Saturday Night at the Movies in the Caribbean
Saturday night was the night to go to the movies when I was in my upper teens. My parents and every decent person we knew avoided the Center Theatre on Saturday nights. This was when the place was taken over by “street scum” and “gutter rats”. And that’s why we liked Saturday nights best of all. You saw all kinds of things and got lots of laughs that you could talk about all week until the next Saturday night came along.
Now by this time I was working as a waiter and later bartender at a night club and was making about fifty dollars a week. An incredible amount for a boy of seventeen in the mid fifties. My parents of course made me put away more than half every week for my education. But the rest of it was mine to spend as I pleased and sometimes I lied about what I was making so I often had more than they knew about.
The routine was, you started getting ready about five o’clock in the afternoon for the eight o’clock show that night. All the guys were going to be dressed up sharp and you wanted to be the sharpest of all.
You got to the theatre about an hour before just to make sure you got a ticket before they sold out because they always did. Then you spent the rest of the time just hanging out in front of the theatre talking and making sure that everyone, especially the girls, saw how sharply you were dressed. In some months before there had been a newsreel showing Louis Armstrong, whom they were calling “The Ambassador of Jazz” playing his trumpet all over the world. The thing that caught our eye was the fact that he carried a knotted handkerchief which he held between his fingers while he played. And when he stopped or took a rest he would smile with that wide satchel mouth of his and wipe his forehead. But he didn’t really wipe it he patted it slowly and stylishly. We thought it the coolest of the cool things anyone could do. So we all began to carry a long white handkerchief and all throughout any conversation we had we would periodically stop to grin and wipe our necks and face in the Armstrong style. It used to make my father crazy. He would ask me why I was doing that nonsense and I would tell him because it was cool. He would just shake his head and walk away convinced that he had sired a retarded son I suppose. But I didn’t care. My friends and I knew it was cool so that was enough for me.
Inside the theatre was divided into three sections. This wasn’t a formal designation; it was just how things had evolved. The section down front close to the screen was called “The Pit”. This was where the lowest of the low went to sit, eat candy, throw the wrappers at each other and call out to friends across the way, make noise, fart and smell up the place. These were the Neanderthals and the cave men from the country side who weren’t sophisticated like we were and only came into town on Saturday night.
The last two rows of the orchestra was where the so called “decent people” sat if they were foolish enough to go to The Center Theatre on a Saturday night. Often they couldn’t help it if the theater was playing a movie they wanted to see because this was the only time to catch it.
Then there was the stadium where people like myself sat. Guys who had a little money from hotel or restaurant work, who were also educated enough to read the fan magazines like Modern Screen and Photoplay and knew something about the private lives of the stars. Guys who knew how to dress sharp and carried their handkerchiefs Louis Armstrong style. Guys who knew how to impress the women by calling them “Baby”… “Sugar Pie”…”Angel”…and “Doll”. In other words weren’t yokels like those people in “The Pit.”
The movie started at eight and we were let in at seven thirty in order to see and be seen. And there were a parade of characters everyone waited for. There was Carmen Jones named for the movie of course. She was a pretty black girl about twenty five, handsomely proportioned in all the right places. She would wear the tightest red dress she could find, put a flower in her hair like Dorothy Dandridge did in the film and bright red lipstick on her mouth. When she entered she would mount the stadium steps one at a time in slow motion and guys would call out: “Hey there Carmen”…”Talk to me Mama”…”Give me a smile, Baby”…or “Shake it but don’t break it, Angel”. Others would rise and tip their hats hoping that perhaps she would give them a smile or some form of public acknowledgement. But Carmen, whose real name was Andrea Hendricks, would take it all in stride and if she felt in the mood would give you a smile or a whispered hello. If she did it would mark you as special and you could boast about that for the rest of the week.
Another was Mister Valence. Valence was what we called a “He/She” or anti-man. Today of course we would call him “Gay”. Valence was a flamboyant character who didn’t care who knew what he was. In fact he advertised it in the way he talked, dressed, waved his hands and threw his head around. He could also roll his eyes as good as Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. Everyone appreciated his style and when he came in would call out “Howdy Miss Valence” to which he would reply “How are you darling?
Someone else would call out “You looking pretty tonight Baby.” And he would answer: “Beauty for most is only skin deep but mine goes right to my soul.” My father said “A man like that should be whipped and locked up. He’s making a mockery of things and that’s nothing to laugh at”. So I couldn’t laugh at his antics when my father was around which is why I had to go to the movies on Saturday nights.
Another character who always showed up on Saturday nights was “Captain Ahab”, named after the Gregory Peck character in Moby Dick. He had a beard and the same kind of way of tilting his head as Peck did in the film. When he came in we would call out “Where’s the whale, Captain?” And he would usually point and say “Thar she blows!” But if he was in a bad mood for one reason or another response would be: “Under your mother’s dress, look there and you’ll find it.” So you had to be careful when you called out to Captain Ahab because if he slammed you like that you were the laughing stock for the week. We also had The Durango Kid, Red Ryder and our version of Hopalong Cassidy. When these guys made their entrances in full western regalia about two minutes to eight we would applaud them, then tell each other what idiots we really thought they were for dressing up like that and wait for the lights to dim. When they did we would settle down into our seats and the wonderful world of the movies would begin.
Now I need to tell you about Mister Rhumbay. Rhumbay lived in a section called “The Point” or just plain “Point” as most locals referred to it. Point was a swamp area where only the poorest of the poor lived. It wasn’t only a ghetto it was a disgrace and a tragedy. It doesn’t exist anymore. A year after I left the island the whole area was razed by the government, the swamp was filled in and an attractive low cost housing project took its place. But in those days The Point was a world unto itself. As kids in high school we would often walk through there because they said Point Girls were easy and wore less clothes. This wasn’t necessarily true but we believed it right into adulthood.
Rhumbay came out of The Point and had more muscles than any human had a right to have. He had so many muscles that we used to say that he had strong man muscles in his eyeballs. He wasn’t tall but he was strapping and his skin was black. Not brown or dark but black, jet black. Word had it that Rhumbay hadn’t worn a shirt in fifteen or maybe twenty years. That’s the reason they said why his skin was so black. Rhumbay was so strong and visually fearsome that when he was drunk and disorderly the police wouldn’t try to arrest him. They were afraid that he would break some part on one of them or pick them up and throw them in a tree or something. So they would just let him do what he was doing until he got tired and fell asleep.
Rhumbay never went to any school as far as anyone knew. I have no idea if he could read or write. Rhumbay was a caveman and everyone knows that cavemen have no need for education, so that was that. What he did for a living was also something of a mystery. Occasionally he farmed some property he had up in the hills. Other times he worked for the West India Company unloading and packing freight. I’d also seen him posing for tourists who would take his picture and give him money. Beyond that I don’t know what else he did.
Rhumbay loved movies and Saturday night was his night. He would sit in The Pit and talk all through the picture in a loud voice and no one ever told him to shut up or keep it down.
One night after the movie was over we heard that there was some excitement on Pier 6 which was not too far away. So we all went to see. It was close to midnight and there were lots of flashing lights and police cars and Hospital ambulance vans and stuff. And a great crowd of people were there. Word was that a man had fallen off the pier and drowned. At the time there was a whole lot of dredging going on because they were getting ready to make a waterfront out of the area. There were signs all around warning people not to go out on those piers because the boards were rotten and the due to all the dredging the bottom was deep and sticky. Still people went out there for one reason or another.
The big Coast Guard boat was there with people talking over loudspeakers telling everyone to keep clear while the rescue mission was in operation. The sea looked as black as ink and a strange mood hung over the crowd. The cloud of death was in the air and everyone was strangely quiet waiting for them to find the body. The search went on for what seemed like hours although it was probably only fifteen minutes to a half hour. The search appeared to be futile. The night was too dark, the sea was too black. Rhumbay came on the scene pushing his way through the crowd.
“Wha going on?” he asked.
“A man drown down dey.” He was told.
“Who? What man?”
“A man name Georgie, Georgie Lanclos.”
“But that a mi friend.” Rhumbay said. “That a mi fucking friend.” And with that he went to the edge of the pier and dived in before anyone could stop him. He was gone so long that people thought that he too had drowned in that black murky water. Then he came up took a deep breath and went under again. This time when he surfaced he had Georgie’s body with him. Georgie was dead; there was no question about that. But no one could believe Rhumbay had done such a feat. Dived into hell without fear or hesitation and came out victorious with his dead friends’ body in his arms.
I have seen many courageous things done in movies but I have never seen anything to match what Rhumbay did that night. And after that people stopped calling him a caveman or even “Rhumbay”. After that he became “Mister Rhumbay” man of distinction, and deservedly so.