By Heather Babcock
“Here’s a quarter. Now why don’t you get out of my hair and find something to do?”
The little boy’s eyes grew almost as round as the shiny new coin that his mother had just placed in his open palm. Oblivious to his awe, she turned away from him and plunged her still delicate and feminine hands into a bucket of lye soap. For almost two years, the little boy’s father had been out of work and his mother had taken up odd jobs such as scrubbing the neighbor’s floor and taking in sewing and laundry. A quarter was a very big deal – it could mean the difference between some food on the table and none at all.
“Go on!” his mother snapped, breaking the little boy’s reverie. “Why don’t you go see that wizard picture everybody’s gabbing about?”
Bolting out the door before she could change her mind, the boy headed down to Loew’s theatre on Yonge Street where a new film – The Wizard of Oz (1939) – had just opened.
“It was my first movie,” my father would tell me seventy years later, in 2009. “And it was the most wonderful thing I have ever seen.”
My father had been a quiet man who was never superfluous with his words. Yet like most quiet people, he possessed a gentle ability to captivate his listeners on the rare occasion when he did choose to speak. It was not only the words that he chose but how he looked at you when he said them: the light in his eyes as he recalled his first movie experience told me everything that I needed to know about cowardly lions, magical ruby slippers, yellow brick roads and the wonders that could be found in a Technicolor rainbow bursting through the storm clouds of the Great Depression.
Growing up, The Wizard of Oz was a Christmas movie staple in our household, along with A Christmas Story (1983) – I remain convinced that my parents got the idea to wash my mouth out with soap from Ralphie’s mom (thanks to a road rage inflicted school bus driver, I had a bit of a potty mouth).
When I was twelve-years-old, I was the only girl in my class who didn’t need a brassiere. “I’m too skinny!” I’d wail, shutting myself in my room. “I hate my body!” One evening my father came home bearing three VHS tapes: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Funny Face (1957) and Sabrina (1954). “I want you to watch these movies,” my father said, gently placing the tapes outside my bedroom door. “Audrey Hepburn was skinny but she was beautiful. You’re beautiful too.” My father was never really one for hugs or open displays of affection. Those movies were his way of telling me that he loved me.
As is often the case with father/daughter relationships, adolescence came between my dad and me. However I do have one sweet memory from that otherwise turbulent period: watching Muriel’s Wedding (1994) with my father in a Cineplex movie theatre on a cold winter’s day. He had shyly asked if he could come with me, after I confessed that I was going to the theatre alone. We enjoyed the film immensely, mostly because it was the first time in ages that we had heard each other laugh.
“I never saw that Toni Collette before,” my father said as we left the theatre. “But I’d like to see her again.”
In 2009, my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He could no longer walk and his hands shook uncontrollably but he didn’t want to talk about that – he wanted to talk about other things, like his days in the Navy and his pet cat Angel. But most of all, he wanted to talk about the movies.
“This is not her best work,” my father said, in between spoonfuls of vanilla ice cream as we watched BUtterfield 8 (1960) together in his hospital room. “If you really want to understand Elizabeth, you need to see her in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958).” Elizabeth Taylor was his favorite actress. She had kick started his lifelong love of brunettes.
A week after my father died, I rented a bunch of my favorite comedies from my local Blockbuster. I sat staring numbly at the screen as I watched the films, wanting to laugh but feeling nothing.
“It’s okay to feel sad now,” my best friend assured me. “Someday you’ll feel happy again.”
On Christmas Day of that year, I watched The Wizard of Oz and bawled like a baby. But I wasn’t crying for Dorothy or the Tin Man; my tears were for a lonely little boy sitting in a darkened theatre in September of 1939.
A little boy who was just discovering magic for the very first time.
Written by Heather Babcock, copyright 2018