He was no movie buff. From the time I was a child until he died at age 92, I know of only five times my father went to the movies. One was Neil Diamond's 1980 version of The Jazz Singer, my mother's choice (he was expecting Al Jolson) and years later my brother treated him to Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK on a rainy afternoon.
The other three he and I saw together, but each was only a sidebar to a larger adventure. The movies were The Red Pony in 1949 starring Myrna Loy and Robert Mitchum; By the Light of the Silvery Moon in 1953; and the IMAX film, The Dream Is Alive, during his final visit to Florida in the late '90s. It stuns me that I can name all the movies he saw over the span of a half-century, but darned if I can remember the one I saw last week.
Being the fourth of six children in our family I had still, by age 7, not been to a "real" movie in a proper theater with sloping floors, soft seats and popcorn. I pestered until my father invited me to meet him one day after school at his office in downtown Binghamton, N.Y., and we would go around the corner to see The Red Pony. We entered the thick-carpeted lobby, probably treated ourselves to popcorn or Junior Mints and were ushered to seats near the front.
As the lights dimmed the heavy velvet curtains gave way to the gigantic screen. By the time the newsreel rolled I was hooked, thrilled about being at my first movie, but even more excited about having my father all to myself. For any one of us six children, time alone with either parent was a rare pleasure.
Four years later, my father treated my brother and me to a four-day whirlwind tour of New York City. It was 1953. We took it all in: the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, the United Nations, Chinatown, Grand Central, Central Park, automats, a live game show broadcast and, of course, Radio City Music Hall. There we saw a matinee performance of the full-scale Music Hall production. The majestic organ lifted to the stage. Lights sparkled. The orchestra played. The Rockettes kicked and strutted. And then the movie played, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, starring Doris Day and Gordon McRae. When it was over we exited, blinking into a bright, sunny afternoon. Time was short and there was lots more to do.
Into his late 80s, my father had outlived most of his law clients, and he reluctantly shut down his practice. My mother had died a few years earlier, and he was now living alone in the family home. His memory and mental faculties were fading into eventual Alzheimer's.
He visited us in Florida for winter breaks, and by the time of his final visit his lucidity was fleeting. He lived in peaceful moments, but sadly they passed too quickly.
One afternoon I suggested we take in the IMAX film The Dream Is Alive. He never declined an adventure, so we drove to Tampa. As best I could, I explained about IMAX films, the domed screen, reclining seats and booming sound. The film was about a space shuttle voyage.
How surreal. In his lifetime my father had seen the world transformed by the automobile, air travel, telephone, television and computers — not to mention wireless communication and nano technology. Today we were traveling a short distance (the equivalent of a day's journey in his youth) in my air-conditioned car, to see a technically advanced film about men in space. He asked me several times along the way, "Where are we going? What are we going to see?"
We settled into the reclining seats, and the IMAX audio system rumbled through its warmup. I began to wonder if this had been such a good idea. Would this confuse or frighten him? But he appeared relaxed and content. He certainly was not napping.
I watched him more closely than I watched the film, and he was mesmerized with the rocket fueling, takeoff preparations, the roaring liftoff. We became part of the crew, exploding from Earth with engines screaming, leaving behind a trail of fire and smoke, rising at lightning speed and soon floating gently into serene silence and weightlessness.
We returned to Earth, to drive back home on a sunny afternoon.
We drove for some time in silence. After a few miles, he spoke in what may have been our last truly coherent conversation. He told me how deeply absorbed and emotionally moved he had been by the experience. I agreed, saying something about the IMAX technology. But his point wasn't so mundane. His experience was much deeper.
As clearly and as passionately as I had ever heard him speak, my father expressed his awe and admiration for the human genius and creativity it takes to imagine, much less accomplish, such an extraordinary feat as space exploration. Then, with typical modesty, he spoke humbly of this own talents and life's work, and he thanked me for the afternoon's adventure.
And then it vanished.
Marty Normile lives in St. Petersburg.