Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Once Upon a Beach
I just learned that Curtis Willard died at the age of 80 on Monday. Curtis was a Fairhope character of a sort that we don’t see much of these days – a designer of his own life with the aim of doing the best he could with what he had.
He was a technical guy who had gotten his start as a projectionist at the "Fairhope," the movie house that used to stand at the corner of Fairhope Avenue and Church street, just one long block away from the center of the universe. He was to go on to have a career with WKRG-TV in Mobile, but in Fairhope he will be remembered mostly as the owner of the Beach, the world’s only “walk-in” theater, really four walls with a movie screen at one end, that stood in front of the pines at the southern end of the beach park, in sight of the Big Pier.
Curtis and his partner Steve Riggs had bought the set-up from a man who built it in Crichton, a Mobile neighborhood. It was just after World War II, and drive-in movies were the rage. Curtis and Steve thought the ideal location for such a structure would be on the beach -- and that the notion of a roofless movie house would go over great in Fairhope.
This is part of what I wrote about the experiment in When We Had the Sky:
Just having an open-air theater was a novelty peculiarly adaptable to the Fairhope of its day. Steve had to do a lot of physically taxing work, including installing a septic system in the sand (and having to take the take it up the hill to dump it in the city’s sewer system when full). But he and [his wife] Aline were young and game, and enjoyed the movie business on all levels. They liked choosing the movies, greeting the customers, selling popcorn, and having the movie house under the stars for their own. It was never much of a moneymaker, but they stuck with it for a few years. By 1950 they were ready to sell, and they had a buyer.
Their friend Curtis Willard, projectionist and film technician, was excited at the prospect of making a go of the little outdoor movie house, even though it could by definition only operate in Fairhope’s climate for three months of the year. There were problems built in – low financing for one, which didn’t stop anybody who had grown up during the Depression. There was also the rainfall table for the particularly geographical area; mosquitoes; and competition from the advent of television.
But in its favor was the magical atmosphere of the beach itself. People would sit through light drizzles, endure the occasional bite of a mosquito and the hardness of the benches, sit in front of a movie screen just after the sun went down, hear the tree frogs compete with the actors, and watch Ma and Pa Kettle Down on the Farm or other such innocent fare.
Before the picture, the managementwent through the aisles with one of the pump-style bug spraying apparatuses, wheezing poison into the air and amid the seats to decimate the pests. This did nothing to ameliorate humidity and even little to exterminate the flying bugs. But we had gentle natural breezes to mitigate our discomfort, and the Beach boasted a huge centrifugal fan attempting to blow insects away and acually cool us. Believe it or not, it actually seems almost cool at times…
It was said that if the movie was dull, you could just look up and view the stars for awhile. Years later I was to attend movies at Atlanta’s glorious Fox Theater, where a ceiling held twinkling lights and the illusion of passing clouds to simulate the heavens. In Fairhope in the 1950’s we had done them one better. We had the real sky.
The above is an excerpt from my chapter on Fairhope’s beach, of which the theater was just one part, and a short-lived one at that. Writing it afforded me my only meeting with Curtis Willard, a man with an impish, happy outlook on life. The rainy summer of 1953 had spelled the end of the Beach Theater – or at least the end of his participation in it. He sold it and it was run as an art film house for one or two more seasons.
Curtis seemed a man with a happy, fulfilled life. He lived 54 years with the same loving wife, Joy West, whom he had met when she came to work as a ticket-taker at the Beach. They had a four daughters and four sons, 25 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He looked to me like a grandpa with many a story to tell. I’m sorry he didn’t get to read about himself in my book, but others will and the Beach Theater will live on for a few years more.