Noe Valley Voice February 2000

First in Line for a Matinee on 24th Street

By Fred Lossman

I was born in 1934 on Jersey Street between Noe and Sanchez. Our neighbor, Mrs. Otten, took my brothers Ted and Bob for a walk around the Noe Valley until I, with the assist of my mom and Dr. Nast, entered the world. That home on Jersey Street was part of the Lossman family for over 70 years.

I can't imagine a better time and place to be raised than the Noe Valley of the '30s, '40s, and '50s. It was a magical time. It's also impossible to think of being raised in Noe Valley without reminiscences of the Noe Theater.

Hopefully, some of you will recall "The Noe" as I do.

I remember the competition on Saturdays to become first in line for the movie matinees. Many, including myself, would arrive at the theater -- on 24th Street where Just for Fun is now -- at least an hour and a half before the box office opened. We took great pride in being near the front of the line.

But before going to the matinee, I usually went to Joe's Candy Store (also on the north side of 24th between Noe and Castro) for my refreshments. Joe would put "U-No" candy bars in his freezer for me early Saturday morning so they would be "just right" when I picked them up about 10:30 a.m. Big Hunks, Love Nests, and Hershey's with Almonds were also high on my list.

The charge for a child's admission to the Noe was one thin dime. I recall being shocked one Saturday, after waiting an hour and a half, to learn that the admission had increased to 11 cents. I gave up my place in line, went to my mom on Jersey for an additional penny, returned to the Noe, and ended up the last kid in line.

There always was a double feature, a cartoon, a newsreel, and a serial (Captain Marvel, the Lone Ranger, or Flash Gordon). John Wayne was my favorite star, first in westerns and then in World War II films. He was a hero to us all -- bigger than life.

Speaking of westerns, a highlight of my memories is the day Johnny Mack Brown, one of the big cowboy stars, visited the Noe. Yes, he made a personal appearance on the stage.

And the Noe had loges. What were the loges? They were the fancy, upholstered seats along the sides and in the front part of the balcony. They cost about a nickel more. But I didn't sit there. I always sat on the main floor and couldn't understand why the balcony patrons were willing to pay the extra charge. I do know that the guys with Lucky Strikes or Wings tucked in the sleeves of their white tee shirts would usually go upstairs.

After the lights went out and the movie started, a strange phenomenon would occur. What seemed like fireflies would suddenly be visible in the darkness of the theater. As it turned out, the swarm was caused by the tough guys in the balcony flicking glowing cigarette butts onto the main floor. Often the movie would be stopped, the house lights would go up, and the manager of the theater would walk out onto the stage to chastise the delinquents and threaten to throw them out. Then the lights would dim, the movie would resume, and, of course, the "fireflies" would immediately return.

Sometimes there would be a delay in the start of the movie due to "technical difficulties." In order to display their impatience and to hurry up the person in the projection booth, the audience would begin stamping their feet in unison. Once again, the lights would come up, and the theater manager would step onto the stage and warn the audience about the danger of the balcony collapsing due to the vibration caused by stamping feet. This warning had absolutely no effect on the audience. The stamping would continue until the movie started, a victory usually accompanied by raucous applause.

There were ushers in those days. They were nicely uniformed and always had bright flashlights. Their duties included assisting patrons to find seats in the dark after the movie had begun. But more importantly, they functioned as monitors or security guards. They walked up and down the aisles disciplining patrons who were noisy or who were resting their feet on the backs of the chairs. An unwritten rule, however, decreed that they would not disturb the "young lovers" occupying the back rows of the main floor.

Ah yes, these seats were reserved exclusively for young couples in the early stages of love. I recall that it was morally acceptable to "neck," but certainly not to "pet." The nuances, which I still don't quite understand, were once explained to us by a Sunday School teacher at the Lebanon Presbyterian Church (now the Noe Valley Ministry).

Kids' contests were held on the stage during intermission. I specifically remember the yo-yo competitions -- Duncan, of course -- as well as the contests involving a toy paddle with a long rubber band and a small rubber ball. (What was that thing called?) The idea was to keep the ball bouncing for as long as possible.

But one of the most exciting events was the time a thoroughly drunk vagrant walked onto the stage during a movie. He ranted and raved and punched his fist through the screen. The lights went on, and he was arrested. Then the lights went out, and we watched the movie on a screen that now sported a visible tear.

Before he left to serve in the Navy, my brother Ted did something bad one time during a movie. From then on (according to family legend), the Noe Theater kept a picture of Ted at the box office so that the ticket-takers could refuse him admittance. Ted, now 73 years old, still refuses to confirm or deny this.

World War II had a big impact on life at the Noe. Bond drives, scrap metal drives, and various other activities at the theater promoted the war effort. With great patriotism and pride, as well as apprehension, we watched newsreels unfolding the drama of the war. Yes, even the kids watched.

After the war, I attended James Lick Junior High and then Mission High School. As I gradually gained in wisdom and sophistication, I drifted away from regular attendance at the Noe. Instead, I frequented the New Mission, the Grand, the New Rialto, and El Capitan -- all on Mission Street.

But...nothing ever compared to the Noe. No way!

Fred Lossman now lives in Nevada City, Calif., "but I try to make it back to the neighborhood two or three times a year to visit all my favorite places."