Growing up I stared out my bedroom window at the broken remains of the Claude Drive-In that was built 1952 in memory of my grandfather Jake Claude Keller, Sr. who had died in 1951. Hurricane Audrey destroyed the theater in 1957. In the 1960s my siblings and I explored the drive-in’s rows of silent speaker poles and the concession stand debris (mostly broken glass, crumbling plaster, and splintered wood). I thought part of the screen was still standing, but that was just my imagination.
As an eight-year-old, I’d stare into the blackness and imagine watching a movie from my bedroom. The phantom sixteen by fifty foot screen’s flickering images didn’t need sound because the power of movies could always ignite my imagination. I’d make up the dialogue or I’d pretend I was watching a movie I’d seen so many times I knew the actors’ lines before they said them. The movie Cinema Paradiso reminds me of growing up in a small town where two movie theaters gave us most of our entertainment. I loved the scene of the whole Italian village watching movies outside after their cinema burned down. My mind’s eye saw the ghost of a drive-in just yards from my bedroom window.
In 1924 J.C. Keller, Sr. and his partner opened the first picture show in Eunice, Louisiana. Movie western stars Tom Mix and Lash LaRue* once spent the night in my grandparents’ home. I remember a large oval framed photo of the grandfather I never knew in my Uncle Jake’s office. Grandpa Keller wore a suit and his unsmiling, intimidating glare looked too much like my scary uncle for me to feel comfortable in that office.
Because Keller kids got in free, we saw movies multiple times and worked at the picture show as teenagers. Except for a fear of the usher/bouncer Big Jim that diminished as I got older, the Liberty Theater and Queen Cinema were places of acceptance and escape. Movies helped shape my personality and marked the milestones of my life.
Getting my first pair of glasses in 1965 meant I noticed the pattern on Annette Funicello’s one-piece bathing suit in Beach Blanket Bingo. After getting teased at school for my cerebral palsy, Mary Poppins taught me resilience and optimism. Hair-pulling fights with my two younger sisters balanced out with our shared love for Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas and our fascination with the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. When puberty confused me, Peter Sellers in The Party made me laugh at life’s unpredictability. Night of the Living Dead in 1968 convinced me that even the horror of getting my period was not as bad as a zombie apocalypse. The awkwardness and insecurities of high school seemed tolerable if I watched Barbra Streisand’s Funny Girl every day of its two-week theatrical run in Eunice. My love of Shakespeare and my attraction to stories of doomed love started with Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and gained strength with The Way We Were and Dr. Zhivago. In the 1970s, Sidney Poitier’s The Heat of the Night made me question the racism around me while M*A*S*H and Cabaret let me enjoy satire before I even understood their messages. Movies soothed, entertained, and educated me.
I’m thankful for the ability to stream so many movies now. I’ve learned to love documentaries and foreign films and independent gems. The size of my television does not diminish the light and shadow of Kosakovskiy’s Gunda or the creative directing/ editing of Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. As I take in fast edits, slow tracking shots, and purposeful dialogue pauses, movies tell stories that give my life joy, even while I’m wiping away tears. I truly believe I am a better human being because of the movies I have known.
The Oscar nominations were announced February 8th, and March 27 will be one of my favorite nights of 2022! The Oscars have been “too white” and too xenophobic, BUT Parasite did sweep the awards in 2019, and Moonlight was the true best picture in 2016. I love all the hoopla and live jokes (both clever & stupid). I want to hear all acceptance speeches and enjoy all the classy, sassy, and ridiculous outfits the nominees wear. Like they sing in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum:
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!”
Movies are as much a part of who I am as the Cajun food I crave and the LaTour and Keller cousins I love. So in 1963, I saw only the ghost of a drive-in movie screen down my winding gravel road, yet movie fantasies sustain me like the montage of Paul Newman smiles at the end of Cool Hand Luke.
- My cousin Sammy remembers watching LaRue’s live performance at the Liberty when the star tore a hole in the movie screen with his whip!