My siblings and I in a way grew up in a movie theater. Grandma Keller owned our hometown’s two movie theaters, and she let her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren get in free. My brother and sisters and I saw every movie that came to town. That lasted until 1968 when the ratings system began (G, M, R, and X). My parents viewed the Liberty Theater and Queen Cinema as free “babysitters.” We sometimes were dropped off at the show with paper bags holding hamburgers from Ruby’s Cafe if Momma and Dad’s night out began early. I remember strolling past a line of movie customers and waving at Miss Pearl (the ticket seller) as we made our way inside. A new ticket taker would get, “Our grandma is Mrs. Keller,” if he tried to stop our jaunty picture show entrance.
Some nights Momma and Dad picked us up late – after the last feature was over and the marquee lights were going off. In those cases, Big Jim stayed with us until our parents drove up.
Big Jim weighed over 400 pounds and was the theater’s usher and all-around handyman. His usher’s throne was a theater chair in the lobby where because of his extra-wide girth, he could sit on the chair’s hand railings and watch the movies in between his rounds. During the movie he walked up and down the aisles and told folks to “Get your feet down” ( off the seat in front of you) or “Shhhhhh” (when you were talking too much). Of course, his corrective comments were for kids and teens. During a rowdy double-feature matinee, Big Jim would threaten us if we did not heed his first warning. “Don’t make me get off my belt,” he’d say and then he’d act like he was undoing his belt buckle. The idea of seeing the entire length of Big Jim’s lonnnng belt was enough to shush the sassiest rebel-rouser! I remember getting lost in Beach Blanket Bingo, slouched down, working on a Milk Dud, and planting my sneakers on the back of the seat in front of me and suddenly feeling Big Jim’s approach. “Look out! Big Jim!” my sister warned me and I sat up straight as a Slim Jim.
During business hours Big Jim was a fearsome presence and worthy of our respect, but if the show was closed and he was protecting my sisters and me until our parents picked us up, he got downright friendly. If he held my hand or gave me a good night hug when Dad drove up, there was his overpowering cologne to contend with.
This abundance of Aqua Velva did not benefit Big Jim when he dressed as Santa Claus for Grandma’s Christmas Eve parties. If a child was clueless enough not to recognize Big Jim under the skimpy white beard, his loud cologne would surely blow his cover. I think many of Grandma’s 24 grandkids and 60+ great-grandkids dreaded walking up to Big Jim Santa and sitting on his lap to claim their presents each Christmas.
Big Jim was a loyal employee for my Grandma. His job description went beyond theater hours (unofficial babysitting and holiday entertaining). My Uncle Jake managed both theaters and he called Big Jim “Heavy.” When I got old enough to no longer be afraid of Big Jim, I wanted to call him by his last name, but I never knew it. He lived not even a block from the Queen Cinema in a run-down apartment, and my cousin George said he went there once and noticed that Big Jim put his shoes on without untying them. My brother remembers seeing Big Jim’s obituary in the Eunice News; Mr. Jim died at 35. I cannot locate a photo of this man who looms large in my memory, not because of his size but because of the loyalty and concern he showed our Keller family. (and the Aqua Velva)