The movie poster for 1953’s The War of the Worlds. Inset photo: A Meccano box from the 1950s.
Below is Chapter Six of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s.
Every Tuesday over the next few months, Beach Metro News will post up another chapter of the book on our website at https://www.beachmetro.com/ for readers to enjoy. For more information on the book, contact Black at email@example.com
To see our earlier story on Black, and to read Chapter One, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/14/former-residents-book-looks-back-on-growing-up-in-the-beach-in-the-fifties/
Hard copies of the book BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s are now available locally at Book City on Queen Street East and Danforth Avenue and at The Great Escape Book Store on Kingston Road.
BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s
CHAPTER SIX: ‘And the occasional fire’
By KEITH BLACK
I know exactly where I was and what I was doing in the afternoon of June 5, 1954. I was sitting with several friends in the Beach Theatre on the south side of Queen Street, just west of Waverley Road and we were being scared to death.
It was hard to watch. The Martians in the movie The War of the Worlds based on a story by H.G. Wells, were attacking us. I will never forget it. I am not embarrassed to say that I was petrified; after all, I was only seven years old. In 1938 the radio version of the same story had managed to cause hundreds of thousands of grown-ups to panic.
The parents of the Fifties must have considered movie matinees to be the greatest of bargains. For 20 cents (15 cents for admission and five cents for popcorn) they got their child out of the house for an entire Saturday afternoon and they knew where he or she was.It has been suggested that Saturday matinees were a contributing cause of the Baby Boom. During that time we would be entertained by a cartoon, a newsreel, a serial film, and two movies. Sometimes they even threw in a “follow the bouncing ball” sing-a-long and we actually sang along; Yes, We Have No Bananas was a favourite.
The second feature that afternoon was a movie called Money from Home. Although I don’t remember that film, I think I know how we felt about it. I am sure that we really liked parts of it but no doubt found some of it to be almost as hard to watch as The War of the Worlds but for a completely different reason. It starred Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. Just the sight of Jerry made us laugh and his faces, geeky voice and his pratfalls had us howling. But that Dean Martin guy. He was always chasing some girl and ended up singing to or about her. Yuck! That’s when the boos and the whistles would start and we would flatten out our empty popcorn boxes and throw them frisbee-like at the screen.
How things change. A number of years later I found Jerry Lewis irritating but how I loved Dean Martin’s voice!
Most weeks there would be a Grade B crime or suspense drama of moderate interest or better yet a movie starring Abbott & Costello, The Three Stooges or The Bowery Boys. But the main feature got the most attention. The Thing from Another World, Godzilla, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Blob, Rodan, The Creature With the Atom Brain, Blood of Dracula, The Brain Eaters and the Giant Gila Monster; with titles like these, what’s not to like? Some were even in 3D such as The Maze and House of Wax.
The serial films were a staple of the Fifties. They were cheaply made black & white productions generally about 200 minutes long broken up into a dozen chapters with one chapter being shown each week. Each chapter would end with the hero or heroes being left in a seemingly impossible situation. The almost total lack of heroines warrants a “Fault of the Fifties” mention. The first couple of minutes of each episode would remind you what had transpired the previous week.They were cliffhangers. Radar Men from the Moon and Commando Cody: Sky Marshall of the Universe; we loved them even though the acting was atrocious and the “special” effects laughable.
We were fortunate in that we had two theatres to choose from, the aforementioned Beach and also the beloved Fox which is still in place on the north side of Queen, just east of Beech Avenue. Actually, we had three up until the latter part of 1953; the Lake Theatre was on the south side of Queen, east of Lee Avenue. I actually remember the Lake; I think it was a little shabby.On Saturday mornings we would pore over the listings in the Friday newspaper and debate our choices.
The father of one of my friends was involved in some way with the theatre business and as a result my friend and I would occasionally be admitted free of charge into theatres in downtown Toronto. This was later in the decade as our tastes were (thankfully) evolving and I remember taking the streetcar and subway to go to see movies such as A Night to Remember, The Defiant Ones, and The Bridge on the River Kwai.
The sinking of the Titanic, racial tension between escaping convicts, and the madness of a world at war were quite a step up from The Creature from the Black Lagoon. These would have been shown at the Imperial, the Downtown or the Odeon Carlton theatres and they too were quite a step up from the Beach and the Fox.
The size and grandeur of the downtown theatres overwhelmed me. When we entered those ornate movie palaces, particularly the Imperial, we were entering into a new world of grand staircases, majestic marble columns, elaborate curtains, spectacular art deco lighting and stunning murals. I had never seen anything like it. The magic and the fantasy were there before the movie even began.
But I didn’t have to leave home to enter into another magical world. Joe and Frank Hardy were good friends of mine. I spent many hours with them; they were amateur detectives. Another friend of mine was also a detective; his name was Sherlock Holmes. I had about 35 books detailing the adventures of The Hardy Boys and I read and re-read the four novels and all 56 short stories about Holmes (no one called him Sherlock) and his friend and chronicler Dr. John Watson.
Joe and Frank Hardy were to boys what Nancy Drew was to girls and I am sure that many girls felt that they had a friend in her.
The Hardy Boys books were supposedly written by Franklin W. Dixon who, in fact, did not exist. All of the books were ghost written with the first 22 (which I owned) having been written by a Canadian, Leslie McFarlane. Fortunately for Mr. McFarlane he went on to be a documentary writer and director, garnering an Academy Award nomination in the process, and a writer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I said fortunately because he was paid just $85 gor each Hardy Boys book! Mr. McFarlane had a school in Whitby, Ontario named after him and his son, Brian, was a host and commentator on Hockey Night in Canada for 28 years and has written countless books about the game.
The Sherlock Holmes stories were not ghost-written. They were written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who just happened to believe in ghosts. I knew all of Holmes’ cases inside and out and, at one time, started to write a synopsis of every character who ever appeared in a Sherlock Holmes story, a massive undertaking. In fact it was so massive that it was never completed and I don’t remember how far I got along with it nor do I know what became of it. But I sure would like to have a peek at it now.
A couple of friends of mine shared my love of the Hardys and Holmes and we often attempted to play at being detectives. These were ultimately totally unsatisfactory games, the problem being that we had no problems; no confounding mysteries suddenly appeared on our doorsteps. No one called us up to ask us to solve a riddle. We wanted to be detectives but we weren’t needed.We couldn’t create our own puzzle and then feel really smart by solving it.
We weren’t actually failures as detectives, but merely irrelevant. I am reminded of the young boy in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective who often declares in his rural English vernacular “when I grow up I be wanna be a detective”. Well, I grew up and I be not a detective.
I read a great deal and spent a lot of time in the splendid Beaches Public Library on Queen Street at Lee Avenue. Tom Sawyer (I think I too was in love with Becky), Huckleberry Finn, The Three Musketeers, and Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island and so many others.
But I was a kid of the Fifties so, yes, I read comic books as well although this was earlier in the decade. I was never a fan of the Marvel brand of Superhero comics; I was more of a Dell man that told the silly stories of Huey, Dewey and Louie Duck (Donald’s nephews), Scrooge McDuck and Little Lulu.
When I got a little older, I graduated from the 10¢ Dells and moved up to the 15-cent Classics Illustrated, the re-telling of literature classics in comic book form. I must say that I feel somewhat embarrassed as I describe this stage of my reading development and feel that I owe some folks an apology: Jack London, Herman Melville, Victor Hugo and Sir Walter Scott and others. Classics Illustrated were akin to reading War and Peace in 25 words or less….it had something to do with Russia. But I am pleased to say that I moved on to “real” books such as those cited earlier and have been an avid reader ever since.
Kids had lots of things to do indoors; I don’t remember ever being bored. I had a chemistry set. It was rather impressive; it contained dry chemicals, glass test tubes, vials and beakers, an alcohol burner, litmus paper, a thermometer, a magnifying glass, watch glasses, glass tubing, and a collection of clamps and holders. It also included a manual that described various experiments such as changing a base to an acid, distilling water, forming salt crystals, and turning solids into liquids and back again, etc. In short, a collection of truly boring experiments.
I wanted to make invisible ink which really worked. I wanted to blend chemicals so they would produce rapidly expanding gases that could propel a toy vehicle. And, I wanted to produce an explosive. Of course, none of my efforts were ever successful; it was difficult to produce an explosive for example when the primary ingredient at hand was water and I didn’t understand electrolysis. But, I spent many happy hours bent over beakers and Bunsen burners. After many years, the only thing that I managed to successfully make was….a mess.
I also had a Meccano set, a large collection of Tinkertoys and a good number of wooden building blocks. Meccano was the Lego of the day but instead of being plastic that snapped together, it consisted of varying sizes and shapes of red and green metal that were joined with (easily lost) tiny nuts and bolts. Tinkertoys were similar but were pieces of wood which were connected by inserting dowelling into precut holes. Incidentally, for a long time, Tinkertoys were produced in Fenelon Falls, Ontario, my mother’s hometown.
I didn’t actually use Meccano and Tinkertoys for their intended use. I was a master of improvisation. I had a long narrow smooth board (originally part of a bowling game) and I combined this with the Meccano, the Tinkertoys and some wooden blocks stuck together with candle wax as well as some plasticene (remember that marvelous stuff?) and wind-up motors which I had pulled out of toys and was able to produce some truly complex systems of channels, tunnels, lanes, lifts and chutes along and through which marbles rolled. I managed to keep the marbles rolling indefinitely though I failed to have any of the contraptions certified as the World’s first Perpetual Motion Machine, the wind-up motors having disqualified me.
Meccano and Tinkertoys were fine building sets but they really couldn’t rival another readily available and extremely cheap product; wooden matches. With a few boxes of matches and a tube of glue, large intricate realistic buildings could be constructed and they had an added bonus; they burned beautifully. On one occasion a friend and I took about two days to build a large three-storey building with windows and numerous interior partitions. It must have been about 16 inches square and nine inches high. We torched it in an empty lot behind his apartment. Play with matches? You bet! But we never ran with scissors.
But my friends and I did from time to time follow the rules and play indoors quietly in a non-revolutionary and non-destructive fashion. We played board games like Monopoly (although Monopoly games tended to drag on), Snakes and Ladders, Parcheesi, and Chinese Checkers. We played with miniature cars, Corgi, Matchbox and Dinky Toys. We had cars that had what were known as friction motors; cars that were wound up by repeatedly running them backwards on the floor and when you released them they took off at high speed. We had Slinkys, coils of metal which could “walk” downstairs. And we played with toy soldiers and marveled at the vivid pictures and animation in our Viewmasters.
We insisted (often without success) on eating certain brands of breakfast cereal which came with prizes in the box or instructed us to mail in the tops of boxes and, in return, we would become members of a special club with identification cards, badges and related goodies or they sent us neat toys like submarines, torpedo boats or navy frogmen which functioned realistically in a sink full of water on baking soda. “Please allow six weeks for delivery.” Six weeks was a long time to an eight year old and before long we had forgotten all about it which added to the joy when “it” arrived.
Dabble with chemistry sets but disregard the experiment instructions. Play with erector sets but don’t use them in the prescribed manner. Buy matches but don’t use them for the intended purpose. Why?
How often have you heard of a child having received a gift then he or she plays with the box more than the toy? The imagination of children is unlimited. A truck is a truck and it can only ever be a truck. An empty box can be anything that you want it to be. Imagination plus the ability to improvise creates a learning experience that also produces an incredible amount of pleasure. And the occasional fire.
To read earlier chapters of BOOM, please see below:
To read Chapter Two, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/21/chapter-two-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Three, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/28/chapter-three-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Four, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/04/chapter-four-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/