Late on a Saturday afternoon some years ago, I settle into a pew at a local church where a vigil Mass is to begin in a few minutes.
In the pew in front of me, a woman sits by herself.
It’s Frances from the Palace.
That’s not her real name, of course. It’s not what it says on her Social Security and Medicare cards, or on the property tax bills that she gets for a fairly sizable chunk of land that (I’ve been told) she owns in the Eastwood business district.
But to me, my family and perhaps countless others, she is, has been and probably always will be Frances from the Palace.
The Palace is the movie theater that she owns – part of that fairly sizable chunk of land.
The theater was founded by her father in the 1920s, and when he died, she took it over.
You might say that my family and the Palace have a sort of history.
According to family legend, many years ago Frances from the Palace’s father threw my uncle out of the theater for laughing too loudly.
At a comedy.
As absurd as this seems, I’m willing to believe it. My uncle, who grew up to be a Catholic priest, a librarian and a published poet who was acquainted with people like Marshall McLuhan, was a sucker for comedy, both high and low – more often low. As an adult he would often visit my family when I was a kid, and if his booming laugh didn’t cause an unthinkable amount of damage throughout the city, I suspect it was because the elephants at the local zoo were probably too old to even think about stampeding.
I can still remember lying in my bed upstairs at night and hearing him shamelessly roaring downstairs, probably at something Ernie Kovacs or Victor Borge had just said or done. It’s a wonder that my bedroom floor, and me and my brother’s bunk beds with it, never came crashing down into the living room.
The other Palace legend involving my uncle was recounted every so often over the years by his victim – his sister, otherwise known as my mother. They were kids and had just been to a nighttime showing of “The Mystery of the Wax Museum.” Afterward they walked home, my uncle tormenting her in the dark every step of the way. The family house was probably less than a mile from the Palace, but from the way my mother told the story, it might as well have been in Australia.
Frances from the Palace’s father was gone by the time we six Murphy kids discovered the movies. By then the Palace was well established as something that is rare these days: the neighborhood theater. On special occasions – a new Disney release or re-release, for example – we might go downtown to Loew’s, RKO Keith, the Eckel, the Paramount or the Strand (where I saw my first film, “Tom Thumb” with Russ Tamblyn), but otherwise “Let’s wait till it comes to the Palace!” was a familiar phrase in my non-affluent family, perhaps running a distant second to “Children are starving in China!”
And now I need to mention that there was a time in my life – please understand that I was very young, though that’s hardly an excuse – when I would go to the Palace with my older brother on Saturday afternoons for the express purpose of seeing movies that featured Jerry Lewis. Perhaps I should send some of my spit to Ancestry.com for one of those tests they’ve been advertising; perhaps my DNA would reveal that I have a wee bit of French blood, and perhaps this would explain why I was eager to see “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” “The Errand Boy” and “Who’s Minding the Store?”
But there was something special about these matinees – something I don’t think Mr. Muscular Dystrophy Telethon would appreciate. For at every matinee he was upstaged by Frances from the Palace, who would patrol the aisles with a flashlight, looking for kids playing cards or – the big mortal sin – putting their feet up on the seat in front of them. And when she caught one of these kids in the act of defiling her family trust, she was, shall we say, not exactly quiet about it.
I especially remember the time she swept the stage – while the movie was playing. I can’t say for sure whether this was during a Jerry Lewis opus – surely he would have noticed her mid-scene and yelled “HEY LAAAAAAAAAADY!”
Years later, I underwent a traditional rite of passage at the Palace: going to my first movie that was rated “M, for Mature Audiences” – “In the Heat of the Night.” I would like to be able to report that my girlfriend and I really got into the spirit of the thing in the balcony, but I didn’t have a girlfriend, I was with my older sister and my aunt (my uncle’s other sister, a Catholic nun), and as long as Frances from the Palace ran the place, she never let anyone into the balcony.
After I moved to an apartment in Eastwood, I went to the Palace more often. Frances from the Palace was still there; she no longer gave out tickets, but just took your cash when you came in the door. She especially liked it if you paid her in dollar bills.
A colleague of mine once told me that she had been to the Palace with a male friend of hers. After they came in the door, the friend had the audacity to ask Frances from the Palace if she took credit cards. He might as well have shown up at Kitty Hawk and asked the Wright Brothers if he could have a window seat with extra legroom. And to this day he probably doesn’t know how lucky he is that Frances from the Palace didn’t arrange for him to have special seating in the parking lot, under the cement.
Frances from the Palace died almost 13 years ago. A nephew took it over and did a great job of refurbishing it before selling it last year. It no longer regularly shows movies but is available for special events. I even attended a party once in the balcony area, which looked great.
And I still sometimes think back to that Saturday afternoon in church.
I remember Frances from the Palace as she turns and sees me in the pew behind her. I respond by giving her my best polite smile. Surely she must recognize me. I’ve been coming to her theater off and on for decades. And I always remember to bring dollar bills.
Frances from the Palace doesn’t return my smile.
Instead she turns around.
And picks up her purse.
And places it in the pew in front of her.
I boycott the Palace for at least the next six months.