Ghosts of the Royale

I heard they’re tearing down the Royale Theater next week. You remember the Royale, right? Yeah, that’s the one – big fancy place with the heavy drapes and balcony seating. Old, too; used to show everything from plays to vaudeville until the Depression hit. Sat there, abandoned for years until Milton bought it in ’67 — or maybe it was ’68 — and converted into a movie house. That balcony was the place to be if you were on a date and didn’t care what the movie was.

But yeah, they’re tearing it down. A single-screen art house theater just couldn’t compete with all the big metroplexes these days, especially after Milton passed on. That really cut the heart out of the place. Damn shame. Wonder what’s going to become of old Zed.

What’s that? You don’t remember who Zed was?

I guess that’s understandable. He hardly ever came out of the projection booth. I’d been sweeping the aisles and selling popcorn at the Royale for six weeks in the summer of ’72 before I ever saw him.

Zed had a real bloodless look about him, paler than one of those celluloid ghosts of the French New Wave displayed on the screen. Hard to tell how old he was. Kids sometimes told stories about Zed the Ghoul, who haunted the Royale’s projection booth and back rooms, but he was really friendly. Just not very social, if you get my drift.

I see that look. Yeah, you’re starting to remember.

See, Zed had this condition, the kind of thing a person’s born with, where he was allergic to light. Really allergic. He could get a fatal sunburn just by going out in daylight for a few minutes. Even bright fluorescents were enough to make him uncomfortable.

Not sure if that was the exact reason he was so pale. But I guess there wouldn’t be much color in your cheeks, either, if you couldn’t ever go outside.

I tell you, though, for a guy allergic to light he was a helluva projectionist. Worked that rig like an engineer on a steamship. And smart as hell about it, too. Man could tell you anything you wanted to know about about bulb wattage or lens refraction or the various spectrums of light. It was Milton’s theater, but Zed ran the show, and under his stewardship no film ever melted, no audio track ever went un-synched, and no negative was ever scratched.

Man was an encyclopedia about movies, too. I’d sit up there on my breaks sometimes, and he’d tell me stories of old Hollywood or explain scholarly theories about cinema. He loved the movies more than anyone who ever bought a ticket to get in. I think for him they were a window into the rest of the world, in a way still photography never could be. Each life on screen was one that he could never live, gloriously illuminated by his projector.

Movies were his dreams of what a normal life could be. And there he sat, day after day, watching them through a light source powerful enough to kill him. Think about that.

You know the rest. The rise of the mall and the megaplex, the fading of public interest in art films and classics. Milton struggled to keep the business vital, but time takes us all, and after he went the writing was on the wall for the Royale.

Maybe Zed’s already found himself a good job someplace else. Hell, he’s smart enough to teach night classes in cinematography or film theory at a university somewhere. But my heart tells me he’s still haunting the Royale.

Sometimes I have this sort of dream, or maybe it’s a nightmare, I can’t tell: Zed’s there in the abandoned Royale, busy as usual in the projection booth while the wrecking crew sets up outside. He gets that big projector running, playing something by Bergman or Billy Wilder. He goes out onto that balcony, the same place where Myra Sims once let me put my hand up her shirt, but instead of sitting down he climbs up on the bannister, right in front of the projection booth. Into the damn dead center of the light from that xenon bulb.

At first there’s nothing, just a black silhouette on the screen. But then the light starts to burn him, burns him so damn hot and so damn fast there isnt even any pain, burns him right into the goddamn movie with the rest of the celluloid ghosts.

And when that first wrecking ball comes through the wall, there’s only a puff of smoke where a dream of light had been.

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