What's Playing at the Paris Theater
My Grandma Sally was a career criminal, and if there were a Hall of Fame for Liars, she would have been a charter member. Her crimes were petty, insignificant really, but Grandma Sally was truly gifted. Octogenarian criminality is rich fodder for performance art, and she was a natural. She lived her life at the heady intersection of inspired eccentricity and faux normality, which was a clever ruse if ever I saw one. Her disregard for social mores she found inconvenient was coupled with an unfailing ability to accurately assess when it was time to pull the plug, play dumb, and/or flee the scene.
Grandma Sally started exercising her talents early on. She was only 16 when she hurled herself into the path of my very aristocratic, very wealthy Grandpa Murray, who she met by stalking him on a Harlem subway platform. He had caught her eye while she was doing an errand in his very swanky neighborhood, a mere ninety blocks north of her home in a working-class neighborhood that almost qualified as “modest”. Poor Grandpa Murray didn’t know what hit him. Grandma Sally travelled ninety blocks, twice a day, to brazenly insinuate herself into his daily commute to and from his place a business, a fancy law firm in an even swankier neighborhood, and the next thing he knew, they were getting married.
Pleasure was Grandma Sally’s passion, maybe even her life’s work, and her standards were pretty lofty. She loved the limelight, and thrilled to danger. She would invite, even encourage, the discovery of her criminal transgressions. For Grandma Sally, the best part of any caper was that her hapless victim knew she was absolutely guilty as charged—and that she would get away with it anyway.
Grandma Sally had a laugh that was astonishingly large for a woman of her small stature; a combination of a whoop, a hoot, and a cackle, that laugh was so contagious that it went viral, every time. Even in repose, she seemed to be laughing. She was a woman of many mysteries, including her natural hair color (I only knew her as a stylish honey blond) and how she managed to keep the thick, waxy, ever-present red lipstick she wore from getting all over her teeth, I’ll never know.
She was in her early 80’s in the early 1980’s, widowed by then, and I was in my early 20’s. In Grandma Sally’s company, I was stunned to find myself behaving like an authentic grownup when one of her inspirations showed signs of careening out of control. She was utterly infectious, and her own best audience, too, laughing, always laughing, as she reported her illicit activities. My mother is her daughter, and it is extremely obvious, at least in my lineage, that mirth can skip a generation.
Grandma Sally lived at 215 E. 68th street, in a many door-manned building that also housed a famous kiddie-show TV star who travelled everywhere with two enormous, perfectly groomed poodles, one black, one white, and an incredibly handsome network news anchor who Grandma Sally felt certain was not a “real” man. The very fancy Paris Theater also lived in that neighborhood, just a couple of blocks away. A precursor of the indie movie houses that have since sprung up all over NYC, the Paris Theater showed mostly racy foreign films with French and English subtitles.
The marquis was huge, edged in lights, and the ticket-takers were homogenous, handsome young men with exotic good looks that suggested continental origins. They wore impeccably tailored uniforms the color of a fine French Bordeaux, old Hollywood style with a military flare, gold braid and blinding, shiny brass buttons, complete with small, severely structured hats that aspired to being jaunty. The hats were worn perched at an exactingly saucy angle, anchored by a gilt elastic strap beneath the unfortunate wearer’s chin. (“They all look like fagelehs,” sniffed Grandma Sally). The ticket-takers and ushers and the unfortunates working behind the ornate concession stand were trained to adapt an effete Parisian air and a subtle arrogance that some people might find a little intimidating. Grandma Sally, of course, was not one of them.
On the day of the Paris Theater caper, the ticket-taker was demonstrating mild annoyance as he attempted to create order amongst the ticketholders who had stupidly arrived on time for the opening of a new, very blue movie that had gotten fairly salacious press. The mere mortals who came to the first showing of the movie did not seem to understand that in France, and at the Paris Theater, apparently, it is considered inelegant to do pretty much anything on time. Thick ropes of burgundy velvet attached to gleaming brass posts provided the blueprint for crowd control, and for the most part, the ticket-taker’s personal authority, demonstrated by the indifferently aggressive toss of his saucy-hatted head, prevailed.
Part of the cachet of the Paris Theater was that no matter when you got there, you were going to wait on a long, long line, sometimes snaking around a corner or two. This stroke of public relations genius was designed to make both the inhabitants of the Checker cabs streaking by and the hurried pedestrians en route to whatever they were late for all pause to wonder what fabulousness was happening at the Paris and why they were not part of it.
Grandma Sally loved soft porn, and she called me pretty much long-distance (I lived uptown, in the now not-so-tony neighborhood of 121st and Amsterdam) to invite me to accompany her to the big-ticket dirty movie that was opening at the Paris Theater. I was in graduate school at the time, and when I pleaded mid-terms as an impediment to my taking part in this fine adventure, she started laughing that laugh, pronounced me a prude, laughed some more, and, inevitably, I found myself heading downtown, knowing full well that this excursion was rife with possibilities. I briefly hoped we would not get arrested. Under normal circumstances the thought of being under arrest was somewhat quelling, but this was Grandma Sally, after all, and the possibility that the two of us could get booked, fingerprinted, and end up sharing a jail cell was pretty titillating.
We rendezvoused in the lobby of her building, and staked out the Paris, a mere two blocks away, from the covert vantage point of the back seat of a taxi. The velvet-roped line was three city blocks worth of discouraging, rounding two corners and implying a significant wait time. I may have started to say something sensible about a later show, but Grandma Sally held up her hand to silence me, and instructed the cab driver to let us off half a block away from the entrance. There was a cadre of uniformed “fagelehs” patrolling the line, but Grandma Sally dodged them expertly, maneuvering her fierce little body at warp speed as she flounced straight up to the ticket booth. It was March, and not very cold, but she was wearing her mink coat, for effect, I think. “Two, please,” she said.
She stood there motionless, then shot me a look that informed me that it was I who was footing the bill. As I fumbled for my wallet, the unfortunate ticket-seller behind the elegantly rounded glass-enclosed ticket booth tried to spit out the phrase “Sold Out”, but Grandma Sally held up a hand to silence him, the money changed hands, and two tickets spat out, just like that. At that point, a uniformed member of the movie police attempted to direct us to the end of the line, but Grandma Sally was in rare form. Her visage read “evil glee” and she was smiling almost sweetly as she said simply this: “ I’m not waiting in that line. I’m pregnant.” She patted her mink-clad midsection, for emphasis.
The Captain of the Jaunty Hat, plainly annoyed, looked down his nose at me for assistance, but I knew my role in this scam. I met his gaze directly and nodded my head slowly, up and down, several times, simultaneously offering up a well-practiced subtle shift of my eyes to inform him that Grandma Sally was most definitely off her rocker and it would be best to just play along. It didn’t matter anyway, because she had already bolted past him and was now impatiently holding the door to the theater lobby open for me. As I passed through the doorway, she turned to the very mystified gatekeeper, and said, quite loudly, “You really ought to do something about that hat, you look like a fageleh!” A few ticketholders lassoed by the velvet ropes began to applaud, and Grandma Sally curtsied and started laughing that laugh.
We were cracking up like crazy as we chose our seats and got ourselves situated in the completely empty Paris Theater, accompanied by the mournful voice of Edith Piaf, a soundtrack of French sorrow that was crashing through the enormous stereo speakers in the almost empty theater. It wasn’t long before two dandified ushers approached us, but I was nonplussed; my money (literally) was on Grandma Sally. They didn’t try to eject her; they wanted to know if she wanted popcorn. “Yes,” she said, “Double butter, and put some in the middle. Eating for two, you know.” She paused a moment and added, “And bring some for my girl. Single butter for her.”
Popcorn was delivered, and Grandma Sally sent the usher back twice, once for more napkins and a second time for a couple of large Cokes, one regular (for her), and one diet (for me). I didn’t have to pay for any of it. The doors to the theater finally opened, and as the room filled, a couple of patrons, laughing hysterically when they spotted her, actually paused to high-five Grandma Sally as they selected their seats.
Grandma Sally liked the movie well enough, but this didn’t stop her from loudly proclaiming it pure smut to everyone within earshot and asking for her (my) money back before we departed the Paris Theater. The same terrified ticket-seller refunded the tickets, and ponied up a couple of free passes to insure that Grandma Sally would patronize the Paris Theater in the future. Grandma Sally graciously accepted the passes and pocketed my money. A member of the movie police hailed us a cab without our even asking, and once we were safely inside, Grandma Sally lost it completely, out of control hysterical, gasping with laughter while narrating these events to me as if I had not been there. The cab driver got a little nerve-wracked and let us off at her building, two blocks away, without even attempting to collect his fare.
The doorman at her building split a wide grin when he opened the back door of the Checker, and Grandma Sally spilled out, already recounting a hilariously embellished version of the afternoon’s events as he escorted her from the curb. She told him the story three times, calling him by three different names in the process, the last as he was attempting to steer her into the revolving doors to the lobby. Her voice, and that laugh, really carried. I was made to corroborate every detail, even the ones that were pure fabrication. It didn’t even feel like lying.
By this time, Grandma Sally was running late for her weekly “canasta” game (it was really high stakes poker) and she needed some time to freshen that red lipstick and figure out the evening’s cheating strategy. I suspected she was going to have a whole lot more fun than I was, especially as I was about to pull an all-nighter in what suddenly seemed to be a despairingly sedate academic ivory tower.
We said our good-byes, and Grandma Sally pulled me to her and impulsively air-kissed me, French style, red lips smacking together loudly somewhere in the vicinity of each of my cheeks. Still laughing, she said, “ Au revoir! We’ll always have Par-ee. Next time, the Emporium, 79th and Broadway. Or maybe a Broadway musical.” And of course, I agreed.
I was heading for the revolving doors when, as an afterthought, I asked Grandma Sally to refund me the Paris Theater (free) ticket money. I wanted to take a cab uptown, a small luxury in anticipation of the grueling night of study ahead. “A cab?” She cheerfully feigned horror. “Graduate students are too poor for cabs. Take the subway.” She was still chortling as she turned and flounced her tiny mink-clad self in the direction of the elevator. By the end of the evening, she had tripled my money playing dirty poker, and the following morning she called way too early, waking me up to brag about it.Note: Paris Theater photo by Litherland on Flicker