhead—but this was the candy counter at the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax, whose memories I hold for another day.) The most baffling candy sold there were Gold Nuggets—the gold-encrusted bubble gum that came in a “canvas” sack. What theater was self-destructive enough to sell gum? Why supply kids with treats that would inevitably end up stuck to the floor or the red plush seats? Then again, even the candy store next door was expensive compared to the Thrifty Drugs across the street, where for five bucks you could literally fill a bag with sweets. Oh how I envied the kids wealthy enough to have the requisite five dollars, when they strolled in with brown sacks overflowing. There is no denying that one attraction of moviegoing was the chance to gorge on crap we were never allowed otherwise. I don’t recall wasting this opportunity on anything as healthy as popcorn.
While I spent many hours unchaperoned at The Eagle, parental behavior shaped those early movie memories in ways I didn’t realize till years later. One of my early Eagle movie memories was of seeing You Only Live Twice, my first James Bond. Rewatching it several years ago, I was surprised how little I remembered—and nothing at all of about the first 40 minutes. My best explanation, considering how vividly I remembered the later scenes, is that start times were supremely unimportant to our parents, who rarely bothered to consult a movie schedule in those days before Moviefone or Fandango. If you arrived late, who cared? You were invariably there for a double feature, and if you were really lucky, you might be allowed to stick around till the first feature started again, to see the part you missed by coming in late. But this was unlikely. A missed opening could stay unseen for years, or forever.
While in those days, we were mostly dropped off to see movies on our own, I remember seeing with my mother–ones to which she almost certainly had to drag me. There is no other way I could have been coaxed into watching Gone With the Wind, a movie that came with its own intermission. I remember rushing gratefully into the lobby, then wearily realizing we were going back in for more. Another one she dragged me to marked my first experience with subtitles, Claude Berry’s Le Poulet. This seems an odd selection for The Eagle, but it had won the Oscar for short film in 1966, and so must have enjoyed a run in theaters that didn’t usually go in for such things. Although Le Poulet was subtitled, and I could barely even read English at that age, I was won over by an unforgettable sequence in which father and son interrupt a long drive to take a piss by the side of the road. I had no idea you could show such things in movies! I was gleefully scandalized.
I don’t remember my father going to the movies with us even once. He was already spoiled by foreign films, and if a theater didn’t show Bergman movies he had little use for it. This was fine with me. He did take me to see Planet of the Apes, and even enjoyed it; and I somehow talked him into taking me to see Green Slime, for which he never forgave me. But most of my movie adventures had no memorable parental involvement. Even the presence of other children was irrelevant once the movie started. I couldn’t tell you which of my friends went with me to any particular films, or what we talked about between movies, or anything of the sort. The one exception was the occasion of my first formal date, in the spring of 1969. Dropped off with another eight-year-old, some winsome crush whose name now eludes me (Debbie? Laura?), we bought one large root-beer and two straws, then went inside to watch The Love Bug. DebbieLaura might have drunk more than I judged her fair share. I vaguely recall some sort of root-beer-related disagreement, which might be why I’ve never since minded going to the movies on my own.
It occurred to me, when I started thinking about how to approach this essay, that if I were to comb through the archives of the Los Angeles Times, I might be able to find movie listings for The Eagle in this era, might in fact assign fixed dates to my memories. But I’m not sure I need to impose that much order on the pleasing chaos of memory. Why make these hazy memories less dreamlike? The movies themselves, although I viewed them in at a specific point in time, have been with me ever since, their influence formless and pervasive.
Here is a hugely incomplete list of the movies that have stuck with me. Every now and then I am likely to remember another and another:
– Robinson Crusoe on Mars (I definitely missed a huge chunk of the opening);
– Fantastic Voyage, which stoked my obsession with microscopes;
– A Don Knotts trifecta: The Incredible Mr. Limpet, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Reluctant Astronaut(which I don’t remember seeing but there was no way I was going to let a movie with both Don Knotts and rocket ships get past me unseen);
– It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and the even more exhaustingly-titled Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad;
– The long run of Disney’s Dean Jones offerings, such as That Darn Cat, The Horse in the Grey Flannel Suit, Blackbeard’s Ghost.
– And somewhat related, the last movie I clearly remember seeing at The Eagle was one in which Kurt Russell’s star had begun to eclipse Dean Jones’s: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.
Trying to pin down something as slippery as “the last movie I saw at the Eagle” is subject to the vagaries of dream. It is hard to tie specific dates to hallucinatory events I experienced in the dark, with no access to the normal touchstones of memory. I only know for certain that my parents split up in the summer of 1970, and I took my forced flight from Eagle Rock that July. My Dad lived on Norwalk for a while longer, and I had friends and cousins in the neighborhood, so I could well have attended movies into the early ‘70s.
I have one last memory of The Eagle which I believe dates from these later visits. It’s a memory of the lobby itself. There were notices all around, and a petition to be signed, warning of the imminent threat of “Pay TV!” I thought this sound sounded preposterous. Someone tried to explain cable, but it made no sense. Surely movie theaters had nothing to fear from the tiny shrill Boob Tube. Why would anyone willingly pay for something that always had been, and would forever remain, free? Absurd!
Over the decades, I thought of the Eagle often, and kept what tabs I could. I received occasional news of its activities, as one hears about an old friend from whom you’ve drifted apart. “Oh, I heard they’re a stripper now…or whatever it is that goes on in a Pussycat Theater.” Then a few years later: “Oh, they don’t strip anymore. They’re preaching now. The old place is a church or some kind of cult.” That’s the way it is with some old acquaintances. What’s left to talk about, when all you have in common is ancient history, now irrelevant?
But The Eagle never stopped feeling like a prized friend from long ago. Whenever conversation turns to movie memories, I havee mentioned it by name, especially when talking with friends from Los Angeles. But even among them, shared memories are few. The Eagle was a neighborhood theater, and so many neighborhoods had their own. Unless you lived in the area, you had little reason to trek to Eagle Rock to see the same movies that were playing in other local venues. The difference is that most of those are gone for good, with no sign of ever returning, while The Eagle, miraculously, is on its way back. The place was never knocked down; the red seats remain.
I found it hard to believe, as I stood there in the shadows on that sunny afternoon, how carefully my childhood theater had held onto its precious lode of darkness. The old place kept its mysteries close, and it kept them very well.
I’m thrilled that soon The Eagle will be sharing those secrets with us once again.
Marc Laidlaw, Los Angeles, 2021