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180430 April 30, 2018


The Social Scene

Tommy Towery

LHS '65

Branching out

    As we spread our wings and started venturing outside of our family domiciles, new adventures awaited us on the expanding horizon. In the beginning we formed small groups of kids in the neighborhood and “played.” For the males in my area, war and cowboys were the common outdoor activities. In the small groups there were not enough of us for team sports, but hide-and-seek was always a favorite.

    Once I reached the ripe old age of about six, I was allowed to do things that I do not think kids today would ever be allowed in the crazy world that now exists. I do not think I was alone in this new found freedom. At that time we lived on Halsey Avenue, and the gang from Rison School with which I ran around would explore the neighborhood after school. We walked to and from school alone during those days, and so we often took side trips on the way home. There was one little store on the way home where we would often buy a little wax paper bag that had three doughnuts in it for a dime.

    The summer before I started the second grade my family moved to the house on East Clinton Street. This gave me a location advantage which other kids my age did not have. This big house was located about a block west of East Clinton Elementary School and only about three blocks east of downtown HuntsvilleAgain, walking to and from school was never an issue and neither my family nor I saw any danger in doing so – and yes, it really was uphill getting there and I walked in the sun and rainThe same conditions applied to getting to other places within walking distance.

    At the age of seven I was often sent out on my own to go to the store to get things like milk and bread. If it was something simple there was a little store nearby called “Grimes Grocery” which was a few houses up the street from me on Clinton. Mrs. Grimes ran it out of a bedroom in her house. She would go to the “big” Kroger grocery store and buy simple things like cans of beans and corn and bread and take it back to her house to sell. She used a grease pencil and would mark through the price label that Kroger placed on each item and mark them up two or three cents to make a profit. She had milk and soft drinks delivered and sold those items out of a regular home refrigerator in the room. It was a small place, always dark in my memory, but was very handy for members of the local community. I especially remember the cans of Hi-C orange drinks she marketed.

    If I had the time or if something was not available at Mrs. Grimes, I would be sent to Kroger’s all by myself. I remember that my mother would sometimes ask me to get a head of lettuce and to make sure it was firm. Well, every time she sent me on that quest I would come home with a head of cabbage, since it was always firmer than the similar looking green heads of lettuce. I was amazed when Kroger’s put in the first automatically opening door that opened when you stepped on the mat in front of it. The first time I went after it was installed I fell flat on my face when I reached out to push the door open and it opened itself, leaving me falling forwards. My other odd memory of Kroger’s is that every so often they sold ham sandwiches in a paper sandwich bag for a dime. They put mustard on them and I hated mustard, but who could pass up a lunch for a dime? They also had the Spotlight coffee grinder where folks would grind the whole coffee beans on their own. While this has come back into popularity in today’s coffee obsessed world, it was unique in the late Fifties.

    The above stories are included to show the freedoms we were afforded as Baby Boomers growing up in Huntsville. It was a safe town. I was not alone with being free to perform these activities and all the kids on my street were allowed the same things at similar ages. Going to the store was an individual activity, but in doing so, the freedom of venturing out on my own was being tested and the foundation of trust established. 

    Next came the interaction with me and one of my first social networks. For many of us, the summers meant one major activity – the playgrounds. The city of Huntsville funded several playgrounds around the town to keep the younger kids out of trouble and occupy their time. The city would hire older teenagers or college students to manage these playgrounds and come up with activities to keep the kids busy .

    For me, the playground was located at East Clinton Elementary School and each weekday morning I would get up early and join my friends for the day’s adventure. The activities were not inside the school, but were outside in the playground area.Activities included things like checkers, dominoes, and horseshoes and playing on the playground equipment like slides, monkey bars, the sandbox, and the see-saws. One of the major organized team sports was the softball teams and we would hop on our bikes and ride to other playgrounds to compete with the other teams. I especially remember going to the California Street playground and I believe we also went to one up near Rison. Many fun filled hours were spent with my friends there.  

    The block where Kroger’s on East Clinton Street (later changed to Clinton Avenue East) was located only a block from Washington Street, which was the main street for downtown in my mind. Therefore it was no big deal to walk that extra block to go to the movies or to the “dime stores” on my own. Saturday became the day that most of us would do that. Saturdays, yearound, were almost always movie days to my group of friends. 

Meet You at the Picture Show

    They were big and dark and exciting places, full of fun and thrills, and later even romance. They offered the most fun a kid could have on a Saturday in Huntsville when I was growing up. They had exotic names but were actually just theaters; however, few in Huntsville would say they were going to the “theatre”. That phrase seemed too hoity-toity for the small Southern town folks. Some of the real old timers called them movie houses. 

    My crowd usually didn't even say we were going to the movie when I was growing up. We said we were going to the "picture show" or "show" for short. Even when I started dating, I asked girls for dates with the phrase "Do you want to go to the show with me?"

    By the time the Fifties came around and I was able to go by myself, there were two major theatres in downtown Huntsville – the Lyric and the Grand. The old Elk’s Theatre was being used as the driver’s license office.  Another theatre was located near downtown and was named the Princess, but it was the “colored” theatre, and white folks were not allowed to go to it any more than its patrons were allowed to come to the Lyric or Grand. This was true segregation days in Huntsville. 

    There was one other sit-down movie house that I went to a lot, in West Huntsville, called the Center Theatre, which was cheap to visit since it showed second run movies.

    Not only were they called differently than today, movie theaters themselves were run differently in the Fifties and Sixties. Today, movies are shown for months at a time at the same place. During any one week in the Fifties, each theater would show three or four different movies. A normal movie visit included being treated to the feature film, sometimes a short like “The Three Stooges or The Man Behind the Eight Ball, a color cartoon, the Movietone News of the Week, and the Previews of Coming Attractions. Many times the feature film was a double feature with two movies. It very seldom mattered as a kid what time the show started.  If you got there early you would go in anyway, and if you arrived late you would just sit through it until you saw what you missed the first time around.

    Usually the newly released movies started on Sunday and ran Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. A different movie would be shown on Wednesday, sometimes that being the only day it would play. On Thursday a different movie would start that would also run on Friday. 

    Saturdays were special. There were usually double feature movies at the Lyric Theater every Saturday. Before those started there was a special showing we commonly called a "Car-toonCarnival." It was about an hour of nothing but color cartoons and on days that there wasn't anything special going on, it cost ten cents to get in. For one period of time the admission price for the cartoons was an empty Golden Flake potato chip bag. I never knew why they wanted them. When I was a kid, whole Saturdays were spent in theaters.

    During one period kids were given a special ticket when they entered the theater. These were not the normal door-prize type tickets, but big ones about two inches square with a big number ranging from one to sixteen in the center. These tickets were used in the “Crazy Races” part of the Saturday morning activities. Sometime during the morning, a special short film was shown with “Crazy Racers” with each racer wearing a number. The races were conducted in the mode of the Keystone Cops or Our Gang type films and at the end of the short fifteen minute or so race, one racer crossed the finish line first and was declared the winner. If your ticket matched the winner’s number, you were a winner as well and went up on the theater stage and received a prize. Usually fifteen or twenty prizes of some type of games or toys were given to the lucky few. After getting up early on Saturday mornings for two years and eating myself sick on potato chips, my number finally came up and I won a clay construction set.

    On some Saturdays the Lyric Theatre held live talent shows with special prizes for the winners. Five or ten people got up on stage and put on their show and then the master of ceremonies would let the crowd pick the winner by yelling or applauding. There was not a lot of talent displayed but someone was always a winner. I don't even remember the prize I won when my brother Don got all his friends to clap for me after he goaded me into getting up on the stage and singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." I think I was about seven then.

    The other feature of the Saturday morning theatre visit was a "Serial" as we always called it. The rest of the world called them continued series. We would sit in the dark on the edge of our fold up seats as we watched one of the fifteen episodes of Commando Cody, The Rocket Man, Batman, or Dick Tracy. Each week we were left watching the hero go off the edge of the cliff  or crash a plane and the compelling message "Don't miss next week's exciting episode of 'The Mask of Doom' in this theatre," or something equally demanding. Of course we wouldn't think of missing it. More than once I went to the theater fifteen weeks in a row just to see what happened to my hero. That ploy worked well on me.


    The Cartoon Carnival was the epitome of what children liked and adults hated about movies. There was plenty of screaming and yelling and running through the aisles and throwing of popcorn and candy wrappers. Perhaps it was held to give the kids a time to do those kinds of things without disturbing the adults. The kids loved it.

    I think my personal record for the number of different movies seen in one day was seven, counting the Cartoon Carnival. That day started early in the morning holding a potato chip bag in the line with the screaming kids at the Lyric Theater. I came out of that, got back into line, and re-entered the place to watch a double feature, usually sitting in the same seat.

    I grabbed a quick lunch at Krystal and I was off to the double feature at the Grand Theater a couple of blocks away from the cafe. Once that let out, a ten cent bus ride took me to West Huntsville where I had supper at the Rebel Inn, paid for by my grandmother who worked there. After a meal of a chili dog or hamburger, it was a short walk across the street to the Center Theatre for the third double feature of the day. It was a world-class record that would stand for a long time.

    On Saturday evenings, the movies would change again and a special show would be shown that night only. On rare occasions, special "Sneak Previews" were shown in some of the theatres and no one knew what movie would be shown. There were great ones and terrible ones. I remember one night "Gigi" was shown. It was such a sneak preview, that a month passed before it was shown again at the theater. I never learned where the sneak preview features came from, but if nothing else was going on, they were always a good way to spend the evening.

    I could go on with much more details about this phase of my life, but for now, I hope you can relate to some of these thoughts.

        Memphis, TN - I know I have strayed from the things I said I would be writing about, but I found some of these old memories in some of my previous writings so I thought I would share them with you instead of something else.

    Please feel free to share your own thoughts and memories about these early days in your life. I know we will find them interesting.