The Block Island Times
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Another Rainy Tuesday

By Martha Ball | Aug 31, 2013

The days of summer run together by August, but I know it rained two weeks ago because it was the day of the Historical Society House Tour. I had signed up for an earlier shift of hostessing at one of the houses on the loop and could have avoided the whole wet mess had I not had visiting relatives who wanted to do the whole thing, which, of course, they could have before the rain had they been willing to stir before I left the unthinkable hour of 8:30 a.m.

They have left, both rounds of them, these people whose laundry I am still finding —how on God’s Green Earth so few people over so few days could produce so much laundry is a mystery, I didn’t even know I had twenty-four washcloths! More importantly, the toaster is back in the back-back of the cupboard where it will live until their next visit, when we will surely go through the same “did you throw out the toaster?” ritual. Yes, I did once upon a time discard a rusty old thing I never used, one I was convinced — as I remain believing — drew inordinate amounts of electricity.

“Did you notice the road?” I asked my brother upon his arrival, meaning could he possibly have missed the truckloads and truckloads of fill put in last winter, the first time since we were children any more than a random dumping of sweepings had been deposited to combat the huge hollows and following lagoons. It is no longer a pass-at-your-own-risk drive. That there was grass growing up in the middle was his sole observation.

My brother, years older than I, learned to play golf on the Vaill golf course. I handed him the low-tech grass whip and told him to go practice his swing. Uncharacteristically, he did.

The night’s downpour turned to morning showers and now, as the day turns to afternoon, the promised clearing cannot progress beyond a slightly foggy uncertainty. This Tuesday rain was supposed to stop mid-morning and as noon approached the feel of the day was shifting slightly although the forecasters were much less optimistic than they were earlier, casting this iffy weather into tomorrow.

There is a noon matinee, a summer kids’ movie, playing at the Empire. The sky is relenting as the show’s end nears, the sun may be out by the time the plaza is flooded with the clamor of children who have had to be quiet — or some approximation of same — for the duration of the feature.

These matinees have become a part of rainy summer days over these past twenty years, so much so I wonder if people have let slide from their memory the years the Empire stood dark and empty, waiting for another hungry developer and/or a wrecking ball to seal its fate as the place they used to show movies.

There is a photo of the Empire taken in the winter during the period it was shuttered and closed year-round, a project too big and impractical for any current day developer. The old Taffy Tent was literally sinking into the ground, the current gallery space was covered with red lined paper and the only thing posted in the spaces for upcoming is a yellow condemnation notice.

That it would come back as the Empire seemed unlikely at best. The place marked “church” on old insurance maps — the place the Roman Catholic summer population gathered before the big church of St Andrew was built on Chapel Street — with the stage from which some of us graduated high school, the movie house whose opening and closing with the one time Drug Store soda fountain across the street was the one time ultimate arbitrator of the start and end of the summer season seemed a thing of the past.

Twenty years I realize is greater than the lifetime of the kids in the matinee this afternoon, perhaps longer than the Block Island memory of many of their parents. This old theater with its high and wide wooden interior has always been a part of their summer.

Most of the people coming out as the sun begins to break through the clouds do not remember the old Empire with the wooden seats and the projector that everyone expected to stall at least once during a film, giving the audience license to stomp the floor in protest. They do not remember the place Pete Seeger and his crew sang the first summer they sailed their new sloop Clearwater and local summer theater productions. They did not experience the first hopeful attempts of a new owner when the old seats were replaced by the not so gently used red ones still in place today, gotten, the story went, from another newly closed venue, nor the fully expected but nonetheless surprising year the theater simply did not re-open.

It is only us older folks who remember when Margie of Margie’s Stage Door was part of Larry and Margie O’Keefe who ran the movie house more than the flamboyant lady who peddled elegant junk. Others might remember the next owner and his trademark black and white paint, and the last, a summer kid whose best intentions were undone by over-reaching, on whose watch the building went dark, and was eventually condemned.

Today’s visitors take for granted the smooth, shiny floor, not realizing how it had dulled in the decades after its long ago use as a roller-skating rink. They may not know all the seats were removed, generations of gum scraped from the wood before it was sanded and refinished, most but not all of the seats returned and reset so there is much more space between the rows. It was the tip of the iceberg that was the task of bringing the Empire back to life, all done under the hand of the current owner, yesterday and a lifetime ago.

Most of all today’s visitors take for granted, as we did when we were children, that the big movie house on Fountain Square will be here next year.

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