I hadn’t seen the place since 1943, and it was still standing. Of course, it had long since been abandoned and had become all but invisible in the way empty and forgotten buildings do.
A faded sign protruding from the front of the building creaked in the soft breeze and testified that sometime in its more recent history it had been the home of Carson’s Custom Meats. Above the sign, near the roof line and spread out across the front of the building, however, was the true identity of this place. After more than fifty years, you had to stand just right to see the words, but they were still there showing through multiple coats of faded paint. In 1943 those letters were bright red and proclaimed this building to be none other than the Princess Theater.
In 1943 the Princess Theater was as close to heaven as any ten-year-old boy was likely to get. It was a sanctuary, a safe haven from the brutal realities of school, chores, and, of course, a world war that raged so far away but at the same time seemed so close and was so frightening. It was here on Saturday afternoons that we lined up on the sidewalk clutching our dimes in fevered anticipation of imminent immersion into a double feature, three serials, and four cartoons.
In its entire history, the Princess showed nothing but westerns, although back then we called them Cowboy movies. All of our heroes were there: The Lone Ranger with his faithful Indian companion Tonto, Roy Rogers with Dale Evans, the Durango Kid, Red Ryder, Lash LaRue, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and—my idol—Tom Mix.
There wasn’t an Oscar nomination in the lot back then, and the plot of one movie was predictably similar to the plots of all the others. There were the bad guys, of course, and they almost always wore black hats. The good guy always came out of nowhere and he almost always wore a white hat. There were the town folks or the hardworking ranchers who were being victimized by the gang and who were sadly powerless to do anything about it. Then the good guy showed up and helped the town folks find their own inner strength and defeat the bad guys. After that he always rode off into the sunset, usually after bidding fond farewell to the school marm or the rancher’s daughter.
Secretly, we shared the hope of the townsfolk or the rancher that he would stay and take over the ranch and maybe marry the school teacher. But we knew he had to leave so he could rescue the next town and the next ranch from the bad guys. That’s what good guys did.
Looking back I realize I sat there every Saturday, hunkered down in my seat, my feet propped up on the seat in front of me, and I always knew what was going to happen next. As a matter of fact, every kid in the place knew what the bad guys were going to do next and what the good guy was going to do in return. We knew, but we didn’t care. The point was that every Saturday these movies proved to us that good outweighed bad ten to one and that in spite of an unfair war out there, good would always triumph in the end. Moreover, after the last bad guy had bitten the dust, the good guy had ridden off toward the horizon, and the house lights came back on, we were amply fortified to spend the next week carrying that message of faith and hope. For the next seven days I could be Tom Mix, reassuring a frightened world that everything would be all right.
We moved away from that little town and the Princess Theater just before the end of 1943. A couple of years later the war ended, and the country set about the business of building a future. I guess that future just didn’t include places like the Princess Theater. After all, the war was over, prosperity glowed brightly on everyone’s horizon, and we just didn’t need to be reminded anymore that good would prevail over evil. I stopped going to Saturday matinees and began looking forward to high school. After awhile they stopped making cowboy movies like that, and all the good guys rode toward the sunset one final time and disappeared.
At some point, the Princess Theater closed down. Folks I talked to said it was a frozen food locker plant for several years. Later, somebody named Carson turned it into a meat market. When Carson closed down, somebody else used the building as a warehouse for a while. After that, the building stood empty. Near as I could find out, no one has used it for anything since.
But I defy anyone who ever scoured up a dime on a Saturday afternoon and sat through a Tom Mix double feature to stand on the sidewalk outside that ruined building today and deny hearing the distant thunder of hoof beats and the feeling deep within that everything is going to be all right.
(Postscript: I visited my 1943 haunts recently and was saddened to see the Princess Theater was gone. The building had been torn down and nothing remained but the steps from the sidewalk to a patch of weeds and scraps of what once was the theater floor.)