26 July 2006
I am visiting the US and have acquired a Pandora's Box of sorts. Here in the small southern town where I spent my high school years, there is an old cinema that's been around since the mid-1930s. It is called the Cameo Trio. At one time it was one of three cinemas in town, but as people here became more conservative and inward-looking along with the rest of America, the other two shut down. Today, people who want to see blockbusters usually drive to one of the huge multiplexes in one of the surrounding towns. The Cameo has never had a reputation for cleanliness nor for offering any kind of great, movie-going experience. Nonetheless, I and many others feel affectionate towards the place, in no small part due to Mr. W.P. Florence.
Mr Florence ran the Cameo from at least the late 1930s (I have in my possession documents that verify this) until just before his death a few years ago. He was a well-known "character" around town, always dressed in a scruffy gray suit and large black lather shoes, his hair greased back messily. His parents had money, he himself apparently had oil interests (as correspondence of his from senators Fulbright and McClellan suggests), and he attended the same liberal arts university that I did, before a brief stint in the military. Despite owning two residences in town, in his later years he was apparently living out of a backroom of the Cameo. My dad recalls once leaving some reading glasses behind in the cinema, and being led to this room to retrieve them; it was filled on all walls, ceiling to floor, with old newspapers, with only just enough room for a rickety old cot.
The state of this makeshift living space is indicative of the state of the cinema as a whole. It had amazing tile and mirror bathrooms, complete with a huge powder room for the ladies which connected to the "Crying Room" that was attached to the downstairs auditorium. However, everything was always a complete mess. The joke around town was that if you went to the Cameo you might just stay there, as it was impossible to pry your feet from the sticky floor. The viewing experience was less than ideal as well; movies might sometimes cut out in the middle and only if you were lucky would sound come from all speakers and be present during the whole movie.
Mr Florence was apparently well aware of the state of his theatre. My parents once observed another town "character," a strange and moneyed old lady we knew, tell him off about sticking to the floor as she tried to leave her seat. He promptly sent her a bouquet of flowers, and others concur that this was a common deed with him. He never changed the things people complained about, but he did charm everyone.
A few years ago Mr. Florence sold the Cameo to a family who own one of the large multiplexes in a neighbouring town. At the Christmas parade, they promoted the Cameo and their refurbishments on a float with a huge banner that read, "We cleaned up the Cameo!" Bizarrely, trailing behind them on foot was old Mr. Florence himself, holding up a sign that read, "And they did a good job!"
The day after I arrived here, we attended a huge "tag sale" of the estate of Mr. Florence and his late mother. Their two houses had been completely cleaned out, their contents put up for sale by an antiques auctioneer we know. She told us it took weeks to clean out the houses, and at least 5 days to clean everything up--in line with the Cameo itself, some items were so dust-covered you couldn't tell what they were, and the water they used to clean them with frequently became as dirty and thick as mud. I went along hoping to see some cinema memorabilia, and especially to see if there might even be some old film equipment going. From what I heard, there may have been, but it was thrown out due to the house clearers not knowing what it was. Two 16mm projectors were left when I got there, but someone had bought them, and I heard that a few items of what seemed to be antique cinema projectors were let go for $5 apiece before I arrived because no one knew what they were.
There were still a number of interesting items when I arrived, however. In addition to a $5 box load of correspondence with senators and now defunct film distributors such as RKO, vintage puzzles, and an antique rubber stamp set, I made a rash (given its weight and the fact that I don't live in this country) decision to buy Mr Florence's trunk pictured above. I've always wanted an old travel trunk. This was one of three at the sale, and this one cost next to nothing because, you see, it is locked, and no one seems to have the key. I'm sure it's empty, and I'm not sure I want ever to open it. I like that Mr. Florence's name is on its side, and I like owning a little piece of the ongoing death of cinema.