Friday, September 12, 2008

#71 Avalon--pt.3: The Little Red Wagon

Saturday mornings were the truly magical times at the Avalon, and it was on one of those mornings in 1952 that the resident Genie pulled a Radio Flyer out of thin air for this very young blogman right there on the very stage of the magical Avalon. "25 cents for 25 cartoons!"--shouted the TV and newspaper promos for the Balaban and Katz theaters (the former family also producing the fine character actor Bob Balaban, most notable lately in the Christopher Guest mock-movie ensemble, but also playing memorable roles from Jon Voight's homosexual "pickup" in Midnight Cowboy to Julia Louis-Dreyfus' frustrated, network-president suitor on Seinfeld--very recognizable, if you'll try to bring him to mind)--of which the Avalon was one among many B&K's in Chicago, including the eponymous one downtown in the "Loop." A shot of the Chicago Theater's huge marquee has always provided film-makers and documentarists a quick visual signal for "Hey, we're in Chicago now." As befitting, it was even grander than its neighborhood sisters, including even the Avalon, and often had the lock on truly first-first-run premieres, a week or two ahead of general distribution. This is why immediately upon finishing the original novel, Anatomy of a Murder, I couldn't wait. Up and out of the house and forty-five minutes by CTA bus...and "Elevated"...and subway (all for one dime)...until there I was in the around-the-block queue for the inaugural showing of the Jimmy Stewart filmic adaptation. Disappointed...but isn't that always the case when it's book-before-movie? AOAM got better with age, though, maybe mine.

But back to the Little Red Wagon--a small little story, too, but HUGE in memory, and, as it turns out, a story connected to a larger and larger one involving the entire South Shore in its final days, as we knew it. Anyway, arriving for the 10 o'clock cartoon extravaganza--and we're talkin' the nonpareil Warner-Bros. variety: nothin' but Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Elmer, and Pepe' le Peu--we pays our quarter, gets our ticket, and takes our seat for a couple or three hours of mesmerizing juvenalia that always ended too soon.

Then the drawing. Ticket numbers had to match maybe a half-dozen prizes, ascending in value from a yo-yo to a Schwinn. Didn't win the bike, but my number came up for the bright-red Radio Flyer. I was now that towheaded 9-year-old screaming "I got it! I won it!" over and over from the mezzanine. And "tow" I did for the 4 or 5 blocks home, and tow I did for my little sister till she didn't fit, and tow I did weekly for a pile of Southeast Economist's (a non-throwable-advertising-rag-and-free-to-every-home news-sheet) around my modest paper-route for several years. In fact, the thing never seemed to wear out--after many long years of use and repair, it was still around for garden-work at my parents' home in New Orleans, many miles and times away from its Chicago ground-zero advent.

But here's the interesting if tragic sidebar: the Genie who "materialized" that promotional wonder-wagon for me on the stage of the Avalon, and whose "Wee Folks Toys and Hobbies" was just up the street (and a regular hangout for little friends and relatives)--Emanuel "Manny" Lazar was shot and killed in a gang-related his shop, in 1970...after doing what he was doing on that Saturday morning for 25 years. And I believe his/my Radio Flyer lived approximately that long, too. What a guy...and I learned about all of THIS just a couple of days ago, while researching some minor details about the Avalon and Stoney. Already now I've spoken with The Daughter, got her autographed book overnight, and will add more to this story later.

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