Recalling Saturday matinees decades ago

Published 10:09 am Thursday, June 10, 2021


Community columnist

I recall downtown Lexington from my childhood when I was permitted to ride a bus alone from our home on Cramer Avenue to downtown from about 1949 to 1952.

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The Fayette County Courthouse was right across from the drugstore on the corner where I would get off the bus and walk to the Ben Ali Theatre to see the Saturday morning matinee  – Superman and the Mole Men, Roy Rogers & Dale Evans, Flash Gordon, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Audi Murphy, Sky King, Tarzan, and more. Always showing a newsreel and a cartoon first.

Sometimes there was even a real vaudeville act on the stage in front of the screen before the movie. I remember seeing acrobats once or perhaps more.

I never carried more money than absolutely necessary. The movie might have cost a dime, no more than a quarter. Bus fare was about the same. Popcorn was probably a nickel, too.

I caught the bus home at the courthouse. If it was raining, I would stand inside the drugstore and watch for my bus from there. Once when I was a little worried about some man who was walking behind me, I went over there and the ladies in the drugstore watched over me until my bus came.

You may have heard of a dog that lived downtown – Smiley Pete, a sweet and intelligent black and white dog of unknown parentage. All the merchants fed him and looked after him.

I always sought him out for a friendly pat and hug. Now, there is a plaque on the sidewalk dedicated to Smiley Pete.   

Between the courthouse and Ben Ali was Woolworth’s that had big ceiling fans and big screen doors. (Ben Snyder’s had the same.)

There was a donut machine that dropped circles of raw dough into hot oil. The mechanism would turn slowly and halfway around some sort of spatula would appear and flip the partially fried dough.

When the doughnut came full circle, it was ejected down a short chute onto paper where I think it was sugared by hand. Possibly cost a nickel and I always bought one! I’d stand there watching that process in fascination while I anticipated the delicious treat.

Sometimes I wandered around before heading home. That’s how I discovered where the Greyhound bus station was. There were always big buses coming and going.

In the other direction on Main Street, past the courthouse, was the Strand Theater which Mother warned was not for white people. I knew better than to even peek inside.

It is hard for me to imagine today any little girl wandering around on her own at such a young age. But that freedom caused me to become quite independent, fearless, curious, and outgoing.

It was a prelude to the wonderful adventure I had that summer of 1949 when I turned 7 when I ran away from home. I took my recent birthday money and rode a bus into town.

At the Greyhound station, I got in line with several people and the clerk, assuming I was with someone, sold me a $6 ticket to Cincinnati. Fortunately, I called home and asked my grandmother (who was babysitting me and my brother James while our parents worked) to let Mother know I was going to visit her brother and his wife in Cincinnati.

But I did not realize they and assorted other kinfolk actually lived in Latonia, across the river from Cincinnati.

While my father served in WWII, Mother and I had been passed around among the great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even great-aunts and great-uncles all in Latonia. None of them had guest bedrooms. None had children other than me, and they loved me as if I were their little princess.

Every day during that memorable summer I would head out after breakfast and visit various merchants where five streets converged at “Rittie’s Corner.”

Shop owners seemed always glad to see me, talk with me, and sometimes even gave me a dime or quarter (to get lost!). I enjoyed talking with the grownups who worked in the various places I explored, although I never talked to strangers in the street.

As summer was coming to an end, my mother’s brother accompanied me on a Greyhound from Covington to Lexington and returned me to my parents in time for me to start third grade that fall.

Afterwards, I was still allowed to go into town to a movie matinee, provided my darned little brother went with me! I wasn’t sure if I was watching him or he was watching me.