Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ode to a man who brought the world to Chatham

Although the words I’ve shared with Tony Quirino, for the most part, were exchanged through the ticket window as I slid a few dollars toward him and he slid my single ticket toward me, when I read the news of his untimely death last month it felt as if I had lost a family member.

I only vaguely remember the first movie I saw at Quirino’s Crandell Theatre, Chatham’s historic, family-owned film house for more than five decades. It was either "Snow White" or "Cinderella," and my parents had fought a quiet battle over which of them would take us. Disney was always a favorite of theirs.

Back in the 1970s Tony’s father, Anthony, was behind the tiny window in the theater’s entry hall. His mother, Minnie, stood smiling behind the concessions counter. I always got popcorn: salt, no butter. My sister always got Good n’ Plenty.

I saw so many movies at the rural cinema it would be easier to name the ones I didn’t see from its lever seats. And even some of those — the scary ones I’d watched through my fingers or while looking into the faces of the folks behind me — were there as well.

My window to the world came through that big dark room. In it I always sat on the edge of my seat waiting for the big clock near the screen to strike the end of the previews. The lights would go down, and the place would seem to melt away.

Those of us old enough to remember the release of Star Wars can tell you where we were when we’d seen it. I can tell you where I sat. I was fifth row, 12th seat. I was jealous of my sister, who’d gotten to sit in the balcony, opened special for the overflow crowd. I have no idea where my parents ended up. It was the first time we’d ever been separated for a film. I felt big.

In the dark, in that place, I traveled the nation and the world. I got to see glimpses of outer space — not to mention puzzle at alien languages and actor hairdon’ts -- from a seat in the balcony eventually. But the tiny theater brought more than mere locations to me it brought me to my generation visiting the nowhere towns of Hill Valley and Shermer, Illinois.

Over the years I’ve come to understand most places and people through sitting in the dark of a theater.

In Chatham, it seemed, no one ever laughed when a movie was funny. By the same token, no one seemed to mind a bad movie when the price was only a few bucks per ticket.

Still, walkouts would be offered their money back, or so my mom once told me. She laughed and told him she wouldn’t hear of it. The fault was hers for not reading the previews for a movie called "Porkies."

When Tony took over the family business I was graduating high school and moving on to college. I still came back for shows. I brought my friends, and we laughed and talked, and got shushed from time to time … though never by Tony.

I didn’t know then, nor until I read his obituary, of his life outside that small window. I didn’t know he’d served in Vietnam, or that he’d been decorated in the war. I didn’t know he had once owned a repair shop or that he could fix just about anything.

All I knew was his face and its far-away smile.

Even though the years passed quickly, time stood still at that ticket window. My single admission turned into four tickets two adults, two children. His hair had turned silver, but his smile was unchanged.

He always seemed to be enjoying the show.

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