Friday, April 1, 2016

A to Z April Challenge: A is for Afton

Genealogists and family historians get a lot of satisfaction from chasing their ancestors’ stories. Finding a diary, a message on a postcard, or a photo with a name attached is like the sun coming out after a storm. One day we will be somebody’s ancestor. We need to leave our descendants a little bit of sunshine too. So here is my story told alphabetically: Growing Up in Cradock.


is for Afton.

Afton Parkway. Afton Square. Afton Theater.

I grew up in the 1950s-60s in a community called Cradock (more about that with the letter “C”) in Portsmouth, Virginia. Afton Parkway was the main road, sort of a divided “highway” on a smaller scale. It widened at Afton Square, the “downtown” of Cradock, where shops circled a small park. One of the main features at Afton Square was the Afton Theater.


Afton Theater
The Afton Theater as it looked originally
from The Portsmouth Star
Everyone went to the Afton on Saturday afternoon. For 25¢ we could sit on maroon vinyl seats and enjoy a movie in an air conditioned theater decorated in that grand old theater style: painted murals on the walls and velvet curtains that parted to build our anticipation with a newsreel, cartoons, or other short subjects before the featured movie began. Popcorn was cheap. So were the Good & Plenty, Jujubes, Milk Duds, and Necco Wafers.

What movies I saw at the Afton slipped from memory long ago, but I remember the ladies’ restroom clearly. It had a vestibule with a picture window where you could continue watching the movie while your friend was “occupied,” so to speak. If the movie was REALLY good, we sometimes hid in the bathroom so we could slip back in and watch it again for free.

My friends and I routinely pulled that same trick at the three theaters downtown. We could ride the bus and stay all day if we wanted. It was perfectly safe and our mothers did not worry. Was it the State, the Colony, or the Commodore that featured “Parent Trap” (the REAL one with Haley Mills)? One of them lost money on me that day because we watched it two more times for free.

Speaker used in drive-in theaters
from wikimedia commons
I did not catch any free movies at the Super 17 Drive-in although it was common for teens to hide in the trunk of their friend’s car to avoid the per-person charge. Going to the drive-in was a family outing for us. My sister and I would go in our pajamas and take pillows and blankets along. Daddy bought us some popcorn or Cracker Jacks at the concession stand. Then he attached that old speaker to the window and we waited for the movie to begin. The one movie I remember seeing at the Super 17 was “Dr. Zhivago.” The scenes in that movie just made me cold, so I snuggled into my blanket and fell asleep.

Commodore Theater
from wikimedia commons
Today the only movie theater from my childhood still thriving is the Commodore. It is a beautiful and historic building in the Art Deco style. The owner has tried to buy the old Afton to restore it like he did for the Commodore and make it a viable business once again, but he was denied. Non-profit groups have tried raising money to restore the Afton to show second-run movies or be a venue for Little Theater. Their efforts lost steam after a while and the groups died out. The fact of the matter is that the Afton is probably just too far gone. The roof has collapsed and weeds and animals have taken over.

The old Afton Theater
image from Google Maps
Pretty much all that is left is good memories of Saturdays with popcorn and a second show for free.


I advise you to advance to the A to Z April Challenge where you are assured of amiable company among the most affable artists and authors.

© 2016, Wendy Mathias.  All rights reserved.   

32 comments:

  1. Sounds like a lovely way to spend 'sneaky' time - in the theatre. Thanks for sharing your story. Welcome to the 2016 A to Z Challenge. A great start, thank you. Looking forward to reading more as the month goes on.Have a lovely weekend.

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    1. Yes, it was fun being sneaky back then. Thanks for the visit!

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  2. Oh Wendy I have so many happy memories of the movies when I was a child. We had a fantastic cinema in Canberra called the Center Cinema and when you were at the Candy Bar it too had a window into the cinema with sound so you didn't miss anything while the show was on. Enjoy your A to Z challenge! Alex from
    Family Tree Frog

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    1. Those were great times. Maybe it felt expensive to us then, but it's REALLY expensive to go to a movie these days.

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  3. You have captured the very essence of movie and theater going back in the day. Brought back lots of Milk Dud memories for me, that's for sure. My first movie in a theater was 'Gone With The Wind' at the Texan in my home town which has been restored and used for community events. Great start to the AtoZ Challenge, Wendy.
    Sue at CollectInTexas Gal

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    1. I believe we went to a large movie theater in nearby Norfolk for "Gone With the Wind." There was intermission half way through long about the time Scarlett vowed never to go hungry again. Perfect timing to go buy more popcorn and Milk Duds!

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  4. You were so lucky to have the choice of three cinemas, such a shame only one is still going.

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    1. If only one could survive, I'm glad it is the Commodore. It was always my favorite as a kid. It is large and glamorous. The balcony is the same as in its heyday, but the floor has been converted to tables and swivel chairs. You can have a light dinner during the movie.

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  5. Wendy, I like your take on our similar theme, though I can't say movie moments figured much in my childhood. I look forward to reading how you feature letters to come.

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    1. I feel bad not even remembering a movie to write about!

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  6. Looked like a great place to watch a movie! Similar experiences with my growing up and watching them in theaters like that. Back then you could stay all day and watch movies over and over and over again where I was. Perfect entertainment for hot summer days. I do like the touch of your theater to have the ability to watch the movie while waiting in the restroom. We used to live across the street when I was growing up to a drive in theater. We couldn't really see the screen, but did hear the movie; that was always interesting when a popular movie was there; jam packed roads trying to get into it.

    betty

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    1. That had to have been somewhat annoying to HEAR a movie but not see it.

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  7. Oh the memories! I loved Parent Trap also and was very inspired by Haley Mills antics. I remember going to the Drive In Movies in my jammies too. Ours had a playground and the kids would all play on the equipment until the movie started. Thinking back, I realize our pajamas must have been filthy by the time the movie started.

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    1. There was a play area in our drive-in too but I don't recall ever playing. Maybe the threat of dirty pjs caused my parents to forbid it.

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  8. We had a small theater called The Film Box. I saw many Elvis Presley movies there, and hits of the 60's. It was later renamed The Rex (how unoriginal) and closed in 2000. It still stands in good form but remains empty.
    Looking forward to your stories this month.
    My Genealogy Challenges.

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    1. I saw my fair share of Elvis movies, I'm certain. Thanks for the visit!

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  9. I didn't go to the movies on my own until I was in college. For some reason, it just didn't figure. I love the picture window idea so that you can continue to watch the movie.
    Finding Eliza

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    1. I guess your family stayed much too busy distributing flyers and attending political gatherings to see too many movies. LOL! But yeah, that window was amazing to me. It was like the greatest modern convenience allowing us to keep current with the movie.

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  10. My town still had a drive-in theater when I was a kid. I miss that theater. I prefer it to the movie theaters we have today, for sure! Thank you for stirring up fond old memories for me.

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    1. There was a ban on Drive in theaters in Quebec when I was a teenager. We had to go over the border to the US or to Ontario where they often played dusk to dawn horror movies. Finally when my kids were born they lifted the ban and they went crazy - ours was a 5 screen drive in. It was a cheap night out when the kids were young enough to sleep in the back of the car.

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    2. Thanks for visiting ShawnTe. What is your blog? I would like to return the visit.

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    3. Loved visiting your memories of the movies as I spent many Friday nights at the movies also, and always with popcorn and Milk Duds! Those were fun times. We lived through the best times of being safe wherever we were! I look forward to hearing more!

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  11. I've forgotten what going to the movies is like - I'm ashamed to say. This places seem far removed from the 'fleapit' I first remember.

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    1. I've gotten so that I don't like going to the movies. I just wait for them to come out on Netflix.

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  12. What great memories. Our little local theater was The Garden and I can remember my mom dropping us off and we'd see a movie (James Bond) and then go next door to the little department store to shop. Such an elegant place.

    My oldest daughter's first, and probably last, drive-in experience was at 1 month old when we took her with us to see the blockbuster, Jaws. She cried all the way through it.

    I love your theme this year and can't wait to read more!

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    1. Be forewarned - I'm not that interesting.

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  13. I can't say that I have fond memories of any toilets (rest rooms)!

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    1. It's not too late to develop some! LOL

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  14. How sad that the Acton is lost to the community.

    @cassmob from
    Family History Across The Seas

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    1. I thought for sure it would be saved until I saw pictures of the inside with the roof caved in. I couldn't recognize anything familiar.

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