It was a few weeks into my first year of college when I met Tim and Joe.
We were all from the eastern part of the country. Tim was from New Haven. He was of moderate height and had a somewhat brash demeanor. Joe was from Newport and looked like a blond version of “the Hulk.” However, despite his impressive size he was one of the most gentle and soft-spoken people I have ever known.
The three of us got along well and started spending what little extra time we had exploring the city of Chicago which was new to the three of us. One of those trips took us to the Clark Street Theater – a movie house that was in Chicago’s loop that specialized in running classic films.
The theater was open twenty-four hours a day and its standard schedule was to run double features back to back. It was a highly affordable evening of entertainment as the price of admission (with student ID) was only one dollar. The following Friday, they were going to start a Bogart festival. The two features that they were showing to kick this off were “Casablanca” and “The Maltese Falcon.” We decided to check it out.
We asked another classmate, Georgia who was a native Chicagoan, if she would like to accompany us. But she had plans to work on a paper. She did, however, warn us, “Whatever you do – don’t sit in the balcony. Strange and unusual things happen up there.” We were intrigued about her statement (to which she refused to add any details) but decided to follow her advice.
When we arrived at the theater, the main floor was tightly packed with movie-goers. We were unable to find three seats that were together. So we glanced up at the balcony which appeared to be sparsely populated. So of necessity, we took the stairs to the second floor and found three seats in the front row, Tim on the left, me in the middle and Joe on my right.
If you’re old enough you may remember that movie theaters frequently employed ushers. The Clark Street Theater was no exception. These young men were equipped with long-handled flashlights – but the purpose of this equipment was less to guide patrons to their seats than it was to wake up those street people who had come in to escape the fall weather and sleep overnight in the theater. The cost of general admission was two dollars – but the nearby flop houses on Harrison Street charged three dollars or more for a night’s rest.
Both Tim and Joe had seen Casablanca before but this was my first viewing of the film. I settled back hoping that it would live up to the enthusiastic reviews I had received from my two classmates.
We had gotten to the point in the film where Victor Laszlo goes to Rick’s office to ask him for the “letters of transit” so that he and Ilsa Lund can leave Morocco. At that point, a man wearing a raincoat (which he kept on) sat in the seat to Joe’s right.
Within a matter of seconds, timid Joe whispered past me to Tim, “Tim, there’s a hand on my leg.” Tim whispered back, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.”
The movie continued with Laszlo and Rick exiting the office and standing at the top of the stairs of the cafe. The Nazi colonel had begun leading his troops in a militaristic march extolling the virtues of the fatherland. Laszlo looks at the bandleader and says, “Play ‘La Marseillaise.’ Play it.” At this point, Joe whispered with a lot of intensity and a certain desperation, “Tim, the hand is moving up my leg.” Again Tim responded, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”
The free French in the cafe take up the singing of “La Marseillaise,” drowning out the Germans. At the conclusion of their singing the anthem, cheers emerge from the crowd and then there is a moment of cathartic silence.
At this point, at the top of his voice, Tim yelled out, “Hey, you. You take your hands off him. I saw him first and he’s mine!” As the man in the raincoat quickly ran from the balcony the entire theater burst into laughter. We watched the remainder of the film without event. When it ended we saw that seats were available on the main floor and we decided to watch “The Maltese Falcon” downstairs in the relative safety that it provided.
“Casablanca” continues to be one of my favorite movies of all time. Because of what took place my first time viewing it I can say it holds a special place among my lifetime experiences.
The three of us formed a deep bond which has lasted many years – and to paraphrase Rick’s line to Louis in the movie’s final scene, “It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”