You know that aggravating feeling when someone describes something to you and then you can’t get it out of your mind? You can’t remember what you had for breakfast in the morning, but you remember this silly snippet of a conversation from weeks before.
When we were in Seattle last month, my friend Andrew referred to a scene from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Ben Blue giving the “okay” signal to Sid Caesar as they’re taking off in a very rickety biplane). For some reason, it stuck in my head. So when New Years Day turned out to be rainy and unscheduled, I pulled out the movie’s DVD.
I could go off on a whole Mad World riff about oh-so-serious director Stanley Kramer bringing oh-so-serious actor Spencer Tracy together with almost every comic from 50s television (Caesar, plus Milton Berle, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters et al), but not right now. This viewing – probably because of its timing – sparked a different set of Boomer memories, memories so distant and different from today that they almost seem unreal.
When my age was still in single-digit numbers, it was a family tradition to leave our suburban home and trek up to the big city – San Francisco – the week after Christmas each year. We would stay at the Hyatt on Union Square (before it was the Grand Hyatt) and take advantage of all the city had to offer during the holidays.
Imagine if you will a world without enclosed shopping malls and without movie multiplexes. They are so widespread now that it’s hard to remember a time when they didn’t exist. But I remember it vividly. If you want to see a first-run movie, you had to go into the city. In those days, just as today, studios would release their big releases in December to qualify for Academy Award consideration. My December memories are full of the widescreen splendor of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), My Fair Lady (1964), and – this is where we came in – It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
In addition to the movies, there would also be after-Christmas shopping. We already had malls in the suburbs – Stanford Shopping Center, with Macy’s and the Emporium and Roos-Atkins, had opened the year I was born. But I’m certain San Francisco had many more department stores in those days. In my foggier mists, I remember another incident that I doubt ever would have taken place today. For reasons unknown, my parents were in a hurry to go to a store called Dohrmann’s, and I wasn’t yet dressed. They told me to just meet them there.
Can you imagine a seven-year-old wandering the streets of Union Square today? I had to ask directions, but I eventually found Dohrmann’s and my parents without incident. Granted, I was an overly responsible child, but still … was the world really, really different then or are we just crazy with fear now?
This all ended right about the mid-60s. I know this because I remember a school field trip to the first widescreen movie theatre in the area, Century 21, to see The Sound of Music (1965). The following year, the first enclosed shopping mall was built in the area, with J.C. Penney as its anchor. Shopping was never the same again, and as I got older, of course, I stopped going to San Francisco with my parents and started going with friends.
I like the current world I live in, one of convenience, where I can see movies anytime I want and shop without ever having to set foot in a store. But I also treasure the intense memories of those holiday weeks. Seeing big movies on a big screen, confidently walking city streets by myself – the specialness of it all – belongs to a lost, lost, lost, lost world.