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Jan Applewhite: Theater of Dreams

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 1/13/2002. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

In the glow of Hollywood's Golden Age in the 1930s and '40s, Jan Applewhite was among the farming people who flocked to the first movie theaters in Eastern North Carolina. Weary of the Great Depression, they crowded into small-town theaters eager to see a different world, more sophisticated, charming and romantic than a tobacco field. Many of those farmers fought tooth and nail to hold onto their land in the face of mechanization, world markets and federal farm policies that forced them to "get big or get out." But during my visit to her home in Durham County, Jan Applewhite -- mother, homemaker, artist, old movie lover (and wife of poet James Applewhite) -- reminded me that many others of her generation yearned desperately for a life beyond the farm, one that they often saw first in Hollywood movies.

In Jan Applewhite's words:
I was born in my grandmother's house on a little dirt road about three miles from Vanceboro. My mother and father were both the babies from large families, so most of the other siblings got larger bits of the farm. They had a very small farm, and my father hated farming. He absolutely hated it. I always figured I wouldn't marry a tobacco farmer. When I was a teenager and some son of a farmer asked me out on a date, I was not even allowed to do that.

I wanted to get away from that world. That world never seemed to change. They were only interested in their community. They talked about the farm, the family and the church, and that was it. And often it was not a kind world. It was very harsh, very judgmental, very painful. I've come around to seeing that there were good things about it, but I wanted to live a kinder life, a more refined life. I wanted a world like in the movies where people had books and piano music in their homes.

All during the '30s and '40s, we went to the movies two and three times a week. We'd go at night on Tuesdays and Thursdays and to the matinee on Saturday. The theater was a little cinder-block building right there on the main street as you drive through Vanceboro. I felt total delight there, totally lost and caught up in that world. It was beautiful. It was magic. It was bright and beautiful. My parents would sit in the back and I would sit up front with my cousins and school friends. Mother says I would laugh so loud she could hear me above everybody else.

I loved all the movies -- "Flying Down to Rio," Myrna Loy movies, Clark Gable movies, musicals. I even had sort of a fantasy, a daydream, that I would have a musical in the tobacco barn. The tobacco barn was going to be the stage, and, of course, I was going to be the star! Everybody would be in costumes, and I imagined these grand dance numbers and singing. It was like one of those Betty Grable musicals -- cultured, educated, polished. My cousins would have roles, and the hero was going to be dressed like Fred Astaire. It was a love story, with ups and downs, but in the end I'd meet the man I'd grow to love and marry. All those movies were like that.

We'd go every Saturday for sure. That's when we saw the Westerns. First, you'd get the news, especially during World War II. Then you had the serials. Oh, they were fun! They would be more like 15 or 20 minutes long. Most of the serials were Westerns. They were almost like soap operas, because they would stop just at a point when you were going to find out what happened next. The heroine would be in trouble on the railroad tracks! Or somebody's cattle were being rustled!

The serials were fun, but they didn't have the star power. They didn't feature the well-known actors like Johnny Mack Brown or Gene Autry. You'd see the serial on Saturday, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays before the show you might see "The Three Stooges" or "The Little Rascals," or cartoons like "Bugs Bunny," the very things you see on television reruns now.

My mother and my father would go, and we would often take one of my cousins. Both their parents were very strictly religious and would not go to the movies themselves, but they would allow their children -- my cousins -- to go with us. My grandmother and all of my aunts, except two on my father's side, were like that. They would just say it was sinful to go --worldly. They didn't try to keep us from going, but you could hear them talking amongst themselves. They thought wearing lipstick was sinful, too. To wear makeup, period, was sinful. All the girls in the movies wore makeup.

In my mother's day, they didn't have time for movies. They truly did not. The washing had to be done by hand. The cooking had to be done on a wood stove. The canning had to be done in the summertime, the killing of hogs in January. To live any kind of decent, ordered life, people were working all the time.

My mother was made to feel that if you were sitting down reading, you were wasting time. To this day, she cannot read in the daytime or she feels like she's malingering. I guess that's part of why it was sinful, because nothing came out of it except you were entertained.

In the '30s, the movies had this ideal of sophistication and high culture that I loved. It was an escape from the Depression, of course. In those movies money was no problem. Everybody had money and wore fine clothes, satins and silks. That was part of why we were so taken with the movies, because it took us out of our own lives. We were about as well off as everyone else around us, but it was the Depression and everybody was poor then. You wanted to be delivered from that world.

The movies were how I imagined I wanted my life to be. But perhaps that's the way it is for all children. You have a dream for your life, and then you have most people's lives, which have problems and painful things and hurtful things. The movies were total escape from everything that was bad, but I didn't think of it as escaping at the time. I tried to construct my life like the movies, almost like an architectural model, because the life that I saw there on the farm, the role models that I had, were not so awful, but they were much less than I hoped for and dreamed for.
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