Thursday, December 29, 2016

MEMORIES OF THE MAYFLOWER



(Image courtesy of Oregon Digital)

This is the only and only photo that I can find of the creaky old Mayflower Theater in Eugene, Oregon. (Surely others exist, right?) The theater was located near the corner of 11th and Alder, and it was situated directly across the street from where the original Animal House was located. The photo dates somewhere in the late fall of 1985, based on the movies listed on the marquee. A few months later, sometime in 1986, the Mayflower would be closed for good. Neither it, nor the dilapidated halfway house that stood in for the home of Delta Tau Chi, stands today, but at least the Delta House got a plaque. No such remembrance was in waiting for this unassuming little dump, never a great technical showcase for cinema, even though this is where Star Wars opened in Eugene in May 1977 and where it played till the end of that same year. But those who were seeing movies in Eugene during the ‘60s and ‘70s undoubtedly have happy memories of it nonetheless. The Mayflower might never have been where you would have chosen to see a movie back in 1977, but given that there wasn’t much in the way of choice it often had to do. Even so, it’ll always be one of the signposts of my own discovering of a world much larger and more exciting than the one in which I grew up.

The first movie I ever saw at the Mayflower was not Star Wars, however. In early 1975 our high school pep band followed the basketball team to the state basketball tournament, and one night a bunch of us hiked through downtown toward the University of Oregon campus to see Young Frankenstein. And in June of 1976, a little over a year before I would start classes at Oregon myself, a friend and I hopped in his VW Bug and made the five-hour drive to Eugene from our hometown in Southeastern Oregon for a weekend of movies. He had already spent a year there and was getting ready to go back for another, so he knew most of the places to go, and our first stop in town was the Mayflower, where we saw a double feature of Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie and Michael Ritchie’s Smile. I loved both movies, and being there made me feel like I was getting a taste of a whole new, somewhat musty, but undoubtedly wonderful world. And I did see Star Wars there during the summer of 1977, while on a student orientation visit with my family, though I can remember barely being able to concentrate on the movie for the nervousness I felt at coming to Eugene to live on my own only a couple months later.  Though it had almost 10 years of life left in it, the Mayflower already felt run-down, yet it felt like such a step up from seeing one movie a week in my quaint little hometown theater that I was willing to forgive it just about anything.

I remember a few things about the Mayflower: the ragged red curtains along the walls of the wide but not very deep auditorium; the aroma of popcorn mingling with the faint scent of disinfectant in the air; the black masking along the top and bottom of the screen forever exposed due to the absence of a retractable curtain; the glass windows that looked out on the auditorium from the halls next to the projection booth which led to the men’s and women’s restrooms, constructed so that patrons could watch the movie (and hear the muffled sound through the glass) while they stood wiggling, waiting for the occupants of the ancient single-occupancy stalls to vacate; the box office located just inside the outside breezeway (it’s visible behind the little Renault in the photo) which was always crammed with posters and other significant junk, which seemed like a pretty keen place in which to be encased, to my young eyes, anyway—those dispensing tickets might have felt differently. None of these details make the place sounds particularly endearing, but endearment isn’t something bestowed—it happens naturally, and maybe in the case of the Mayflower it was also earned.

The Mayflower was in many ways a gateway movie theater to me, and it was also where I learned to love the midnight movie. In 1977 there were no lack of film societies on campus which filled the numerous lecture halls with 16mm revival screenings of films from every genre, temperament and nation every single weekend, all in compliment to the mainstream theaters, drive-ins and homegrown art houses like Cinema 7 and the Waco Twin, which was located right off campus just behind my freshman dorm room. For a maturing movie lover who still had plenty of ground to discover, especially in the world of international cinema, such bounty was a dream come true every Friday and Saturday, and sometimes during the week too. 


But for the first year and into my sophomore year of college life, the Mayflower was running midnight movies every Saturday night, and sometimes Friday and Saturday nights, at the tail end of the era, just before the emergence of the first burst of home video popularity, when college students went out of their way to see interesting second-run fare and unusual cult sensations from every category. It was in this nondescript little cinema, after the evening showings of the main feature finished up, where I saw such staples as Clockwork Orange, A Boy and His Dog, Fellini Satyricon, Tunnelvision, The Exorcist, El Topo, Dog Day Afternoon, King of Hearts, Harold and Maude and The Graduate for the first time. Unfortunately, sometime during the fall of 1978 The Rocky Horror Picture Show arrived at 11th and Alder, a phenomenon whose dominance spelled the end of the age of repertory midnight movies at the Mayflower.

This broken-down would-be palace of pictures is notable in my personal history for another reason too. It was here, just a week or two after having met on the set of National Lampoon’s Animal House which was shooting right across the street during the fall of 1977, where my soon-to-be lifelong best friend Bruce and I journeyed across campus one chilly Saturday night to take in the first of what would be probably thousands of movies we’d see together over a subsequent run of 39 years. 

The movie was, of course, Star Wars. And being flush in the hardy and heady glory of youth, once the credits started rolling on that one, we decided to go back outside and buy tickets for that night’s midnight movie selection, a slightly late-starting double feature of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky.  We stumbled out onto the sidewalk on 11th Street at around 3:30 in the morning and started the walk back across campus to our dorm rooms.  I’ve always thought, though I don’t remember if I had the thought that evening, that any friendship which starts with a 2:00 a.m. screening of Jabberwocky, followed by conversation that was surely more entertaining than the movie, could likely survive any storm, and that assumption has most assuredly proven to be true. The best friendship of my life was cemented within the none-too-sturdy walls of the old Mayflower Theater in Eugene, Oregon. For that alone, it could have been the worst theater in town— it wasn’t—and it’d still hold a special place in my heart.

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