The Midnight Club

The original members of The Midnight Club were three - Bill Murch, Alexis J. Fournier, and me. Bill was manager of the local motion picture theater, owned by a chain. He is the only man I ever knew well who wore spats, and I accused him once of doing so to save the expense of socks. Whereupon he showed me that he wore socks, too, so I never knew why he wore spats. This was back in the days of Ann Harding and Jack Holt, when a picture show was 25 cents and a bag of popcorn a nickel. On Fridays, Bill booked in five acts of vaudeville and the price went up to 35 cents.

Alexis J. Fournier was the ticket taker at Bill's theater. He had a smashing uniform in the finest tradition of Hollywood splendor, so going to the movies was something like being admitted into the palace of a minor European monarch. Alexis J. Fournier was called Dempsey, for he looked like the boxer. Now Dempsey was also assistant chief of police, for which he had another and less magnificent uniform. But if Dempsey was taking tickets and an emergency arose, he would signal to Bill and Bill would step forward to take tickets while Dempsey was gone. Out-of-state motorists who got nabbed for speeding would sit speechless as Dempsey appeared in gilt, braid, spangles, and epaulets to write their summonses.

I, the third man in this theme, was the kid reporter on the local weekly paper, a job that allowed me to fend off the Roosevelt doldrums of the 1930s and evade the WPA and the CCC. I was just out of college, and by waving my bachelor's diploma I convinced the publisher I was worth $25 a week, for which amount I met all the trains to see who was coming and who was going, attended all fires, accidents, political meetings, and sporting events, logged the golden weddings and birthdays, and after writing the paper I would tie up bundles on publication day and then take the bundles to the post office. My day began just before breakfast and continued.

It thus happened that on a certain evening I turned off the light in the sanctum and came along by the town house just as the big steeple clock bonged midnight. Bill had just dropped the day's receipts into the night depository of the bank, and he and Dempsey were standing in front of the town house about to say goodnight and go their ways. ''The meeting will now come to order!'' I said, and The Midnight Club was organized.

My first report of the cultural and philanthropic activities of The Midnight Club caused no comments from readers, and after the same negative reaction the next three weeks I decided the idea was poor. So I skipped the next week, and then I got the reaction. What happened to The Midnight Club? How-come no meeting? After that, the weekly report of The Midnight Club continued for nearly 10 years, or until I moved along to a more remunerative journalistic sinecure.

Membership increased immediately. The men whose business kept them late began to make a practice of stepping over by the town house until the clock struck midnight, thus ''attending,'' and also contributing wit and wisdom, pithy remarks, and assorted whimsy for my purposes. There was Ralph Buckley, who had been in the merchant marine but had come ashore to run a soda fountain and sweet shop, which he would sweep out and lock up around 11:30. There was an apothecary who kept late hours. Allie Despeaux, who was janitor at the National Guard armory, frequently showed up. There was a night telegrapher at the railway station who would pause on his way to work. And Steve Ellison.

Steve was a bridge buff and played cards every evening at the town's gentlemen's club, housed in the town building. Steve could look at three bridge hands in turn, and then tell you what was in the fourth hand, face down. So after each evening's bridge session, Steve would stay after the others went home and rehash the play by himself, to see who did what right and what wrong. He was also a survivor of the Johnstown Flood. It was his motion, passed unanimously by The Midnight Club, that we impeach the governor and turn his duties over to a Highland bagpipe band. That brought an incredible spate of letters to the editor , almost all in agreement.

I wonder. . . . Could a kid reporter get away with such today? Would a weekly paper? Without question, a good part of the fun was actionable. Would a town's serious businessmen permit such imputations in print? For that matter, would they attend meetings of The Midnight Club even if we had one?

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