Popcorn, Movies, and the Keystone Cops

A patron walks up to the ticket window of the old Byron Carlyle cinema.

The Byron Carlyle Twin Cinemas changed south Floridia’s movie experience for a generation.

If you have ever lived in Miami Beach you probably have heard of the Byron Carlyle twin cinemas.  The theatre I remember officially closed in 2002 according to some sources, or sometime in the 1990s according to others.  And I am not sure I remember just one theater or two theaters.  The good news for the people of the Beach is that the building is a cinema once again, showing a mix of independent, art, and first run pop films.

Much has changed in Miami Beach since I lived there as a kid, even though I can use Google Maps’ street view mode to cruise the streets I knew in my youth and see many familiar places and buildings. My old elementary school is still there, still educating children from what I can tell, and only slightly changed.  The park where my brother and our neighbors played every day after school is also still there.  It looks very much like it did decades ago, although I remember a few more trees.

There a multitude of buildings and street corners I can gaze upon from afar and remember many days in the sun fighting with other boys in the neighborhood, chasing girls, and just wandering around with my friends.  We were freer then, and we felt safe and traveled up and down Miami Beach in ways I doubt children are permitted to move around today.  And it’s not like we were permitted to do this.  We just did it.

We’d visit some of the big expensive hotels in South Miami Beach, even the world-famous Fountainbleau, and we would walk through their lobbies, visit their restaurants, swim in their pools.  One year we had some friends whose mother was a bartender at a cool bar and during the day we might stop by and visit briefly while she got ready for the night’s work.

Miami Beach was my back yard.  There was no part of the city where I feared to go.  There were parts of the city where my family elders were aghast to learn I had been.  Sometimes I would sneak out at night and prowl the streets quietly.  Occasionally a friend went with me.  Sometimes I went by myself.  It never occurred to me that anything bad could happen.  After all, I could run away and slip into places no adult could squeeze into.

I guess I’m lucky I survived my childhood.

There was a theater that my brother and I visited one summer.  I don’t know for sure that it was the Byron Carlyle but so far as I can tell there is no other theater that we could have visited.  We lived about a mile from the venue.  I remember being able to walk down there by myself, although most often we rode a bus.  Bus fares were cheap back then.  For 10 cents you could travel just about anywhere in the city.  Once I fell asleep on a bus and found myself on the way to Miami.  The bus driver made sure I stayed on the bus until I got back to the Beach.

That theater was a magical place for me.  I remember the smell of the diesel bus engines as we left and arrived.  We often rode in those old open-window buses with the bars across the windows.  I thought they were old at the time.  I guess they had been manufactured in the 1950s, maybe the 1940s.  By the time I was in the fifth grade Miami Beach was beginning to upgrade its fleet and we’d occasionally get on one of the air conditioned buses.  That was like heaven on Earth, especially if we had been running around the streets for a couple of hours.

The Byron Carlyle theater profile in the Miami Herald. This article was published on October 27, 1968. The theater opened on December 18.

The Byron Carlyle theater profile in the Miami Herald. This article was published on October 27, 1968. The theater opened on December 18.

Every Wednesday, as I recall, the Byron Carlyle had a “kiddie show”.  There were two auditoriums in the theater (and so they called it a “twin” cinema).  The “Byron” auditorium had 590 seats.  I read this on the Internet so it must be true.  The Carlyle auditorium had 954 seats.  You don’t have to take my word for it, though.  The Miami Herald wrote a nice little article about the theater’s highly anticipated opening in October 1968.

I don’t remember ever watching the movie “Skidoo”.  The movie I most vividly remember seeing was “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun”, which opened in theaters on August 27, 1969.  Even as a kid I thought it was a terrible movie but it had a spaceship so it wasn’t all bad.

The kiddie shows followed a certain format.  I don’t remember how long they lasted but we probably arrived around 9 or 10 AM in the morning and left around 1 PM in the afternoon.  The theater manager would act as emcee and there was usually a drawing of some sort.  Kids might compete in some sort of trivia contest.  I know that prizes were given out and I occasionally won some.  I think my favorite prize was a box of Cracker Jacks.

The show opened with some cartoons followed by old, old black-and-white films.  We watched the Keystone Cops, Laurel and Hardy, and Spanky and Our Gang films.  I don’t know for sure but I may be among the last generation of kids to watch those movies on a regular basis in a theater.  Finally we would get to the feature film.  In addition to “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun” I also remember a movie about a starship traveling across the galaxy or the universe, but I don’t remember the name of it.  The story involved some terrible decision the people on the ship had to make before they arrived at their destination. [Added on Edit: The movie was the Americanized version of the Czech movie “Voyage to the End of the Universe”.]

Another movie we may have watched there could have been “The Valley of Gwangi”, in which James Franciscus played a cowboy who captured a dinosaur for a Mexican circus.  Or maybe we saw that one at a drive-in theater.

One of the frustrating things when reminiscing about old movies is that you can almost never find them on the Internet.  When you glance at the lists of science fiction movies from the 1960s on sites like Wikipedia they are woefully inadequate.  Even IMDB has an incomplete catalog.  It could just be that the people who add these movies to such sites misclassify them, but I suspect there is a horde of lost and forgotten movies no one will know about simply because the crowd-sourced archives are not nearly as complete as the popular imagination believes them to be.

Along with those lost movies are the memories that go with them: memories of childhoods spent in different times, teenage romances, and the first adventures into adulthood for several generations.  Despite the fact that we have the greatest information archive in human history at our fingertips, we continue to lose vast troves of experiences and cultural knowledge that cannot be replaced, resurrected, or reconstructed.

That’s the great, sad irony of the Internet Age.  Just as the day will come when the last person with a living memory of a time before personal computers leaves this life, there will subsequently come a time when the last living memory of the Internet itself fades away.  It will be a bit like Celeborn taking ship from Middle-earth.  Few will remark the passing of an age but many will regret its loss beyond recovery.