A little girl and the movies: A tale of growing up and becoming independent

Published 8:38 am Friday, July 29, 2022

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Contributing columnist

As a child growing up in Lexington, I was permitted to ride a bus alone from our home on Cramer Avenue to downtown from about 1949 (when I was 7 years old) to 1952. I remember having to take my younger brother, James, with me sometimes, but that would have been about 1952 after we moved to Mockingbird Lane.

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Looking up the street from that photo was the courthouse on the right across from the drugstore on the corner where I would get off the bus and walk to the Ben Ali Theatre to see the Saturday morning matinee – Superman and the Mole Men; Roy Rogers and Dale Evans; Flash Gordon; Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Audi Murphy, Sky King, Tarzan and more. Always showing a newsreel and a cartoon first. Sometimes there was even a real vaudeville act on the stage in front of the screen. I remember acrobats once or more. The movie may have cost a dime; no more than a quarter. Bus fare about the same. I caught the bus home at the courthouse. If it was raining, I would stand inside the drugstore across the street and watch for my bus from there. Once when I was a little worried about some man walking behind me, I went over there and the ladies in the drugstore watched over me until my bus came.

You may have heard of a dog that lived downtown – Smiley Pete, a sweet and intelligent black and white dog of unknown parentage. All the merchants fed him and looked after him. I always sought him out. Now there is a plaque on the sidewalk dedicated to him.

Between the courthouse and Ben Ali was Woolworth’s. Big ceiling fans. Big screen doors. (Ben Snyder Department Store had the same.) There was a donut machine that dropped circles of raw dough into hot oil. The mechanism would turn slowly and halfway around some sort of spatula would appear and flip the partially fried dough. When the donut came full circle, it was ejected down a short chute onto paper and I think it was sugared by hand. Probably cost a nickel and I always bought one! I’d stand there and watch the whole process in fascination.

I never carried more money than absolutely necessary. Popcorn was probably a nickel, too. But sometimes I did wander. That’s how I found out where the Greyhound bus station was. Very interesting! Always big buses coming and going. In the other direction on Main Street, past the courthouse, was the Strand theatre. That was not for white people and I knew better than to even peek inside.

It is hard for me to imagine today any little girl wandering around on her own at such a young age. But I did and it helped me to be quite independent, fearless, curious, outgoing. Not unlike the wonderful adventure I had the summer of 1949 when I ran away and stayed with various kinfolk in Latonia in northern Kentucky.

(That’s another story for another time.) Every day I visited various merchants at Rittie’s Corner where five streets converge. Shop owners seemed always glad to see me, talk with me and sometimes gave me a dime or quarter (to get lost!). As I did in downtown Lexington, I enjoyed talking with grownups who worked in the various places I explored.

But somehow, I never talked to strangers on the street.