Home video crushed the Montmary Theater. For twenty years it changed hands, over and over, always for less money. My friend James Bone finally bought it.
The Montmary was an old-school movie palace with a giant Art Deco lobby and a smooth tall façade. The building gleamed over downtown Marais, except it was dirty.
My wife and I broke up just before James picked up the Montmary. She and I met in college. We married as soon as we graduated. After that I got a MS, in education, and she went to medical school. Something about one of those programs crashed our marriage. It was probably medical school. So that's on her.
On the other hand, I moved out first. We weren't in love anymore, and we knew it. Still, getting a divorce broke… both our hearts… so that's on me.
The Montmary runs back the depth of its block on Sacket Street across from Harris College. There's a service alley behind Sackett, except where the theater interrupts it in the middle of the block.
After James bought the Montmary, he knocked holes in the walls so he could access that alley. He rented car parking in the theater lobby to merchants downtown and to clerks and secretaries from City Hall. The Historical Society freaked out, but they couldn't do anything, because he was working with the interior of the building.
He had room for twenty cars in the lobby. He charged seventy dollars a month. I rented a space myself for a couple of years, after my wife and I broke up. James and I grew up together, and he offered me a place for nothing, but I paid. Marais is a lively town - we have the college, and we have a whitewater river. We're in the Blue Ridge Mountains so it's very scenic. And James is in real estate here, and he's made some good deals. But usually he has cash flow issues.
Harris College is right there, across the street from the Montmary. The college has an active Film Club. It used to screen movies in a biology class with fiberglass seats and shitty intercom speakers.
Their faculty advisor, Alice Cobb, was an economics professor but she loved movies. She was a beautiful, intelligent, focused woman, with red hair and pale skin and a sexy chubby body. She did a great job advising the Film Club.
James was dating Dr. Cobb for a while, and she hooked him up with the Film Club. They started renting the theater part of the Montmary.
After getting a divorce I went through this period of buying old motorcycles and taking them apart and selling the pieces on the internet. I already owned an old BMW motorcycle from the late 1970's. It used oil, the brakes were a little weak, and the foam was collapsed in the seat. I drove it the beer store but that was about it.
On Craigslist I found a guy with a bike like mine, with a locked up engine, for sale cheap - I bought it and took it apart and used some of the parts. I sold the rest on the web.
Then I bought another bike and took it apart too. I started advertising on Craigslist for old BMW's. That's when I rented a parking space from James. I was living in a garage apartment, and I needed a location to take apart motorcycles.
I guess I bought ten or twelve more bikes over the next two years. They call these old BMW bikes: airheads. The heads on their two cylinders stick out like wings, and the motor is air cooled, so they're called airheads.
You don't find old airheads on your block or down your road. From Marais I traveled all over the southeast.
I bought a bike from a drunk kid at a storage unit outside Washington DC. His dad let him sell it and keep the money. The kid called me three or four times while I was on the road to DC. Each time he called, he was a little drunker. When I arrived at the storage unit he was waiting with his friends. They were sixteen or seventeen. They were swaying like palm trees in a slight wind. The bike was in the dad's name, but the kid forged the signature on the title.
Movie-house curtains hung off the lobby walls in the Montmary Theater. They were dark-purple polyester, in a velvet weave. City Hall workers cut out panels from the curtains and made dust covers for their cars.
The lobby floor was fine white tiles with a blue trailing vine motif. It was beautiful but it was cold. I cut a big square from a curtain and made a folded pad to sit on while I disassembled motorcycles.
There was a long mahogany concession stand against a wall of the lobby. James uprooted and nailed it to a corner of the screening area. The Film Club converted it to a bar. The Historical Society freaked out about that too. He wanted to rip out the seats in the screening area, to make more parking spaces, but the floor was wooden in that part, and it slanted. It wasn't strong enough for cars.
At first James was just sleeping with Dr. Cobb and obsessed with her body, but then he fell in love with her, and he was hoping she would marry him. But she got a job offer from Florida State, down in Tallahassee, and she dumped him and moved.
James thought a lot of Dr. Cobb. The Club didn't have cash when they moved to the Montmary, but Dr. Cobb worked out a creative leasing deal. The Club paid a box office percentage in place of a monthly rental. Before they came along, James was considering selling the Montmary, or burning it for insurance.
I bought a parts bike from a guy in Morehead City North Carolina. He had a sidecar attached to the actual airhead he drove. His wife drove a Ducati, which is faster and racier than a BMW. They had a ten year-old daughter, and she loved that sidecar. They did their vacations with the kid in the sidecar.
The Film Club showed foreign movies Sunday nights, and Hollywood classics on Monday and Tuesday. They had newer movies, whatever they could afford, for Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
They tried the concept of Erotic Evenings to fill their open space on Wednesdays. This was semi-dirty mainstream movies, especially from the rawer nudity period of the 1970's and early 80's, with a semi-respectable plot line, but raunchy as Dr. Cobb thought they could get away with in Marais. Naked people on a big screen basically, with a decent sound system.
Dr. Cobb thought it would be a popular cheap date for Harris College students. But it attracted too many Sally County weirdo's, that lacked ironic distance on the material, that wacked off in their seats while they were viewing the film.
The Club sold draft beer and cheap wine from the transplanted mahogany concession stand. They had snacks of course. They did children's matinees in the afternoons in the summer.
After Erotic Evenings crashed, Dr. Cobb invented Wednesday Travel Night – usually a BBC documentary about a certain place, plus an old movie set in that location. You got two free glasses of cheap wine if you arrived in a group of four or more. Dr. Cobb had the idea to target women's groups, like Garden Clubbers and Junior Leaguers, if they felt like slumming a little. She thought it would build support in the community after the disaster of Erotic Evenings. Usually someone from Harris College gave an introductory talk to make the whole thing seem more respectable. That concept went over, and they often had good crowds on Wednesday evenings. The Clubbers and Leaguers tended to arrive composed and a little snooty and listen to the introductory talk and drink the two free glasses of wine. During the documentary they started buying, and during the feature they got hammered and enjoyed themselves.
I bought one airhead not ten miles from Marais, from a guy over in Aeria – he had an ad in the Sally County Flyer instead of on Craigslist. I called and got instructions to his house and drove over. He was on a paved driveway on a county road that was chicken houses mostly, and overgrazed pasture. He had a two-story brick house with an equipment barn and a big fenced garden. A burly guy in his mid-forties with black hair and a lined forehead. He looked flushed when he answered the door. At first he wasn't polite.
But he was enthusiastic about machinery, and we talked about that. He had a couple of interesting tractors in his barn. He had a big Mercedes from the late 70's, a real autobahn car, under a canvas cover. He told me it once belonged to his parents. His dad owned a couple of sewing plants in the countryside nearby. He showed me a nice triple-axle equipment trailer he designed and welded himself.
The motorcycle was a mess. It was wrecked, and the front end and frame were badly bent. The top of the tank was crushed flat with the frame. But you could see it was low mileage and well cared for, before the wreck - the engine and transmission and wiring were in great shape. We bickered over the price and he finally took three hundred dollars.
He had a front-end loader on one of his tractors. We set the motorcycle in the bed of my pickup. "My little brother died on that bike," he said after it was loaded.
I was wondering what bent the frame and crushed the tank that way. "Sorry," I said.
"Twenty years ago, in a crossroads. A car hit him. He was on his way to work."
I noticed the battery covers on the bike were still in good shape. I needed a set of battery covers.
"The car braked before they hit. He went down and slid on the road. He was probably all right, but he hit a retaining wall, on the side of the road."
I looked at the gas tank that was flattened from the top. The guy's body must have done that.
The guy was looking too. "My brother babied this. You got a deal," he said.
"Thank you," I said. Three hundred - wasn't such a bad deal. Parts are expensive on old BMW's. But it was a hassle disassembling everything, selling individual pieces. Not that I minded - I got into it, for a couple of years.
"I'm done with it," grunted the guy. "We'll go find the title."
I was glad to hear he had a title. Sometimes you only get a bill of sale. The frame was bent, but I could sell it with a title. A lot of guys do custom work on old BMW's and they need a frame with a good title. They weld the part with the ID number into their custom bike.
We went to his house. It was fall and it was a cold evening. A fire was burning in the fireplace. A sofa faced the fire. The guy's wife was on the sofa.
She seemed tall and kind of fine-boned, with dyed brown hair… I didn't get a good look at her.
But he introduced me, and she turned as I stepped over to shake hands - my god there was so much pain on her face – it shocked me - we faced each other - I had no idea what to say to her.
She was a little younger than her husband. Hurt made her face look drained, like she was a serious drinker. Her husband was rummaging in a desk. He found a folder and took out the title and signed it.
"You put the name and date," he said.
That's fairly customary. You don't register the bike if you're not going to ride it. When you resell, the new person writes their name on the form and goes to the tag office.
I thanked him. I glanced at his wife. I had no idea what was going on. They must have had a terrible argument - the husband was flushed when he answered the door – anyway I took the title and got out of there.
I had to cut the frame with a hacksaw to pull the motor and transmission. That was a hassle. But the wiring harness was in nearly perfect condition, I installed it on my own bike - except there was one break at the headlight switch, where somebody spliced the headlight wire, and they did a poor job.
I repaired that. I wondered if the little brother, riding through the crossroads, on his way to work, had lights before he crashed. I wondered if I should tell his big brother, but I never did.
I set aside the parts I needed and sold the rest. A guy that works on old Russian copies of airheads, they're called Urals and Dniepers, bought the title and frame for fifty bucks. I threw in the crushed tank. He built custom tanks, but he could use the gas fittings and the cap mount.
I was at the Montmary one night six months later. I'd just bought a bike from a guy in West Virginia. He was riding it, but the transmission locked up, and it sat on his carport several years. It was a Wednesday Travels night. I was disassembling the bike and taking a look at the transmission.
At the Montmary you bought tickets from a little window on Sackett Street. You entered the lobby, where the cars parked, and walked to the theater part.
I had half the transmission apart. The back wheel of the bike was still in place, and the engine was in the frame. People passed through the lobby on their way to the movie.
The tall wife of the burly guy, the one with the dead brother, walked through with three or four Junior Leaguer types. They all had the same dyed brown hair.
I think there was a Fellini movie that night, shot on location in the early '50's. I remember that Dr. Cobb was still in town, because she was doing the talk about the settings.
Anyway the wife of the burly guy noticed me on the floor, in my parking space. I was surrounded by transmission pieces. We said hi and she gave the bike a close look.
But she signaled to her friends that she hardly knew me and they kept going to the theater. I didn't think anything about it.
Most people used the Hoyt Street exit at the bottom of the theater to go out after a movie was over. But these Junior Leaguers came back through the lobby. They were unglued on wine and talking in loud voices. I had the broken transmission organized on squares of drapery on the tile floor of my space. The wife stopped and pointed at me and the bike.
"Look that's my first husband's motorcycle," she blurted.
"That was Matt's motorcycle?" said one of her friends - in designer jeans, plus glaring white basketball shoes - she'd had work done on her face - all of them crowded closer. It wasn't even the same motorcycle.
The wife flashed that shocking painful look on her face. Her friend in the white shoes grabbed her arm. Her friend muttered, "Oh Annie." They bumped each other. They were both pretty drunk.
So this Annie was married… to the dead little brother… before the burly guy! I was processing that.
Annie was staring at the bike. She looked terrible. It wasn't even the correct bike! This one had the broken transmission, from the guy with the carport in West Virginia! He was a high-strung old guy, some kind of evangelical, anyway he talked about religion the whole time.
I wanted to tell her, this is not the correct bike. I didn't have the nerve.
I did keep her wiring harness and battery covers, and also the drive shaft, but that stuff was installed on my bike already, which was back at my garage apartment.
She was crying a little and she stooped and picked up the speedometer. She examined it and turned it in her hand. Her shoulders were shaking. Her friends surrounded her and patted her.
"Why don't you keep that?" I suggested.
This hurt me, because you get two hundred bucks easily for these old BMW speedometers on Ebay. Even ones that need repair. The speedometer and tachometer are together as a cluster. The cluster on her first husband's motorcycle, that she thought she was holding, was very badly banged up in the wreck, but I still got forty bucks for it. A guy needed the internal parts.
"Take it," I said.
She nodded by way of a thank you. She had a canvas bag on her shoulder. She glanced at me and shoved the cluster in the bag. Her friends were close to her. They all left the lobby.
It's not like I needed that cluster anyway - I had a better one, from another bike. With every bike I bought, I kept the best stuff, to use on my own bike. It was like whales that swim with open mouths to filter the seawater for krill.
I haven't seen Annie since then. I gave up the parking place at the Montmary and the garage apartment. I'm with somebody now, and we have a house. She likes bicycles not motorcycles.
The Film Club has incorporated as a non-profit. They have a formal lease from James. He overcharges on the monthly rental and donates back a certain percentage, which he claims on his taxes. The Club reupholstered the seats in the screening area. They're talking about starting a restaurant in the former lobby part.
James stays in touch with Dr. Cobb. He's been to Florida to see her. She promises she'll come for the restaurant opening, if the Club makes that happen.
James is working on it. He'll have to close those holes in the walls, that access the alley, if the Club starts a restaurant.
The Historical Society is very happy about a restaurant. Most people in Marais like the idea. I suppose Annie and her friends will come after it opens. The mayor has parking in the lobby - he'll have to give that up - but he's for a restaurant too.
These movie palaces have so much context. More than a church. We should keep them going, the best way we can. That's a vision almost everyone agrees on.
Harvey Sutlive lives outside Athens, GA. He is working on a novel about avoiding bad luck. His stories of Marais have appeared frequently in Offcourse