It was early 1980. Ed and I were constant movie-going companions. During this period, he and I would see around a hundred movies a year together. We had certain favored theaters that we patronized frequently – the Americana and Towne theaters in Southfield, the Showcase Cinema in Sterling Heights, the Maple in Birmingham, and the Renaissance Theater downtown come to mind – but it’s fair to say that there were certain theaters to which I was willing to travel that Ed was not. More to the point, there were parts of town that Ed refused to go to.
Although we often saw movies at modern movieplexes, Ed and I shared a love for musty old non-renovated movie palaces that dated back to well before our births. Even in 1980, there were very few of them left, and most of the ones that were still open had either been drastically renovated or had been cut up into two or more mini-theaters. The worst of that lot were places like the Gateway on Van Dyke, which had been twinned without re-angling the seats, so that one was actually facing the corner of the room and had to turn one’s head to see the screen properly.
A year earlier, in 1979, a film called The Warriors had been released. It was a gritty, violent film about street gangs. My older brother and I decided to take it in. It was his idea to drive over to the west side of Detroit and see it at the Mercury Theater. Why there? Well, this film was apparently inciting gang fights inside and outside of the Mercury and was generating a lot of florid media coverage. As two young, invincible people, my brother and I thought this might be kind of neat to witness first-hand, so off to the west side we went for a late-night showing.
The evening was disappointing on a couple fronts. First, while the movie was kind of interesting at times, it ultimately kind of sucked. Second, there were no more than a few dozen people in the audience and they appeared to have come there to see the movie and quietly leave. There was nothing whatsoever untoward going on inside or outside of the theater. On our way out, we noted that there was actually a Detroit Police mini-station located right next door to the theater. I began to strongly suspect that the media reports had been heated up to sell papers – “If it bleeds, it leads” is the old saying. Oh, there’s no doubt that there was a lot of gang activity going on in that part of town. But not that night.
There was one thing about the evening, though, that was an unqualified hit – the Mercury Theater itself. It was an un-renovated movie palace that looked as if it dated from perhaps the early 1930s. It seated over a thousand and appeared to be in reasonably good repair. That alone made our trip more than worthwhile, at least for me. I knew that Ed would love the place as much as I did, but I also knew that he’d never agree to journey to that part of town. And so a plan was hatched…
A few months later, The Fog, directed by John Carpenter, opened. Ed and I agreed that we would go to see it. This was the chance I’d been looking for. We planned to take in a weekday matinee at the Beacon East Theater across from the Eastland Mall. Ah, but I saw that there was also a matinee showing of The Fog playing at the Mercury. I insisted on driving that day. Ed got into my car and I drove to the end of his block. I should have turned left onto the main street if I were going to the Beacon East, but I turned right, heading into the city.
“What are you doing?” Ed asked in bewilderment.
“We’re going to see The Fog, remember?” I said blandly. Now I was on I-94 speeding westward into the heart of the city.
“Where are we going?” Ed was getting panicky now. “Turn around! Where are we going?”
Perhaps it was Ed’s mind racing with adrenaline that made his senses keener than normal, but much to my surprise, he quickly surmised that we were heading for the Mercury. He had remembered my rhapsodic description of it from months earlier. Now he had a specific object on which to focus his panic, which only made things worse. He beseeched me for several miles to please, please turn around. I kept my eyes on the road and said as little as possible. At some point, Ed resigned himself to his fate. Only then did it become clear, as I had suspected all along, that a large part of his fear was not for his own safety, but rather for the reaction his parents might have to finding out that he had journeyed to That Part of Town.
We parked on the street less than a block from the theater. On the way in, I pointed out the police mini-station to Ed, which seemed to ease his mind somewhat. Just as on my trip there with my brother, the showing was sparsely attended, and the streets and theater were utterly quiet. As I had hoped, Ed was utterly beguiled by the beauty of the old theater. After the movie, when we got back into my car and started homeward, Ed just said, “Thank you.” That moment was just what I’d been shooting for, and it made my day complete.
I was reminded of all of this yesterday when I came across that very film, The Fog, while channel-surfing. I suppose it isn’t a terrible movie, but neither is it terribly good. It stars Adrienne Barbeau, who achieved early fame on the sitcom Maude and who has done a lot of stuff since then, very little of it seen by me. She may well have become a terrific actress over the years, but she sure wasn’t one when she made this! She is abetted in this effort by Hal Holbrook, who plays his part as if he wishes he were somewhere else. The other cast point of note is the presence of real-life mother and daughter Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis. The Fog is by no means the worst horror film you’ll see, but when you have to use adjectives such as “sluggish” and “clichéd” to describe it, well, that’s not a good sign.
One final note, in the spirit of fairness – Neither Ed nor I are the same people now that we were then. Ed has become a very successful teacher, actor, and recording artist, and has journeyed to places far scarier than the Mercury Theater. As for how I’ve changed… well, I don’t live in Detroit anymore and I do not presently have a driver’s license, so you needn’t worry about me pulling such a stunt with you!
(and yet, an evil snigger could be heard in the distance…)