I saw my first movie in a theatre in 1964.
Back then a movie cost a quarter and for an extra 15 cents you could get popcorn, a handful of Jujubes and a pop.
In the mill town that was my home then, a movie on Saturday afternoon was the only place to be and every kid in town wanted to be there.
I got my money handed to me wrapped in Scotch tape so I wouldn’t lose it. It sat in my pocket like a molten lump and I fingered it all the way downtown, the edges of that tape already ragged and threatening to unfurl.
There was the smell of sulphur and pulp in the air and I knew that something magical was about to occur in my life.
It was pandemonium. Kids were yelling, throwing popcorn, and wrestling in the aisles while older, more sophisticated kids were taking their first kiss, holding hands, nuzzling and waiting for the curtain to part and the lights to dim so they could delve deeper into that first romantic entanglement.
I sat in my seat watching the jumble of action around me, fascinated and eager.
There weren’t a lot of outings for me as a kid.
I lived in a foster home and there wasn’t a lot of extra money for things like movies, so I drank up every ounce of that experience.
When the lights slid slowly down and the curtain parted, it was magic. It silenced everyone. It halted the jumping about and chasing down the aisles.
Every kid in that theatre settled down and I was awed by the power of that descending dark. Then, when the screen lit up with that first glorious sheen of light, I felt myself falling head over heels in love for the first time.
Back then, afternoon matinees were always double bills and they threw in a cartoon and a newsreel. That day I watched Bugs Bunny and laughed. I don’t recall much of the newsreel. I don’t think anyone even watched it because the first feature was close. It was Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear.
I recall Yogi as the Brown Phantom swinging down from the trees on a rope to steal picnic baskets from the tourists at Jellystone.
Cindy Bear gets blamed for being the park menace and is shipped off to the zoo. Yogi and Boo Boo have to travel to St. Louis to rescue her and it all ends happily after a wild dose of adventure.
The second show was called Apache Territory and starred a cowboy actor named Rory Calhoun.
In it, a wagon train is attacked by Apache Indians and there’s heavy drama as night falls and the hardy pioneers are threatened by attack from the evil savages.
Everyone in that theatre was hushed. You could feel the tension. When the denouement came and the good guys in the white hats won the day and rode off boldly into the sunset, it didn’t matter whether they were white or brown, only that the story ended well and that there was something to cheer about.
For me, the movie was magic. I was transported, taken away from my mill town life and dropped into a world of light and sound and colour so intense I never wanted to leave it.
It was like a dream thrown up on beams of light and I walked through it, inhabiting it, navigating its territories and feeling the world of my imagination swell and alter.
I left the theatre filled with the residue of magic.
It didn’t matter to me then that there were racist overtones to the movie, that my people were belittled, made cartoons of.
It didn’t matter to me then that there were snickers and finger pointing when we kids tumbled out into the light of day. I knew nothing of stereotypes or the inherent danger in outlandish portrayals or the subtle effect racism has on an audience.
All that mattered to me was how I felt, how my imagination was fired and my insides quivered at the excitement of seeing life splayed out on a 15-metre screen.
Apache Territory was one of the films that came out at the end of the 1950s and the 1960s that still held onto the cartoon image of the Indian.
It was a standard western, a B movie with B list actors, writers and directors. Within its storyline there was only room for the accepted, tried and true characterizations and it played well to B movie audiences.
I didn’t know then how great a portion of the national demographic made up that audience.
We have Indian producers and directors these days. Native people are depicting their lives as they live them and even Hollywood, when it takes the risk to do a movie about Indians, takes care to do it respectfully for the most part.
Our children, when they see their people on the silver screen, are seeing a more genuine image.
In 1964 it was all about the dazzle.
It was all about the magic of being entranced, about the ability of a story to take you away so easily you didn’t even know you’d left.
It was all about the world taken apart, reassembled and shown to you as a whole new entity and as a kid I embraced the magic.
These days, I don’t go to as many movies as I used to.
It has more to do with the loss of charm in the outings now than it does with the quality of films.
There was something special about a handful of change and a double bill, a horde of screaming kids, the smell of popcorn and the awe that came with the parting of the curtain.
They don’t have curtains anymore.
There are no double bills, no 15-cent snacks.
Today a movie costs $10, or more.
Part of the magic of movies was the experience of going. These days it just seems shallower somehow, more of an effort.
I miss the charm of it all, cartoon cutout Indians or not.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.