Remembering the North Main!

The North Main Theatre in Houston Opened for Business on Christmas Day 1936.

Like most people from my generation, neighborhood theatres, movies, and the heroes and stories we found there golden. They all etched their indelible ways onto the forever-hoping character of our American souls. For me, the first place to do that was the Rialto Theatre in Beeville, Texas, the little South Texas town where I was born. It didn’t have a lot of time to work its magic. We moved to Houston on my fifth birthday, December 31, 1942.

In my case, the job passed on to the North Main (1943), the Studewood (1944), and the Avalon (1945-56), with some considerable help to the latter from the Broadway, OST, Wayside, and Eastwood. And this roll call doesn’t even take into account all the other neighborhood suburban theatres and downtown big and fancy  houses that we also frequented. Prior to the coming of television to Houston in 1949, especially, movies were our windows on everything that ever happened, will happen, could happen, or should happen. Indeed, they were our visual gospel.

The Rialto Theatre in Beeville, Texas Opened for Business on August 19, 1922

My earliest memories of the North Main are like some kind of carnival dream. Unless my memory is tricking me again, I seem to recall a dwarf couple that operated a popcorn stand just outside the theatre on the sidewalk. I wasn’t used to making level eye contact with older people, but that was the deal with these folks and me. I thought they were Munchkins.

Dad worked a light of night shifts at Brown Shipyard in those days so Mom would walk me and my younger brother John from our little duplex on Fugate to the North Main and sometimes the Studewood, which was actually much closer. I recall walking south on North Main to the movie house of the same name one night when gun shots rang out across the street. A cop was chasing a man down the street and either missing every time, or else firing over the running man’s head on purpose. We never saw or learned the outcome of that little Houston chase scene, but we would see it again in a few hundred movies to come.

At age five, I fell in love with John Wayne and “The Flying Tigers” (1942) at the North Main Theatre. We didn’t see the movie until 1943, but I guess we saw it three or four times while we could find it there and elsewhere – and then, over the years, I continued to watch it every chance I found when it started making the late show television movie circuit.

Words fail to adequately convey the power I felt from those snarling teeth of the tiger fighting planes as they zeroed in on the warrior ships of the Imperial Japanese Air Force, especially when an angry John Wayne pushed the button on a shot of cold steel vengeance over the loss of his own men. Pilots bled from the mouth when they were hit. It was the first memory I have of what appeared to be credible death scenes.

Prior to “Tigers,” I had seen numerous movies in which actors were shot in their  tuxedos and still managed to drop dead on carpeted floors without making a mess for the investigation that was yet to come by William Powell as “The Thin Man.” “Tiger” casualties weren’t that neat. They dropped real blood when they died.

Or so it seemed.

Long before Clint Eastwood, "The Flying Tigers" knew how to settle old scores without losing their cool.

I’m curious. Did movies affect your early impressions of life too? And did you also have a John Wayne or “Flying Tigers” model, or any kind of model, that shaped your early ideas about how things are – or should be?

If so, I’m hoping you may be willing to leave your thoughts with us here as a comment on this topic. Memories of the North Main or other theatres are also most welcome – and, if anyone can help me clear up the reality of my North Main dwarf memories, I would especially appreciate your help.

Meanwhile, have a nice Sunday – and try to stay warm.

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6 Responses to “Remembering the North Main!”

  1. A.J. GARNEY Says:

    Bill,
    Thanks for the memories. I lived two doors behind the North Main on Archer St. I was a member in good standing of the Popeye Club, meeting in a long line on Sat. morning for a 9 cent movie, cartoon, serial, and staying for the weekend regular feature, news, & cartoon. A lot for 9 cents in the forties. Air conditioning was a treat in those days.
    We also moved to Fugate street in the early 50’s. (Studewood theater was not the same)
    The popcorn stand & the best fresh roasted peanuts were from Mr. Simmons (AKA “MR. SHORTY” ) outside the N.Main @ 5 cents a bag. I can still smell it. You could pay your utiliy bills there also.
    Don’t forget Harper’s Pharmacy next door where we got our RX’s fille. My mother worked there at the soda fountain.
    (Good cherry cokes)
    Regards,
    A.J.

  2. Ralph Moreno Says:

    I remember the Queen Theatre on Jensen and Quitmen, the Northside at the corner of Hogan and Fulton and the Navaway on Navigation and Wayside. Many cowboy matinee movies back then.

    Ralph Moreno.

  3. ron pawlik Says:

    Lived south across the parking lot from the Santa Rosa in a row of red brick apartments that my mother claimed “they look like a bunch of prison houses.” Started college at St.Ed’s in Austin in 1955 and moved away in 1956. Do you remember Martini’s hardware on Lawndale?

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      “Do you remember Martini’s hardware on Lawndale?” – Ron Pawlik

      How could I ever forget the King-Martini Hardware store? It was located on Lawndale, right next door across a a short side street from Bill Lee Motors, where my dad worked as Parts Departmenet Manager at that Studebaker dealership from 1949 to 1958.

      By the way, Ron, are you any relationship to the Ronald Pawlik who played a dadgum fine season for us as a lefthanded center fielder for our 1951 St. Christopher Kids club?

  4. Bill McCurdy Says:

    Thanks for checcking in, A.J. Garney and Ralph Moreno! Here’s what a couple of other classmates from our STHS Class of ’56 had to say about the North Main and other neighborhood theaters. Since neither asked to be identified, I will just quote their comments here:

    COMMENT ONE (LB): “I don’t respond to your emails but I do enjoy them.
    I was happy to get your pictures in this message. The North Main does bring back fond memories. Mine are primarily from the middle to late forties. Who can forget the Saturday Fun Club: a double-header western, superman serial, and five or so cartoons. At times this experience was empowered by contests: yoyo, paddleball, etc. What an innocent time. My buddy and I would walk to the movies, stop at Mock’s Drug Store (on Pecore) for a cherry phosphate on the way home, and then get our horses (brooms) to imitate the movies we saw. OOPS – I did forget Movietone News.

    “Does this help a bit in bringing back nostalgia?”

    COMMENT TWO (JM) “Time does sort of mellow things out.

    “The dwarf couple I remember had a popcorn stand outside of the Heights Theater on W. 19th. It was tucked neatly in the alley outside of the theater. There was no room for a concession stand inside the building.

    “Incidentally, the Heights had the (real) old wooden seats, no air conditioning (they used fans) and hardly any parking lot. People could park behind the row of stores on 19th or on the street itself, just like they can today. I can also remember that the last silent film I paid to see was at the Heights. It was on a Saturday, and admission fit my entertainment budget. Everything but the main feature was ‘talkie’.

    “I remember the North Main clearly, and even drove by it after our last class lunch. I, too, saw many, many movies there as well as at the Studewood, Yale, and later, the Garden Oaks. The reason for my frequent movies was that as a kid I had asthma. The filtered refrigerated air of the movie houses gave me a couple hours of relief during the summer months. That in itself was worth the dime to get in, the nickle bus fare each way, and a nickle to spend at the concession counter. I out grew my asthma, but not my love for the movies. I sorely miss the neighborhood movie houses today. There is no substitute for them.”

  5. Luke Crump Says:

    Was not able to sleep tonight. Ran across your blog on Houston history. Read lots of your posts before finding this one. Just had to comment. My family moved back to Houston in 1950 when I was 5 years old…..from Beeville (where my sister was born in 1950). My mother was born in Houston in 1918, and moved a few years ago to San Antonio where my younger sister lives. At 96, my mother has changed her allegiance from the Rockets to the Spurs, never missing a game on TV. Her mother was an avid fan of the Astros well into her own 90’s.
    Unbelievable how many of the memories you relate from the 50’s and 60’s are also memories of mine.
    Thanks so much for keeping me company tonight.

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