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Revisiting the past through a film screen

I must admit that, as much as I love movies, I haven't been to a theater in several decades. But in my early years, there were times when I had seen every movie playing in Buffalo. Until the arrival of television in the late 1940s, nothing had shaped and influenced our attitudes and world view more than movies did. To a lesser extent, they still do.

Back in the '30s and '40s, Saturday was movie night for us. Having little money, we trekked to one of the local theaters that dotted the neighborhoods -- theaters like the New Ariel, the Columbia and the Commodore, where movies had their last showing before interment in a Hollywood vault, never to be seen again until miraculously resurrected at the end of the century with the invention of the VCR.

It's hard to explain the excitement I felt stepping under a blazing theater marquee into the lobby and whiffing the heady scent of popcorn, finding a good seat and waiting for the lights to dim, seeing the red, brocaded curtains swish open and the stiff beams of the light from the projector dancing overhead onto the screen.

It was a magic seat waiting to carry us off to other worlds -- worlds of shadows more real than the real world that seemed itself to be a two-dimensional black-and-white world of rich and poor, old and young, today and yesterday, with no expectation of a better tomorrow. Even morality was essentially black and white.

We were innocents then, with limited experience and knowledge. And although life seemed simple and stable, it was generally hard. Movies became our escape, our opiate. They were the stuff of dreams, where we shared the lives and adventures of movie stars. Hopalong Cassidy was my first hero, followed by Tarzan and Tyrone Power's Zorro. For the girls, it was the glamour of Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball and Betty Grable. How soul-satisfying these films were, yet so disappointing when they ended.

Because the gloomy Great Depression and World War II weighed heavily on us, movies were largely uplifting. For 25 cents (less for minors), we floated with Astaire and Rogers into the musical genre of the '30s and '40s, which culminated in 1952 with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in "Singin' in the Rain." Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello convulsed us with their antics.

We rejoiced seeing gangsters Bogart, Cagney and Robinson mowed down, teaching us that crime doesn't pay. Karloff's Frankenstein terrorized us and Cary Grant showed us class we could admire but knew we could never emulate. The visual scope of "Gone with the Wind" dazzled us. Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" startled us with new film techniques. Not until Marlon Brando came along in "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1951 did we fully realize the dynamism that could be expressed on screen.

To be able to sit before my TV today and watch movies I had seen in my boyhood is one of the rare rewards of the twilight years. It is strange to think that I am now older by far than all those stars of yesterday, who made such a powerful impression on my life and imagination. Stranger yet, I sit god-like, watching them move and hearing them talk, knowing their future and the fate that awaits them.

Is it the nostalgia I feel for the movies that were so much a part of my life and the lives of so many of my generation? Or is it really a longing for my own lost youth? Either way, reliving the past through old movies is a bittersweet pastime.

James Costa, who lives in Elma, cherishes the influence movies had throughout his growing years.

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