I’m sitting at our local ex-auto repair shop, now a coffee house, sipping black coffee and wondering what I should do after I grow up which is bound to happen pretty soon, when I glance up at the grungy wall and, glory, there’s a poster for the 1950s monster movie Tarantula! Well, you know how one thought leads to another when you’re not gainfully employed and I says to myself, “Hmmm, I saw that movie.”
Slow dissolve to a rainy night on 25th Avenue, San Mateo, California, January 1956. I’m thirteen years old, a freshman at San Mateo High School, and I’m standing in a line with my big brother and the other cats and chicks in front of the Manor Theater. We left our umbrellas in Dad’s car because we despise umbrellas and all they stand for. So we were getting drenched.
My brother Noel and I are the new kids in town. We were from the city, twenty miles north. Our folks had bought a house out here in the stix only two months ago. I recognized a few kids but mostly I didn’t. There were a lot of high schools around here, Burlingame, Hillsdale, Serra, Carlmont – they could be from any of them. One thing I knew, I was a Bearcat and I wasn’t sure who else was. Put me at a disadvantage if some guy decided to chooz me. The kids weren’t hostile or anything but you had to be careful when you were a new kid. Fortunately, my brother was tough, a hood. Nobody messed with Big Red. I didn’t hate him any more, not like when I was younger and he would practice Indian rubs and full nelsons on me. In fact, I was growing my hair into a D.A. so I would look more like him. Pretty soon, the kids would start to call me Little Red.
This was my first monster movie and I could already see why they were so popular: only teenagers went to see them. Everybody in line looked like they were between twelve and eighteen. Past the ticket booth, kids swarmed into the lobby, into the theater, out of the theater into the lobby, run up to the balcony to see who’s there, run down again and into the theater, oh, it’s still the boring part, back out to the candy counter.
I hope you won’t be disappointed to learn that the best thing about Tarantula! was it’s name. Mainly the mad scientist and his morally correct daughter sat around the command center in the Mojave somewhere and talked how dangerous it was to have a giant spider walking around in black and white. The only good part was when the Air Force sent out Sabre Jets to blast the giant spider because it was heading straight for Los Angeles with evil intent. (Or was that the one about the giant ants?), I guess it could have been okay except for the boring script and crummy actors and bad direction and worst of all, cheap process shots of a spider supered over a desert backdrop. Hey, just because I wasn’t fourteen yet didn’t mean I would fall for that shit.
No, Tarantula! was a great movie because we might pick up chicks! What could be more likely? Actually, what could be less likely? I might be going on fourteen but I looked like I was going on twelve. But it didn’t stop me from wanting to pick up a chick if I could. Girls! So beautiful! So desirable! So impossible!
The trick was not to set your sights too high. I figured since I looked like 13 (this was optimistic), I just needed to find a chick who looked like 11. Then I’d sidle up to her row and just happen to sit down beside her. From there, fate must take its course. Maybe I’d just be really interested in that spider eating the jet planes but the, gosh, I just have to get more comfortable, so I would just casually throw my arm over the back of her seat. Then, when she started screaming in terror at the sight of a ninety foot tall black furry spider eating the LA I could comfort her. “Oh don’t be afraid little one” and then my arm would slip reassuringly down around her shoulders. After that, fate must take its course. Who knew? I certainly didn’t.
Trouble is, she just looking at the movie and ignoring me. She never looked like she was about to start screaming. I think she even laughed! What was she, some kind of monster? Or worse than a monster, maybe she really was 11. Maybe she was just a kid! Yuck! Who would want to make out with an eleven year old kid. Especially one who is totally ignoring you.
Meanwhile, the spider was marching on Los Angeles and the kids in the front rows started throwing popcorn boxes at it and then the kids in the back rows started throwing boxes at the kids in the front rows and the kids in the balcony started dropping popcorn on the kids in the back rows and it was lots of fun. Then the manager, Mr. Petanuchi, had to stop the movie and come out onstage and threaten to kick everyone out if they didn’t settle down right now so everybody did and we got to watch the stupid tarantula get burned up by napalm or maybe they dropped an atom bomb on it, and it was a pretty good evening even if not a great evening because I never did pick up a chick, although my big brother said he did and I didn’t know if he was telling the truth or not.
We drove home in our Dad’s brand new 1956 Plymouth down the rain-streaked El Camino Real and talked about the new one coming next week, Invasion of the Saucer Men! That’s GOT to be scary!