One Night at the Gaston
Forty years ago, black and white came together as one for a rock-and-roll movie in a Mount Holly theater. The author, now a rock-and-roller himself, was there, and he remembers the night with hope
I GREW UP in the town of Mount Holly, a place whose geographical location still survives while the town I knew, like so many of the people I knew, has left this earth forever. Cross the Catawba River now and you will find a neatly groomed little city with a couple of restaurants and bars, a coffee shop, a couple of banks, and lots of churches. It is safe, quiet, boring. There are few people on the streets, and still many abandoned buildings looking for a new wave of prosperity to put occupants into them. The town has recently benefited from younger, more progressive leadership. Lots of new people are moving in. Lots of new vehicles are jamming the roads. The U.S. National Whitewater Center has opened just across the river, and the city has hopes of becoming an eco-tourism location, even as its ecology is ruined, as the forests and fields, the farms and estates that once buffered the town from Charlotte continue to feed the developers’ maw. In the midst of this, like the descendants of Troy, we live and grow on top of the graves of the past, all the while digging our own.
My memories of the old town begin in the mid-1950s. It was a rough place to live. If you were a boy, you had to be ready to fight every time you left your house. I always hated it, but that was how it was. Still, we could roam the town, and the creek and riverbanks that ran through it, staying out into the night if we wanted to. There was less fear then. There were not so many lost, creepy types lurking about. People were more connected because they did not hide behind televisions and computers, or escape into cell phone conversations, shutting out the rest of life. There were crowds on the streets, especially on Saturdays, when people came in from the country to buy supplies, when blind guitar players with harmonica racks filled the air with carnival-like music, and legless men sold pencils on the curb. Once a circus came to town and erected a huge, beige-colored tent in a field beside Dutchman’s Creek, an industrially abused and now ruined body of water that flows down from Lincoln County to the Catawba. There were clothing stores, groceries, car dealerships, hardware stores, drug stores that also sold books and magazines, and boardinghouses and hotels. As I look back, there was still much of the nineteenth century left around then—the places, the people, the customs.
In the center of it all stood the Gaston Theater, the whites-only moviehouse where we white kids learned of another, bigger world. It was open every day, even Sundays. The Gaston was a cultural center of sorts. The types of movies shown there varied from lots of black-and-white B- and C-grade Westerns, war and horror movies, to blockbusters like The Ten Commandments or The Bridge on the River Kwai. There would also be some movies that we kids were not supposed to see: Never on Sunday, an Italian movie that I remember in particular, and about which I argued with the theater manager, dogging him hard about why I could not see this movie that promised lots of naked women and other good stuff in its preview. I never did see it.
The things I did see inside that damp, cinderblock building left lifelong impressions. It was where the fifty-foot woman first walked, and where Moby Dick wreaked havoc on the Pequod. I met Dracula there, Elvis and John Wayne. I saw the incredible shrinking man become small enough to climb through the holes in a window screen into a treacherous and frightening nuclear age. It was where God wrote the Ten Commandments on a block of stone. It was where the Red Sea parted then closed again on Pharaoh’s wicked army. And yes, Christ was crucified within those walls. I often think of those big Bible movies as responsible for the kind of fear that informs politics in this area, where people vote for politicians and even jury verdicts based on the directives of preachers and church leaders, lest a giant hand reach down and smite them.
Sometimes there would be live performers, like Fred Kirby, Saturday-morning Little Rascals Show hero, yodeler, horse rider, guitar-banging cowboy. For several years in the fifties, a stage horror and magic show came through every summer, a guy name Kira Kum, who wore a turban and performed magic tricks for the crowd. They would hit town early in the day and go to work. He would hire boys to put on skeleton and Frankenstein suits and walk around town with sandwich boards announcing the shows. I went once. I was frightened badly by it. The darkest dark I ever saw took over the theater. Even the fake-looking, glow–in-the-dark cutouts of Lady Godiva and James Dean that floated above the audience on wires took on a true, sinister, lethal quality. I felt lucky to get out alive. I sometimes wonder what happened to Kira Kum.
As I grew older, I grew cynical, harder to please, harder to fool with fakery and theatrics. I lost the child’s ability to believe the unbelievable. I became serious and observant, thus mercilessly critical. Such was I, on a balmy spring evening in 1965, standing in my parents’ front yard watching the mess that is our world pass by, when my friend Shannon Williams walked up and told me that there was a movie with Chuck Berry in it playing at the Gaston. Now that was good. That was something I liked. I had bought Chuck’s greatest hits that past Christmas. It was a piece of magic. A black vinyl disc with the Chess logo. The first time I had ever played it, when the pumping chords of “Nadine” had pushed out into the dusty light of my attic room, I had realized that if music could make me feel what Chuck Berry’s music did, life could end up being a lot of fun. So hell yes, let us go forth and see this thing.
The theater was less than half a mile from my house. Within minutes we had bought our tickets, sat down, and found ourselves watching The TAMI Show. Filmed in black and white, The TAMI Show was a movie of a live rock-and-roll concert that was held in Santa Monica, California. The lineup included Chuck Berry, James Brown, the Rolling Stones, the Supremes, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye with the Blossoms, Lesley Gore, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, the Barbarians, the Beach Boys, and others. We knew little more than that. I was there because of Chuck Berry, who to me will always be the King.
So Chuck did play and he did not disappoint. Yet, as has often happened in my fortunate life, having come to see Chuck, I came away with more. I met the genius of James Brown. I had never heard of him until that evening, but I will never forget the way he moved around onstage as if unseen forces controlled him. This was a black man with a kind of power I had only seen in spiritual leaders like Daddy Grace or Father Divine. He came off as more than an entertainer, more than a dancing, singing crazy man. He was shamanistic, although I did not know or use such words then. He was like a witch doctor, summoning forces from the unnatural world, somewhat as Kira Kum had done in that same theater, but more convincingly. The spirits were in my body, my feet moving, my eyes fastened on his motion and my ears singing back with an unknown tongue that said yeahhhh. Watching this man tear it up onstage and drive the racially mixed on-screen audience into a frenzy was beyond anything I had ever seen. All of the rules of singing, dancing, performing were being broken before my eyes, and reassembled into something wonderful, more amazing than the Red Sea parting. I do not remember much else of the other performances, even Chuck’s. The Rolling Stones had the task of following James, and they did not look comfortable or confident. Easily understood.
It was common back then, if you liked a movie enough, or if you were having too good a time to leave, that you could stay for reruns. I did that Thursday. I went back to the theater the following Saturday for more. Unbeknownst to me, and without any big deal being made of it, that Saturday was the first night that black people were ever allowed into the Gaston. Mount Holly had another theater, the Holly. It was strictly for blacks, just as the Gaston was for whites. The Holly sat across the railroad tracks and the highways that split the town. I am not sure what they showed there. Probably the same stuff we saw, but later. I was white and I never went.
I never understood the racial thing. The few black people I knew were good people. When I heard others speak hatefully and angrily of "n——-," I thought of these good people, and would usually offer an argument against that kind of thinking. I was branded a "n—– lover." Here on this Saturday night were more black people than I had ever seen except for a night several years earlier watching the Harlem Globetrotters and Meadowlark Lemon at the original Charlotte Coliseum (now Cricket Arena), or when driving through the heart of old Charlotte, down the old Independence Avenue that ran through long rows of houses and widely meandering streets running away from downtown and filled with Negroes.
In 1965 the Ku Klux Klan was very visible in our community. Rallies held in fields outside of town drew hundreds. Bizarre, crudely drawn, and slimy-feeling pamphlets and posters would spread from these rallies into the community. Blacks were portrayed as apes clutching terrified and beautiful white women in their hairy claws. Science was invoked to explain white superiority and the animal, subhuman nature of the black man. Even teachers and coaches at the local high school supported and espoused the Klan’s all-white version of America. It was natural, generational.
So where was all the hatred on this night? Where was the resistance to integration? Where was our little Governor Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, or our Lester Maddox chasing blacks away from his restaurant with an ax handle? From my vantage, and perhaps it was just because I wanted it this way, there was a mutual respect and a harmony among the young people who shared the theater that night. It was a vastly younger audience than might have normally been there, so maybe our prejudices, fears, hatreds were not as fully entrenched and developed as our elders’. It is also an inescapable conclusion in my worldview that rock and roll had the potential to cure us of the great ancestral curse of racism. Maybe I did not see the bad stuff, if it happened at all: fights in the alleyways, slurs in the bathrooms, insults in the back row. Not that night.
As the music proceeded on the big screen, a good and powerful energy built up. A youthful, celebratory exuberance took over the place. Walls had fallen and we knew it. At first, the black audience was quiet, shy, unsure; but as the show went on, they became very expressive and louder than we whites. Then, it was all one big hollering and yowling, big smiles, wild dancing, people of both races blissfully strutting and swaggering.
I do not know what had gone on at the Holly, but having grown up going to the Gaston, I, and all the white kids, knew that the manager had a crew of ducktailed tough guys only too willing to rough up smaller kids as they ousted them for various offenses: yakking, laughing too loud, running up and down the aisles. But this night, there were so many people, both black and white, dancing, hollering, having fun, that I realized I would probably not get caught. Then another thought hit me: what the hell if I do?! It felt good to hoot and cheer as the acts on the screen rocked the joint. It felt like the sack of Troy, or the wild worshipping of Bael by the wayward Israelites, except there was no Moses, no need for one, to hurl nuclear-tipped God-engraved stone tablets into our midst. This was a feeling I have since felt a number of others times in my life when I chose to defy authority: civil disobedience at its most enjoyable.
The high point of that wild and liberated feeling came during Saturday night’s last showing. James Brown was the instigator. Here he came again, just like he had during the other showings, wiggling and sliding and screaming and singing in a rich, far-ranging voice, riding the night train through Charlotte, begging, pleading, please, please! Falling and rising! I remember that the noise from the audience drowned out the music, that I turned around and looked behind me and I saw the writhing, dancing silhouettes of people—their race, their shading, their ancestry blurred and indistinguishable in the blue falling light from the projection booth. I felt a great, exhilarating hopefulness. We could get along. We could share rock and roll. We could share America. We could share our towns, our lives to come, our history, our goodness. A powerful alchemy was brewing up. This particular movie actually became a part of our immediate life, and we became a part of its immediate life, and the life of a nation as it began to slouch toward its destiny.
It goes without saying that I was overly optimistic, the way idealists and dreamers can be. What I saw as hopeful and good, a proud moment in the life of my town, was seen by most others as a sign of impending damnation. Racism has never died. In many ways it is worse than ever. We can all share the facilities, but we still have our hatreds, our irrational fears, and our rational fears based on bad experiences with each other. Yet, in that moment, as James Brown left the stage, and the Gaston shook with our exuberance, the fights and race riots of later days, the hatred I would later encounter in blacks toward whites, the enduring motivations of racism in our politics and in our social functioning did not seem possible. I walked home that night knowing that I had seen the future and it was good. Evil would not triumph.
David Childers was born and raised in Mount Holly and lives there now. He is a lawyer, songwriter, and rock-and-roller. His latest CD, recorded with his band the Modern Don Juans, is called Burning in Hell. It’s available at www.davidchilders.com.
This story has been updated from its original version.