Bruce Bentzman's Suburban Soliloquy # 18

Art Gardiner owned the New Strand, an old theater, in Lambertville, New Jersey.  Mr Gardiner's selection of movies provided an education into the deeper feelings of the wide world, something the public school system failed to do.  Every week, Mr Gardiner presented a different double feature for a low admission price.  And while most of my peers took their dates to the local movie house chains for the latest James Bond or Jerry Lewis flick, my few friends and I ventured far away to see films. I mean art films, underground films, foreign films, silent films, and documentaries. We didn't call them movies, and art films had not yet become a euphemism for pornography.

It was a trip of twenty-one miles from my parents' home to the New Strand, a race along back country roads, zigzagging around farms and estates, leaping hills in my 1967 MGB.  I drove in imitation of a Monte-Carlo rallyist, racing against other friends, all of us converging on Lambertville and the New Strand.  (Once I managed the trip in a breathtaking twenty-one minutes, a record that was eventually broken by Paul Thompson with his nineteen
minute run.)

Thirty years ago, Lambertville, New Jersey still had the qualities of a small country town.  Its speciality was and is antique shops.  The town presses against the Delaware River and through it runs the Delaware and Raritan Canal, which once shuttled barges of anthracite coal from northeastern Pennsylvania to the cities of the eastern seaboard.  The canal system was made obsolete and finally put out of business in 1931 by a railway that now runs alongside the sixty foot wide canal.  The New Strand, on Coryell Street, was within a few yards of the track and canal.  Often enough a passing train, with whistle blowing, would disrupt a film.   This merely contributed to the peculiar charms of the New Strand.

Another such charm was the occasional empty soda pop bottle rolling down the sloping floor of the auditorium, intermittently clanging against the iron seat legs.  Sometimes it would halt half way and one would anxiously wait for it to start again, to finish the remainder of its journey.

Approaching the front of the theater, one bought their tickets at a tiny booth set between the entry doors.  Through those first set of doors you entered a small lobby.  The ticket seller would open the back of the booth, if it wasn't busy, and strike up a conversation.  There was no candy counter nor popcorn machine in the lobby.  The lobby was the place to hang out if one wasn't enjoying the film.  During The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, I had announced to my friends, if Catherine Deneuve gets pregnant, I'm walking out.  She did, so I went to the lobby to stroke the Gardiner's old basset
hound and play chess with Gardiner's young daughter until the next feature started.  Their daughter, somewhere between four and six, beat me at the game.

Passing through the second set of doors brought one to the theater proper. You found yourself standing at the back of the auditorium in a small foyer. A low wall separated the foyer from the arcing rows of seats descending toward the screen.  There was one sleepy night I had to keep myself awake by standing behind that wall while watching the film.  The movie was Long Day' s Journey Into Night.

On the right of the foyer was the cooler, like a large refrigerator lying on its back. I remember it as being deep red and marked Coca-Cola. Lifting the lid, as one would with a treasure chest, inside were soft drinks and frozen candy bars.  I favoured the Three Musketeers.  Most people preferred the Snickers.  A list was posted giving the prices of things.  A metal box was provided for the money and from which you could make change. It was the
honour system.

On the left was an upright piano, a player piano. There were those of us who came early, for always, if there wasn't someone to tickle the keys, we could at least insert one of the many paper scrolls piled atop the piano.  In today's theaters an audience listens to the top forty while watching slides of advertisements. At the New Strand we pumped the old clockwork and pneumatic mechanism, entirely absorbed in the wonder of it, filling the theater with rags and ballads. And we were not shy, but sang along, the printed words slipping by on the perforated sheet.

The lights would dim, go out, the memory of my cardboard home in a sterile suburban landscape vanished in the dark, and I focused on the screen. That first image was often the familiar two-faced logo for Janus Films.  The screen became an immense window through which I observed people in a foreign country, in a foreign time, and I discovered I felt a simpatico with strangers around the world.  Even though they wore foreign dress and spoke an unfamiliar language, they could feel and think as I did.  The big window revealed the broad spectrum of humanity that our parents and schools tried to conceal from us.  There were other places, besides my nation, where the people thought theirs was the greatest nation and one true religion.  And around the world there were others suffering existence.  I shared in Ingmar Bergman's anxiety, Federico Fellini's lust, Francois Truffaut's uncertainty, Jean-Luc Godard's anger, and Akira Kurosawa's courage, to name a few.   They all seemed to recognized emptiness, which Hollywood films consistently ignore.

In addition to the New Strand, Art Gardiner also owned the Band Box, a theater located in Germantown, one of the outer regions of Philadelphia, where I saw D.W. Griffith's Intolerance.  Also a small drive-in theater in Ringoes, New Jersey. It wasn't paved, so we climbed out of our cars to picnic on the grass while watching Marat/Sade.

That was thirty years ago, when the secret routes between Levittown and Lambertville were usually deserted; beautiful, scenic roads.  Not true anymore.  What was once a spiritual pilgrimage out of blah Levittown and into the rolling hills of forests and fields, past quaint fieldstone farmhouses and ancient barns, is now a time-consuming task.  The scenery has become cluttered with developments and strip malls.  The old route is jammed with traffic.

In those thirty years the Band Box, the drive-in at Ringoes, the New Strand changed hands and the Gardiner family moved away from the community.  The New Strand began showing pornography, until one day it suspiciously caught fire and the building was gutted.  After that it was closed up, eventually to be sold again. Today it is used as a warehouse by Finkle Hardware.

Mr Gardiner, wherever you are, thank you.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the eighteenth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.