How the West Was Lost

MIKE SLEMKO ran the old movie hall up in the far north where I once lived. "Hopalong Mike" we used to call him. He had white hair and wore bolo ties and a flashy leather belt with his name stamped out in branding-iron letters all around the back. He talked like a Texan, but we all knew he came from the wheat fields of Saskatchewan.

The old movie hall was a plain, yellow concrete box. Nothing much to write home about. But it had a sloping wooden floor angled to perfection so that when the empty pop bottles came rolling down from the back rows they made a terrible clatter.

Mike didn't like it when we did that. At the first sound of rolling glass he came charging in from the lobby, waving two flashlights around like a pair of six-guns. Up and down the aisles he went, strafing the back rows with his Duracell beams, trying to find the culprit. It was terribly noisy and distracting if you were trying to watch the movie. But since it was always a cowboy movie, you could miss vast stretches of it and still keep up with the storyline.

Mike loved cowboy movies. Somehow he got us on the cowboy movie circuit so we didn't get anything else. We got John Wayne movies and Clint Eastwood movies and a lot of B-Westerns with titles like "Yukon Vengeance" and "The Buckaroo Sheriff of Texas."

Mike and his wife, Ida, lived on the floor above the movie hall. Ida had an ivy plant that was the talk of the town. It started over the kitchen sink, climbed up the walls, and then went merrily all the way around the inside of the building until it joined itself back over the kitchen sink again.

It was magic, that plant. It reminded me of the Jolly Green Giant. Sometimes when I went by on a cold winter's night and saw it up there, lush and green in the yellow kitchen light, I could almost hear that giant laughing in the bean fields down south. The joy of it was just enough to get me the rest of the way home.

In the mid-'70s, there was a building boom. The town went up-market. It got street lamps and parking meters. When there was talk of property taxes, Mike's boss sold up and went home.

The new owner of the movie hall was a developer from the south. He dabbled in shopping malls and theme parks, and soon we heard he was going to tear down the hall and put up a new "cineplex" theater where you could show three movies at once. This was news to us. Nobody could make any sense of it. Why on earth would anybody want to watch three movies at once?

Well, to show he was a reasonable man, the new owner hired a team of pollsters from a market survey firm. They wore trench coats and leather shoes, and they told everyone how wonderful the new cinema was going to be. We would get flavored popcorn and all the latest movies and even some with English subtitles. (A lot of people thought that would come in handy during Mike's flashlight rampages.)

But when it came time to putting our names on a list the cineplex idea lost hands down.

So a month later the new owner sent up another team of trench coats, citing irregularities in the way seniors in a housing complex had been polled. This time the vote turned right around.

MIKE wondered how the seniors could have made so much of a difference, because to the best of his recollection not one of them had been to a movie in years. But that wasn't the reason he gave for retiring. No, he assured us, he had been thinking about it for months. Now that he and Ida had a bit of a nest egg there was no sense staying up north in the cold when they could be in Arizona, sitting in the sun.

We helped them pack. They didn't have much; most of the furniture had come with the job. The biggest problem was the ivy. It took two young lads a whole day to get it off the wall and into Mike's trunk. We had a little party; moose steaks and a few grayling somebody caught farther down the lake, and a whole cooler full of soda pop. Then Mike and Ida climbed into their old Ford LTD and went off down the road into the setting sun.

Within a few months we had a brand new movie hall, a ritzy new building with neon lights and a flashing marquee. The lobby looked like something out of Star Trek. The popcorn came in three different flavors and sizes. We got "The Godfather, Parts 1 and 2," and some Ingmar Bergman films, and a lot of others with black cats in the lower left-hand corner that the kids couldn't get in to see. We all felt much more in tune with the outside world than ever before.

But the floors were carpeted and no good for rolling bottles, and the ushers wore uniforms and spoke in hushed tones. Gone was the cow-punching style, the hair-raising rampages in the back row. And when you went by on a cold winter's night there was nothing lush and green looking down at you from above. No kitchen window. No warm yellow light. No Jolly Green Giant laughing it up in the bean fields. Nothing at all to get you home safe and sound.

And somehow, in that land of snow and ice that lies up there close to the Arctic Circle, that was the greatest loss of all.

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