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John Wayne

Do you remember the Saturday matinee in the old Canal Zone...? Do you?

By Louis J. Barbier - BHS Class 1957


Pilgrim, do you remember the Saturday Matinee in the Canal Zone? Well Pilgrim, we don't have all day just tell them how it was...

 A friend of mine asks me to write a reflection of the Saturday afternoon matinee in the old Canal Zone. Well, here goes...

Do you remember the Saturday Afternoon Matinee in the old Canal Zone? Do you?


Do you remember the Saturday Afternoon Matinee in the old Canal Zone? Do you ...really? Every town site featured a Saturday Afternoon Matinee in the 40s and 50s. All the kids looked forward to the picture show of chapters, 3 or 4 cartoon features, and maybe a newsreel.


This was all before everybody in the Canal Zone had a TV in their living room. Most of what was available was strictly low band radio programs. With a crystal and a sharp needle you could build your own set for pittance. You could listen to Amos and Andy, Jack Benny, Bud Abbot and Lou Costello, Lucky Strikes Hit Parade, the whistler, Gunsmoke, Death Valley Days, the Lone Ranger, FBI in Peace & War, Danger, Rin-Tin-Tin and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon...just to name a few. We all did our homework listening to the radio or reading comic books with a flashlight under the covers. There was Captain America, Red Rider and his little companion, Little Beaver, Superman, Batman & Robin, the Phantom, Plasticman, the flying group called the Blackhawks, Tom Mix, Hapalong Cassidy, Joe Palooka, Archie and friends, and other comic books that escape me now. But the highlight of the weekend was going to the Saturday afternoon matinee. That is how it was back in the old Canal Zone.


It didnt take a Kings Ransom to see a great western. All you needed was one silver dime. The drinks, popcorn, chocolate bars (Babe Ruth or Butterfingers) and maybe some peppermint sticks or gum you could get all for another 25 cents tops. Honest! Most weekly allowances were about 50 cents. This meant you took out the garbage every night, polished your dads shoes (2 or 3 pairs) and washed the family bus once a week. The military shoes the Cuna Concession would do them. Cutting the yard was done by Public Works for the US Navy or a legion of grass cutters by Panama Canal Company. It just depended what town site you called home. But 50 cents went along way back then. In the early days 5 plays on the jukebox for a nickel. A loaf of bread 8 cents. Pork chops, 15 cents a pound. Comics were a nickel apiece. A student assistant during the summer of 1956 -1957 earned a whopping 50 cents an hour. But everybody thought they were in hog heaven! Besides most Panama Canal Company skilled employees earned a lot more. And the overtime was out of sight. Before TV in the Canal Zone the families were huge. The average family size in the old Canal Zone was about 6. And some were a bakers dozen. Uncle Sam took care of the kids by providing a special allowance for more kids then only two. Somebody said it was $2,500 per little kid. I dont really know for sure. But all I really know was the Saturday afternoon matinees were packed! Sometimes it was SRO or you where SOL. But hey, you could always go to another town site and see what was being featured at their matinee.


The hook was the chapters. It could be say Dick Tracy chasing a number one fugitive on a narrow mountain road at night in one of those all black sedans with Tommy guns blazing as the organ music grew louder and just before the see Dick Tracys black sedan going over the cliff. Then the screen would fade black. That was the invitation to come back to next Saturdays matinee to see what happen to Dick Tracy. Of course, the following week you would see how Dick Tracy jumps clear of his car has it plummets over the cliff and explodes. Great fare for little kids. Then we would have cartoons like maybe Bugs Bunny or Speedy Gonzales or Tom and Jerry.

All the kids would laugh their heads off as they ate all their goodies. Then when you thought the movie would never begin...the curtains would close and the announcement on the screen would be...Now presenting our Feature Presentation, Randy rides again with John Wayne and Gabby Hayes. What a kick!


Of course, all the kids, at least many had worn their guns. The Cowboys and Cowgirls were all pack in. Many wore chaps and even carried saddlebags. All these outfits were available at the Panama Canal Company Commissary. No little kids would think of not bringing their guns to the show. Especially if it was a western! Why? Well how would they be able to help the good guys when they got in trouble? They always did. That was a given. Most of the six shooters on the screen fired away like a machine reloading was necessary. It was easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. All the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys black hats. There would be 3 or 4 bank robberies and maybe even a couple of train robberies too. Then a posse would be form to chase the bad guys. John Wayne or Roy Roger would be a friend of the US Marshall or Sheriff and they would help him round up the bad guys. There would always be a scene with an old timer leaning on a hitching post and the leader of the posse would ask, Did you see any of them? Well, the response would always be, Sheriff they went that way. Well, at that the whole theater would roar. And of course all during the showing the audience would be carrying on conversations with those on the screen. If it got too loud the usher with his flashlight would be around to quiet everybody.


One of the spectacular scenes was the trick riding. It seems that the posse and the bad guys would pass a group of rocks about 3 or 4 times. Then the guns would be blazing away with that familiar ring. Much of the falls and trick riding was done without stand-ins. John Wayne had started as a stuntman. So it came quite easy for him. Then who can forget the stagecoach chase scene as the bad mask men came out of the rocks to ambush the stage? Then there would be a damsel in distress as her run away buckboard took off to parts unknown. In all these scenes all the little kids were using their guns and really getting into the picture. Then of course another great scene was the rearrangement of the Saloons furniture. The tables and chairs would break apart. The kids would roar! People would get thrown out the window or through the swinging bat doors. And through it all nobody would loose their hats. It just seemed that the hats were glued on...yes, they were.


Oh, did I mention the one-reel westerns were in fabulous black and white. The whole matinee would last 90 minutes tops. Then you would either pick up your horse (imaginary one) you left outside tied to the hitching post or wait for the stage (family bus to pick you up in front of the clubhouse. Of course, once it arrived with your mother or father at the wheel, there was always a fight to see who rode shotgun. By the time you got home you were famished. Your mother would say, Supper is in an hour. Why dont you listen to the a comic book. But stay close. I dont want you going out and getting all sweating. Your dad should be home soon, he got called in to work to handle an emergency. No, you cant have any oatmeal cookies now. Here why dont you help me cleanup this chocolate icing out of this bowl. And so it went those wonderful days in the old Canal Zone when life was rather simple, not difficult and the only thing really on your mind was, I wonder if...Dick Tracy gets out of the warehouse explosion in Chapter 13. Well, we best all make some plans to go to the Saturday afternoon matinee at Cocoli or Balboa. Hey, Mom, Im going to use the phone to see if any of the kids are going to next Saturdays matinee...okay?


Okay Louie but dont stay on it for hours, Dad may call. You bet Mom.


That is how it went almost any Saturday afternoon at the picture show. Do you remember?


Stagecoach 1939


This is an all time favorite of mine. I never get tired of watching it. If by a long shot you have not seen it... I strongly recomend it... enjoy.


This landmark 1939 Western began the legendary relationship between John Ford and John Wayne, and became the standard for all subsequent Westerns. It solidified Ford as a major director and established Wayne as a charismatic screen presence. Seen today, Stagecoach still impresses as the first mature instance of a Western that is both mythic and poetic. The story about a cross-section of troubled passengers unraveling under the strain of Indian attack contains all of Ford's incomparable storytelling trademarks--particularly swift action and social introspection--underscored by the painted landscape of Monument Valley. And what an ensemble of actors: Thomas Mitchell (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as the drunken doctor), Claire Trevor, Donald Meek, Andy Devine, and the magical John Carradine. The films striking use of chiaroscuro lighting and low ceilings made the films action and story more dramatic and set the standard for all westerns to follow. It also made John Wayne a star.



John Wayne



"I won't be wronged, I won't be insulted, and I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people and I require the same from them."
 --- John Wayne - "The Shootist"