Peter Chapa wrote this childhood reminiscence of Hebbronville’s
El Casino Theatre in 1973
El Casino was the Mexican cine or “el mono,” as most of the kids called the theatre. All of the Mexican townspeople went there, with an occasional gringo kid whose blond hair in that sea of dark was as outstanding as the rapid Tex-Mex he spoke with his amigos.
The movie house had a well-established sitting order. Towards the middle sat the well-to-do Mexicans of the town. Maybe they were reaffirming their middle-class status by sitting there, but probably the principal reason lay in the fact that an occasional seat still had the remains of a cushion with its now faded maroon imitation leather. The straw stuffing in the other seats was forever coming out through the many cuts inflicted by kids with knives. The single girls and the cantinera types sat towards the front on both sides of the aisle, and the three front rows were held exclusively by the kids.
The backseats were occupied by men who for some reason or other did not wish to sit with their wives. The balcony, which consisted of a few rows of seats, was reserved for couples going steady and for the clandestine affairs which were, of course, known to everyone in town. The loud cry of “Ay ya pa’riva,” whenever some girl walked up the aisle, was clear indication to all that she was going upstairs to meet someone. Finally, a smaller section of seats to the left of the center aisle was almost always occupied by high school students and the older single boys and girls.
The other theatre in town was, of course, where all the gringos went. The “Texas” was not segregated, but most Mexican families went there only on Saturdays for the double feature or for the midnight show, which generally featured a top-rate Mexican film or one of those “Adults Only” movies. They also attended on Sunday afternoons if the main feature was a Western; musicals didn’t fare too well. The manager of the Texas, although showing many movies that featured Mexicans in the roles of banditos and desperados, made up for this cultural gap by showing films of Duncan Renaldo as the Cisco Kid and his buddy Leo Carrillo as Pancho … “Seeehsco, you go, I stays heeear!” This quaint form of speech made every Anglo kid in school wish to imitate Pancho to the torment of most Mexican kids.
El Casino was different. The theatre was certainly as old as the Texas, but somehow it had aged with a kind of grandeur that can only be accorded to those famous gathering places where the continuous coming and going of people has left more than chewing gum stuck under seats, or a line of oily silhouettes smeared throughout the years by countless heads resting against walls. The outside of the building was of corrugated aluminum with a crazy-quilt patch design on the front. The roof was of tin and when it rained you could hear every single raindrop, and on a windy day the loose sheets would rattle with a loud metallic sound.
The ticket office was an isolated box, which we all said resembled an outhouse, with the familiar circular glass cut at the top and the half-moon bottom through which you received your ticket. The tickets were dispensed by hand from a huge roll hanging from a nail. Ten cents for kids, and thirty-five cents for adults.
I did not go to El Casino until I was seven or eight years old. We had free passes to the Texas, so it never occurred to me to go to another theatre. However, one day a friend of mine suggested we go there instead. Since father always gave me a dime to buy popcorn, I decided to use that to pay my way. The movie that Saturday afternoon was a Mexican western with a lot of shooting, drinking and mariachi singing, plus “La Revista Nacional” or “Los Acontecimientos de la Semana,” the weekly newsreel showing events taking place in Mexico and other parts of the world, and, certainly, the episodio, the serial. I was surprised that this particular western was in English dialogue. I had expected El Casino to show only Spanish-language films. It was a great one, though, with swords and black capes. Perhaps it was Zorro, but I’m not sure.
From that day on I became a regular patron of El Casino. I would go to the Texas for the early show and, in the evening, to the other theatre. When the old serial finally ended, the new serial that followed was really great. This one had Spanish dialogue and was called “Las Calaveras del Terror,” and it would take yet another episodio to recount their adventures.
But the serial that followed is perhaps the one that has remained in my memory the longest, though I don’t recall the title. I do remember that one of the characters, Cy Kendall, I think, was confined to a wheelchair, and the girl that wheeled him around, played by Victoria Horne, was called Lopa, and she was a half-breed Indian princess ─ or something as equally mysterious. When the masked hero, who was unknown to everyone, emerged from his secret cave on a mission of rescue and high adventure, riding on his black horse at breakneck speed, his signal which struck terror in the hearts of all bad men was a shrill, loud whistle that sounded something like “Ti-ti-ri-ti-reeeee.” It was great! Everyone cheered when from afar you could hear that exhilarating sound and you knew that someone was about to be saved from the fate worse than death. The sound actually caused goose pimples on your skin, and your hair stood on end on the back of your neck, and everyone would stomp and cheer. I think that Lopa was the masked hero because the rider on the horse was slim, and the guy on the wheelchair was fat. I never saw the end of that serial.
The episodios and the Mexican films weren’t the only thing that attracted people. Entire families came: babies in arms, kids just learning to walk, aged grandparents who could hardly see or hear, and who were constantly asking in a loud voice to whomever was at their side to explain the action for them throughout the entire showing. The children had some particular advantages. If a child had to urinate, he simply did so on the floor and the little stream would trickle to the front of the theatre and under the stage. This practice, of course, gave El Casino a very peculiar odor, not offensive but rather pungent. This smell was fortunately offset by the penetrating and appetizing odor of the popcorn, a buttery aroma so great that you simply had to get up and buy a bag every time you heard the popcorn popping. The esquite was so salty and delicious that by the time you reached your seat you had usually devoured the entire bagful ─ and it was only a nickel! The popcorn bags were generally perforated so that you couldn’t pop them, but if you inflated the bag by blowing very hard so that the creases were fully extended and immediately slammed it with your free hand, you could get a loud bang ─ but not always.
Another good feature of El Casino was that it served as a social gathering place. A lot of people didn’t come to see the films but to congregate outside, sitting on the fenders or running boards of cars and pickups or simply squatting on the sidewalk or leaning on the wall. The older men were continually rolling cigarettes from packs of Bugler or Bull Durham, while young kids waited to get a few puffs from the discarded shotas, or butts. The older boys were either waiting for some guy who had already been given the word that someone was waiting for him outside to settle a fight, which had earlier that day been broken up by a teacher during recess at school.
There was as much drama going on outside as there was on the screen. The raspa vendors were a group that created a lot of excitement for the movie-goers. At first there had been only one snow cone vendor outside. The one old man carried his fifteen-cent block of ice in a wheelbarrow and had it wrapped in a brown burlap potato sack. He used a hand ice scraper and sold his raspas for a nickel. He had two flavors, which were either cherry or strawberry, and lemon or pineapple; one never knew for sure what these flavors were, and you simply asked for a red or yellow raspa.
However, his monopoly was soon broken when a second vendor appeared on the scene. This one had a two-wheel cart with a large assortment of flavors, and to these he added crushed pineapple on top for an extra nickel. A third vendor also appeared, but he wasn’t allowed by the other two to sell his snow cones under the theatre awning and had to content himself with doing business from a storefront across the street. The verbal fighting between the three men became furious, generally fanned by drunk loafers who had nothing better to do. The vendors were always on the brink of actual fistfights, although all three were very old men. The scoops became bigger and bigger, and the flavors multiplied. Multicolored snow cones with pineapple were not unusual.
Everyone had his own vendor. Since I knew all three men I would generally buy a raspa from one of them when I went inside and, later, come out and buy from another. And if I still had some money left, buy one on my way home from the third vendor. Business was slow for all three, but they were all nearly ruined when a fourth vendor moved in. The new man came equipped with an electric machine which crushed the ice to a fine powdery consistency. The crushed ice fell into a glass box that had “Snow Cone” printed on it, in fancy red and blue letters. The different flavors were dispensed from metal containers that squirted the liquid when a plunger was pressed. The other vendors had their different flavors in old whiskey bottles or those big gallon jugs of soda syrup that had been discarded by the local drug stores. Everyone was fascinated by the new machine and sales dropped for the other three vendors. But eventually everyone returned to their old favorites, although by this time the fifteen-cent blocks of ice had diminished to the five-cent size.
The best attraction offered to the patrons of El Casino was that everyone could come and go as they pleased. You could walk outside to get a raspa, take a smoke, go for a ride with your girlfriend, check on the sleeping children in the car, settle an argument, or go to a nearby place to buy a bowl of menudo, and then walk back in. You merely told the owner, “Voy a comprar una raspa,” or “Horita vengo,” and with a wave of his hand and a smile he would say, “Esta bien.”
Another wonderful aspect of the theatre was that if you didn’t have the right amount of money to go inside the owner would overlook that and say, “Despues me pagas,” and, of course, no one ever paid him the amount owed. He would always let people come in, sometimes by looking away from the entrance and letting you sneak in or by pretending that you had actually been inside all the time and were now returning to your seat with a raspa in your hand. He never refused anyone entrance. He was a good man.
As to the Mexican movies, they were tremendous. Cantinflas always filled the theatre with people and laughter. Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete as Mexican cowboys always played to a full house. Arturo de Cordova and Jorge Mistral were of a later period but equally popular in sophisticated dramas and decadent love affairs. Carlos Lopez Moctezuma, that venerable old villain, of course always played the villain. Sara Garcia and Doña Prudencia Grifell were always playing opposite one another in the roles of abuelitas, the old grandmothers, one from an aristocratic family and the other from the wrong side of the tracks, whose grandchildren had become romantically involved.
Their films were good and dramatic, filled with anguish and death
The Soler brothers were the Barrymores of Mexico: Domingo, Julián, Andrés, Fernando, and Mercedes (I’m not sure that was her name, and whether they were all actually related, but they always played opposite one another, sometimes in incestuous relations that raised questions in my young mind). Their films were good and dramatic, filled with anguish and death. And there were also Tin-Tán y Marcelo, Resortes and Tongolele, the great exotic dancer that attracted as many women as she did men.
It was a great theatre. People laughing and babies screaming, boys fighting for seats, ladies quarreling, spit balls flying, and popcorn bags popping everywhere. When a moth or bug landed on the lips or nose of the hero in what always seemed the most critical moment of the film, laughter ensued, quickly followed by a hail of wadded paper flying towards the screen to hit the offending insect. It was a fantastic and beautiful scene, and again, that wonderful laughter.
There was not a dry eye in the theatre when Libertad Lamarque was recognized by the son she had given up for adoption, or when María Félix died from unrequited love in the arms of the man who had spurned her (it was at the foot of a great cross). Since everyone knew each other in the theatre, it was easy for everyone to become emotionally involved. If the scene was extremely sad the women would begin to sob loudly, clutching their husbands’ arm or hand and wiping away tears with large white handkerchiefs. Even the kids grew strangely quiet; the only sound that could be heard, besides the sobbing, were the suspiros, the deep sighs of the crying women, “Ay…ay…ay…”
The emotion sometimes became so intense during certain scenes that when the images started to fade away, as they generally did during every performance because the projectionist had gone outside on the roof to get out of the hot room and have a smoke in the fresh air and was therefore not there to replace the carbon (which was used until it burned up), everyone would slowly begin to lean forward in their seats, all of them holding their breath, trying not to make a sound that might jar the fading image into nothingness. The rows of seats, of course, had long ago become unhinged from the wooden floor, and as the people leaned the entire section, unknown to them, would start to go forward, and just when it was on the brink of toppling over with all its occupants, some woman would give a sharp cry of “Ay Dios mio!”, and the startled group would lean back to a teetering position to be followed by loud heckling and laughter from the entire audience, including themselves.
People always came early to the show. Few of the families had cars, and early in the afternoon you could see large processions of moviegoers walking towards El Casino. This early arrival time gave the comraditas plenty of time before the feature started to exchange gossip and to get a good seat. As people came in, they would be recognized by someone in the theatre and would stop and chat in the aisle, invariably causing a traffic jam. Sometimes they would simply call to their friends from across the room, inquiring about someone’s health or a bit of gossip; this way everyone got to listen in on the conversation. Of course, all the young children had to be patted and touched on the face to ward off “el mal de ojo,” the evil eye.
Gossip and murmurs from the audience always reached a peak when the local cantineras, the barmaids, arrived wearing the loudest makeup and flashiest clothes. The catcalls were immediately unleashed from men and boys, matched by the reshuffling of seats as matronly ladies and old maids made a deliberate show of disapproval by moving to other sections. The cantineras, who generally had families of their own and were good mothers, even if their hearts were not entirely of gold, enjoyed all the attention they received, and encouraged the males in the theatre by increasing the sway of their hips as they walked up and down the aisle, or continuously applied makeup to their faces during the entire course of the movie.
Seats were always breaking and rows overturning
Seats were always breaking and rows overturning. After the show started, people coming in late would call out to their friends to locate them, and the people sitting would holler for them to get out of the way. Other times some local drunk would meander his way down the aisle and, after bumping and stepping on everyone in a row, would finally reach the one empty seat in the middle and proceed to fall all the way down to the floor. “Chingaooo!", he would loudly curse as he recovered himself, and again proceeded to work his way to another section or out of the theatre, this time to a thunderous ovation from the ever enthusiastic audience. Everyone had failed to tell him that the seat was broken.
There was a continuous commentary on what the actors were doing, or not doing, on the screen. Someone always interjected his own dialogue, which at times was more humorous and original than the script; generally it was in reference to someone in the audience. The laughter would follow, and when it finally died down, someone else would pick up the joke, this time with something added, and the laughter would commence anew, eventually muffling the sound on the screen.
Sometimes a mother would get up and walk down the aisle to slap or spank a misbehaving child, her own or someone else’s. There would arise a great chorus of cheers for the mother, or boos and cries of indignation from the audience who would scream, “Ya era tiempo,” or “pick on someone your own size,” and again that laughter.
It is difficult to recapture all of those happy scenes. So many things happened during the course of one evening that one generally went home remembering all of those events and forgetting all about the movie.
El Casino has been closed now for many years, but sometimes when I pass the nailed boards upon its faded corrugated front, I know that, among the dust and broken down seats, laughter rings inside and a smile of “Esta bien” awaits.
Peter Chapa © 2018. All rights reserved.
Peter Chapa lives in Hebbronville, Texas.
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