Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and the way we were

The magic of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’

5 minute read
O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Kelly: It happened all over again.
O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Kelly: It happened all over again.
The week had been a total washout. One of my dearest friends had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My landlord, contrary to his “no pets” assurances, had admitted someone with two cats to our shared-housing family. And my middle-aged son was once again calling the Bank of Mom for a financial bailout I couldn’t afford without tying a rock to my own future and sinking into the murky waters of dependency.

On top of all that, it had been pouring rain for three days.

Thursday, after a mad dash to the market and a change of clothes, I checked my e-mail. A funny note from my cousin described her husband’s latest retirement project ”“ a screen house for their back yard. “Tell Frank to stop work on the screen house immediately and start on the ark,” I responded.

Then I opened a message from the Ambler Theater, reminding members about its summer series of old movies. Tonight they would screen a digitally restored version of Singin’ in the Rain. I had to go!

Surprise visit

I phoned the bank: 23 cents in my checking account. I opened my wallet: $52.17, a fortune that had to last until the good ship SS docked at Wells Fargo Bank, eight days hence. I needed gas. And an inhaler. How could I go?

Then I remembered my cousin Sally, coping with colitis and Crone’s disease in faraway Arizona. How could I not go?

I was in fifth grade and Sally in fourth when Singin’ In the Rain came to The Manor, that musty old theater on Chester Pike where we’d spent so many Saturday afternoons. On that Saturday, we’d already finished supper when Sally and her mother— Aunt Betty, my mom’s younger sister—stopped by for a visit. Sally and I were both surprised when the grownups gave us money and sent us off to an early evening movie. In retrospect, I suspect mother wanted some private time with Aunt Betty.

Our parents thought nothing of our walking to the movies— nearly two miles away— and returning home on foot after dark. It was 1952. No one had told them about stranger danger. We had our umbrellas in case the twilight drizzle turned to rain.

Twirling umbrellas

Feeling very grown up, we bought tickets and Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews, then selected our seats carefully. Although the floor was still strewn with trash, the evening theater was quiet, sans the Saturday afternoon racket of raucous kids shouting across aisles, tossing popcorn and sneaking each other into side doors.

A few moments later the lights dimmed, and we were mesmerized. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor were magicians, dancing up walls and through puddles, tapping out laughter and romance and happy-ever-afters.

Sally and I sang and danced our way home, red and yellow umbrellas twirling from streetlight to streetlight through the never-ending drizzle.

Fearful footbridge

We hesitated a moment when we reached the footbridge over the railroad, a scary prospect at night that involved climbing a double flight of worn wooden steps, then turning left into a dark tunnel sided by pleated black tin and lit only by a flickering fluorescent bulb. Deep down, we felt the atavistic fear that on the other side, just beyond our sight, lurked an unspeakable predator.

We listened carefully for trains. You didn’t want to cross that bridge while a train ran under it; the roaring and clacking and wavering walls would be terrifying. But that night, all was quiet. We held hands and ran across as fast as we could, turning down onto the empty steps with a sigh of relief.

We were fearless queens of the big screen — Sally, her neat brown pigtails flying and her blue glasses magnifying her slightly crossed brown eyes; and I, my Dutch-girl haircut bouncing and my homemade skirt swinging.

The audience cheers

I went to the recent Ambler screening, of course, stopping en route for $10 worth of gas and recalling times when we had pooled our resources for a quarter’s worth. Slipping into the last space in the parking lot, I walked through misty rain to the theater, skirting puddles.

The place was packed. Since I was already “in for a penny,” I splurged on a cup of coffee and a cookie bar, then found a perfect seat. And it happened again. The music and the magic. The audience around me ”“ all ages— giggled and applauded at scene after scene, then clapped and cheered heartily at the end.

Old photos

On the way out, I passed a wall of old black-and-white photos. A man who’d been studying them pointed out the original Ambler Theater and the town.

“They’re such a clear picture of how things were,” he said, “and who we were.”

I knew what he meant. Most of us were pretty poor then, but life seemed simpler, and sometimes wonderful.

The man’s wife joined us, and we moved with the crowd toward the doors, smiling as we stepped into the rain, opened our umbrellas and dashed to our cars.♦

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