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Growing up in Cradock: Memories of the Afton Theatre


My earliest memories of the Afton Theatre are from the late forties.  Sometimes in the summertime, my daddy would lead the family from our Cradock Gardens castle on Rodgers Place on the mile-long trek to the Afton for the 7 pm Thursday night movie.  It was a special family treat.  The first Afton movie that I remember was on a summer night in 1948, “The Boy with Green Hair”, with grownups Pat O’Brien, Robert Ryan and Barbara Hale and Dean Stockwell playing the boy. A few years ago, when I found this sappy film on TV I was melancholy at the memory.  The melancholy comes with age. The movie was terrible. 


            On most wintertime Saturdays my closest childhood friend, Floyd Parker, CHS ‘59 and I would go see westerns and serialized dramas that were in vogue in the early fifties.   We collected soft drink bottles discarded along the highways, returned them for a 2-cent deposit, accumulated enough for popcorn and candy, and treated ourselves to a fine afternoon at the flicks.  In those days, we rode bikes the mile from our Cradock Gardens homes and parked on the sidewalk in front of the Afton.  We rarely missed a movie and never missed a western in ‘51 and ‘52.  


            In the early fifties to satiate our by now full-blown movie fixations, Floyd and I and sometimes my younger sister, Nancy, went to the movies in downtown Portsmouth.  Floyd’s mom, Ruth, worked for WSAP Radio (later WAVY) in the Professional Building at High and Washington Streets.  As often as not on Saturdays in the wintertime Ruth, driving her 1951 gleaming white Dodge, would drop us off at the State, the Colony, the Port, the Gates, the Virginian, or the Commodore for a two-hour feature western treat with a Durango Kid, Superman or Flash Gordon serial, plus a cartoon feature thrown in as a special bonus.  Afterwards we rode the bus back to Cradock.  We were more fortunate than the many kids who brought the unwanted gift of ringworm away from those Portsmouth movie houses.


            My first and only high school date was at the Afton.  I walked from my house to Williams Court to escort my date, to the movie house.  We walked, holding sweaty hands; mine were, down Aylwin Road to Afton Parkway, then to the theatre.  I folded my blue jeans, cheap dungarees, at the bottom with a “pegged” look, in-style dressing at the time. The date cost less than a buck.  We walked home over the same route.  I was 14; she was younger.  It was a misadventure, not much fun.  If I had repeated that experience too many times, it would have broken me from ever dating again.  My next Afton Theatre experience was even more traumatic. It ended high school dating for me, maybe a blessing in disguise.


            Two years passed and in junior year, I started as ticket taker, candy man, marquee changer, popcorn sales clerk, and handyman at the Afton Theatre.  Precise employment dates are forgotten, but it was between late winter 1955 and springtime 1957, a little more than a year.


            The theatre manager was a young man from North Carolina, Ray Wilson.  My CHS 57 classmate, Richard Rush, was assistant projectionist and Eddie Burton, who worked in the Navy Yard during the day, was head projectionist.  Horace Jones, managed the Afton Dry Cleaners and visited the theatre practically every night after he closed the cleaners.  Mr. “J” was the manager of the Afton from its opening night in 1937 into the late forties.  His son Dick was in band with me, a school grade ahead and his son David a few years behind.


            Joe Bryant, later known as Joshua Bryant of stage screen and acting fame-CHS ’58, was a class year behind me at Cradock was the theatre candy man that I replaced and Ronnie Creamer (CHS ‘58) took this great job when I left in the spring of 1957.


            I earned $18.00 a week for a seven-day schedule, two shows a day, weekdays and four shows a day on the weekends.  I remained until the show ended to help close the place for the evening, but some nights when the attendance was low, I would close up the concession stand and get away early to take in the Cradock night life, about which more later. I supplemented that sum with a Virginian Pilot, morning paper job, 210 papers-$35.00 per week.  I sold papers at George Washington Highway and Victory Boulevard in front of K. G. Darst’s ESSO Station, later operated by Mac McLean. Nathan Novack, CHS 56, who married Peggy Sims, CHS 57, and then his brother Charles, “Poochy”, CHS 56, held that particular paper sales job before me. I had this job from the end of my freshman year until I went to college.  I was certain that that I was on my way to great wealth.  Surely, that $53.00 per week in wages was a sign I would one day be in the big money.  That is not what worked out.


            During my year or so in “show business”, I gained 50 pounds from 135 to 185 partly because of genetic engineering and the normal maturation process but mostly because of the enormous quantities of popcorn stuffed in seven days a week.  An extra batch of popcorn every night for me was a part of the jobs benefits and I ate nightly until I walked with a duck-like waddle.  What a treat!


            Also in that brief career near the silver screen I viewed 240 feature films of the era.--"Creature from The Black Lagoon"; “Anastasia”; Gary Cooper and Gary Cooper in “Friendly Persuasion”; Glenn Ford in "Jubal";  “Helen of Troy’ with the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, Rosanna Podesta; many horse operas and musicals.  After seeing a film four to six times, I memorized many of the actor's lines and embarrassingly I have used some of them for the rest of my days.  The job nurtured my lifelong love of movies, actors and entertainers.


            The movie schedule was the same for years. A feature played Sunday and Monday, then another Tuesday and Wednesday, then a special one night show for Thursday which was also Jackpot Night, where some lucky Thursday night moviegoer won a jackpot drawing prize if in attendance at the 9 PM drawing.  Winning the “Bank Night in the village” jackpot prize was a big event in someone’s life.  Some of the Jackpot prizes were near $100.00, no small change when a mechanic’s job at the Navy Yard earned less than three thousand dollars a year.  Finally, there was a Friday and Saturday feature, more often than not a western, which also included a cartoon short subject and a serialized short. 


            Movietone News Supplements, where we all caught up on the news of the week, supplemented most of the feature films for Friday and Saturday.  Four times each week, the marquis had to be changed and I delivered movie posters to the stores in Afton Square to display in their storefront windows whenever a feature changed.


            Occasionally, when Richard or Eddie, the projectionists, needed a break for supper or a bathroom pit stop, I operated the movie’s carbon-arc projectors for those brief periods.  The carbon rods were replaced often. The film was split up in about 20 minute reels usually 5 to 6.   When it looked like the rod would not make it, we would change it. It was a gamble if you had a short reel if a small rod would make it. These ran on an AC to DC motor generator.  Projectionist work required a far higher skill level than “candy man” and I knew my place.  Richard had by far the best job for a schoolboy because he could study and do homework up in the projection room away from the public. The popcorn/candy man/ticket taker was too much in view of moviegoers to study.


            Popcorn was a dime, candy was a nickel and admission to the movie was fourteen cents for Cradock's children. I think adult movie rates, I got free admission, was a quarter.  Candy favorites in 56-57 were Juji Fruits, Jujubees, Dots, Good'n Plenty, Caramel Creams, and Necco Wafers were in vogue.


            My time late nights, after the movie shift, was whiled away in Slim Foster’s Pool Hall with often with my pal Curt Spear, CHS 57, (“Trouble, trouble, trouble right here in River City”).   Slim’s was located across from Chapman’s Meat Market one doorway from the corner of Farragut and Afton Parkway.   Pool attracted Donnie Whitesell, Jimmy Moy and Mickey Mixon to name a few of the small town hustlers I admired during that too brief era.   The pool hall was unsanitary and air-conditioned in the bathroom by virtue of a large hole in the floor next to the commode. Slim, the gnarly proprietor used the hole in the floor as a spittoon for his always-present tobacco plug.  If you played on any pool table but the front table, you needed to adjust your aim for the tilt of the table and the sagging floors.


            My memories of those Afton Theatre days are good, maybe not as clear as some others, and it is certain that the two jobs wrecked my scholastic career.   I was up at 4:30 am to peddle the Virginian Pilot on the corner of George Washington Highway and Victory Boulevard to Navy Yard workers.  I went home to sleep after walking home down Prospect Parkway, through the James Hurst schoolyard to Cradock Gardens after the movie closed near 11 pm.  These long hours made for a full schedule during the week, when I was dozing in class through my junior and senior years. 


      My last day in the Afton Theatre was also my last on the candy-clerk job in May 1957.  It closed in the eighties for lack of profits and its run-down physical condition.  An effort has been made a few years ago to raise funds to restore the old movie house rather than tear it down.  The Mayor and city leaders supported volunteer fund raising effort to bring the Afton back to a useful community purpose.  No matter what, The Afton is a part of memories of growing up in Cradock.