The Fabulous 50s: It was the era that gave us Brando and Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and Fats Domino, Grace Kelly and James Dean. Not to mention the Cold War and hula hoops, the exciting new medium of television and a new kind of music called ‘rock ‘n roll.’ As if that weren’t enough, the 1950s also brought us fallout shelters, the Korean War, sack dresses and ducktail haircuts.
For a kid like ‘BobbyRandall,’ coming of age in the deep South of the mid-twentieth-century meant colorful characters, charming venues and an unforgettable way of life. From the legendary black bottom pie at Weidmann’s Restaurant to ‘making out’ at the Royal Drive-In–from a pool shark named Lenard to the mad dentist, ‘Doctor Death,’ you’ll get Lost in the 50s in Meridian, Mississippi in Robert R Randall’s lively, poignant and hilarious memoir.
Targeted Age Group:: 18+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
A few years ago, I published a novel called The Great Pretender: Confessions of a Semi-Incorrigible Southern Catholic Boy, a thinly disguised memoir of my formative and teen years.
Lost in the 50s: In Meridian, Mississippi cuts to the chase, focusing on my adolescent years–a time of young romance, raging hormones, and, in my case, a wildly dysfunctional family. It's a fun book.
AT THE MOVIES
In the 50s, there were only two top tier movie theaters in Meridian–the opulent Temple on Eighth Street and the Royal on 23rd Avenue. Sure, we had other theaters–the slightly seedy Strand and the even seedier Ritz come to mind–not to mention the Royal Drive-In. But these others tended to show B-movies or westerns or older movies back for a second run.
I spent many Saturday afternoons at the Strand Theater captivated by the likes off Lash LaRue and The Durango Kid–often double features accompanied by cartoons and a serial for what then seemed a reasonable ten cents. But as I moved into my teens–and my tastes became a bit more sophisticated–I found myself spending more and more time at the Temple and Royal theaters (where admission soared to a whole quarter!).
After all, where else could I have seen ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ with my hero, James Dean (after which, I began wearing a red windbreaker over a white T-shirt–even to bed) or ‘The Caine Mutiny’ with Bogart, or ‘From Here to Eternity’ starring Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift? Such quality fare could only be seen at the Temple or Royal Theaters.
The Temple, of course, was a showplace, a magnificent arena with a rich history of live entertainment, as well as first-run movies. The Royal, though not as sumptuous or glamorous, had its own intimate charm.
How many Friday nights did I take a girl to a movie at the Royal? It was the perfect venue for a teenage boy’s first or second date with a girl: if you couldn’t think of anything to say, no problem; you weren’t expected to talk much, anyway.
It also seemed a little darker in the no-frills Royal. This dim atmosphere provided an illusion of privacy for stealthy, adolescent sexual overtures–which usually boiled down to just one thing; the time-honored tradition of snaking your arm, first around the top of the girl’s seat, then (maybe a half-hour later) on top of her shoulder, then finally (another interminable half-hour later) inching your hand down (closer, closer) before nonchalantly touching her breast.
At which point, the girl almost invariably–and wordlessly–removed your hand and shoved more popcorn into her mouth.
Which reminds me of a legendary story, that also took place in the Royal Theater. According to this indecorous tale, Jimmy Hardon took Prudy Fortenberry (I have changed their names to protect the innocent–and the not so innocent) on a first date to the Royal Theater. Jimmy had a reputation as a jokester, ‘a nice-enough kid’ who was, nevertheless, often ‘up to no good.’
Prudy, conversely, was sweet and demure, a pretty girl, but hard to be around. She did not smoke or drink or cuss or tolerate those who did. Her nickname was actually (I am not making this up) ‘goody-two-shoes.’ As for anything to do with sex, our group had unofficially voted Prudy ‘least likely to have sex before–and maybe even after–marriage.’
So, why in god’s name was Jimmy Hardon going out with her? She wouldn’t be much fun, and he would certainly violate most of her principles before they even reached the theater. Besides, Jimmy was a well-known ‘skirt-chaser’ while Prudy was clearly a hardcore virgin.
‘No problem,’ Jimmy told his close friends, Gerald Woodruff, Sammy Dungy and Larry Townes. ‘I’m gonna tap that before the night is over.’
‘Shoot,’ Gerald said, ‘no way in hell of that happening,’
‘Shows what you know,’ Jimmy said. ‘That girl’s got the hots for me.’
‘I don’t think,’ Sammy laughed, ‘Prudy’s ever had the hots for anybody.’
‘And if she had, it wouldn’t be you,’ Larry added, ‘you beer-drinkin’, fag-smokin’ heathen.’
Tell you what,’ Jimmy said, as they all laughed, ‘I’ll bet y’all five dollars I can get Prudy to touch my dick before the movie’s ten minutes old.’
Now they all howled. It was, Sammy Dungy said later, funnier than a fart in church..
‘No way,’ he said, ‘Prudy Fortenberry would rather touch a dog turd!’
Jimmy just grinned: ‘Put your money where your mouth is, butt breath.’
‘How we gonna know if she does it or not?’ Gerald said. ‘You’ll say she did no matter what.’
‘Oh, you’ll know,’ Jimmy grinned, ‘I promise you’ll know.’
Inside the Royal a few nights later, Jimmy’s friends sat a few rows behind the couple, trying not to be too conspicuous (which involved mostly futile attempts to curb their adolescent snickering). Meanwhile, the objects of their attention sat quietly and innocently munching popcorn as a newsreel, two cartoons and previews of coming attractions danced across the huge Royal screen.
Finally, the credits for ‘Dial M for Murder’ began to roll, and Gerald Woodruff checked his watch. Jimmy had promised to achieve his unlikely exploit within ten minutes of the film’s beginning.
‘Not gonna happen,’ Larry Townes whispered, ‘he hasn’t even tried to kiss her yet.’
Indeed, the couple still sat sedately, eating their popcorn, eyes glued to the screen, as if entranced by the acting of Grace Kelly and Ray Milland.
‘That’s it,’ Gerald said, pointing to his watch, ‘it’s been twelve minutes and she hasn’t…’
It was just at that moment that Prudy Fortenberry screamed bloody murder, as if maybe a monster had appeared on the screen. Just as suddenly, she jumped up from her seat and stormed up the aisle and out of the theater.
Heads turned, the audience grumbled, an usher with a flashlight came down the aisle. As order was restored and the movie prevailed, Jimmy, at last, turned in his seat and grinned devilishly at his pals.
‘Oh my god,’ Sammy Dungy said later at the Orange Bowl, when Jimmy explained what he’d done, ‘how’d you–how’d you get it inside the popcorn?’
‘Very carefully,’ Jimmy said. ‘I had a boner the whole time.’
‘I would give a million dollars,’ Gerald said, ‘to have seen the expression on Prudy’s face when she reached for that last bite of popcorn.’
And thus, a Meridian legend was born.
The 50s were rife with stories of sexual escapades in Meridian theaters, and some of them might have actually been true. Tales of oral sex and even copulation on the back rows of the Royal and Strand abounded. Some said theaters were great pickup venues where foreplay with a stranger often led to sex at another locale. I never witnessed any of those activities, which I found, simultaneously, repulsive and stimulating.
My own sexual adventures in Meridian theaters were either non-existent or confined to my car seat at the Royal Drive-In–almost always with the love of my young life, Bobbye Jean Ryan (not necessarily her real name). When you were sixteen or seventeen in Meridian in the 50s, any kind of sex life was rare, largely because–even if you could find a willing partner–there was no ideal place to have it.
At the Royal Drive-In on Fifth Street, the typical fare included second-run, horror and ‘B’ movies. The sound from those tinny car window speakers was lousy; the picture on that distant billboard-like screen often seemed out of focus; and none of this mattered to us in the least. We were there to eat, drink and smoke; to finally be all alone (if one can be said to be alone surrounded by a sea of people in cars) and, more than anything, to ‘make out.
It was the latter that provided both the greatest joy and utmost frustration of my adolescent life. As Bogart or Robert Mitchum or John Garfield played tough guys on the giant screen, Ryan and I (we called each other by our last names) were usually sprawled across the front seat of my Ford Coupe, bodies locked in sweaty passion, tongues snaking toward each other’s tonsils, hands groping, grasping, gripping, grappling—and ultimately failing to gain any purchase.
Time after time, we arrived at the banquet, sampled many of the fabulous hors d’oeuvres, then left before the main course was served. It was delicious, seductive, addictive and maddening. How could she do this to me (actually, how could she not do this to me)? Didn’t she love me? Didn’t she find me sexually appealing?
‘Of course, I love you,’ Ryan said, rearranging her skirt, ‘and I think you’re the sexiest boy I know.’
‘BobbyRandall, we’ve had this discussion a hundred times…’
‘And I still can’t understand why…’
‘I just can’t,’ she said, lighting a fresh cigarette with the lighter from the dash. ‘I want to—you know I want to—but I can’t afford to get pregnant…’
‘I told you, Ryan, I’ll use…’
‘I know what you said, but those things aren’t foolproof, mister. They break, sometimes they have holes in them…’
‘Oh, come on, stuff like that almost never happens.’
‘Sounds like famous last words to me,’ she said, ‘it only takes one time.’
‘Oh, for god’s sake, Ryan…’
‘Besides,’ Ryan barged on, ‘in case you hadn’t noticed, we don’t exactly have a lot of privacy here.’
‘We could go up to that place on Sand Mountain.’ (Sand Mountain was a favorite young lovers’ lane spot in Meridian.)
‘Not a whole lot better,’ she said, ‘everybody and his brother goes there to make out.’
‘Okay, so we’ll just get a motel room,’ I said.
‘Motel room?’ she exclaimed, in her best holier-than-thou tone, ‘what kind of girl do you think I am?’
‘The kind who wants privacy?’ I ventured.
But it was no use, I suddenly realized. Ryan was not going to have sex with me or anyone else without marriage or at least a promise of it. We’d had this discussion or argument a hundred times already, and it wasn’t going anyplace. If I was ever going to have sex, it would have to be with someone else.
But that didn’t seem very likely. I was, after all, madly in love with Ryan (well, as much in love as an immature, self-absorbed, uber-libidinous adolescent could be).
I opened a Schlitz, lit a fresh Lucky Strike, turned up the tinny Royal car speaker, and tried to figure out what Humphrey Bogart was up to.
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