Image: a still from the Buster Keaton short film, "One Week." His co-star was Sybil Seely.
September 1920: Nothing is going to stop Vera Maude from catching Buster Keaton's latest two-reeler, not even a little dental surgery.
Vera Maude wasn’t going to miss it for anything. In fact, she re-scheduled her trip to the dental surgeon’s so she wouldn’t. It was Buster Keaton’s latest two-reeler, “One Week,” and today was her last chance to catch it before it left town. She came wobbling down the Avenue, hung a left at Pitt Street, and joined the queue outside the Empire Theatre.
While checking her purse she bumped into the man in front of her, a uniformed veteran.
“Pardon me,” she said.
He turned to give her what for but got softened by her saucer-sized hazel eyes.
“Oh - that’s quite all right,” he said, smiling and touching his hat.
“Am I shlurring?”
“I’m sure you have your reasons.”
“Dentisht,” she said, pointing to her face.
“Is he any good?”
“Didn’t feel a thing.” She noticed the empty sleeve folded up and pinned to his shoulder. “How 'bout you?”
“The line is moving.”
This from a very large woman standing behind her. The woman’s bird’s nest of a hat made Vera Maude giggle.
“What is so funny?”
The woman was talking down her nose.
“Nothing. Shorry, ma’am.”
The veteran, Vera Maude, the woman in the hat, and the rest of the queue took two steps forward.
“Gosh it’sh hot,” said Vera Maude as she counted her pennies for the fourth time.
“Indian summer,” said the veteran. "We really shouldn't complain."
It was Vera Maude’s turn to buy a ticket.
“One,” she said to the woman in the booth. “Did you fixsh the air-conditioning?”
“With these very hands, sweetie.”
"Enjoy the movie."
Vera Maude paused to examine the theatre cards that lined the entrance. She really had no interest in the feature – “Way Down East,” a picture starring Lillian Gish. Not to her taste. This afternoon it was all about Buster.
The smell of freshly popped popcorn was wafting through the lobby of the Empire. It made her forget about her filling. She stepped up to the concession.
While the greasy-haired boy behind the counter filled her bag, she giggled and said aloud to herself,
“That’sh all right, I’ll chew it on the other shide.”
“I beg your pardon, ma’am,” he said as he handed Vera Maude her purchase, “on the other side of what?”
She took the bag of popcorn and straightened up.
“Why, the other shide of the auditorium, of courshe.”
An usher positioned at the swinging doors had been watching Vera Maude since she walked in.
“Hey, champ, you got a seat?”
She looked behind her.
“Nope. Must have left it in my other pair of troushersh.”
“You’re a card,” said the usher.
“Yeah, Get Well Shoon.”
She was weaving a bit.
“You feeling okay?” he said.
“Never felt better. Wanna shee my filling?”
Vera Maude stuck her finger in her mouth and pulled her cheek back like she was drawing a curtain.
“Nice. Monogrammed and everything. Now, do you want to sit down before you fall down?”
“Lead the way.”
The usher held the door open for her.
“Love the uniform. Were you in Franshe?”
“Cute. I get that a lot.”
More giggles. She tried to keep an eye on the flashlight beam.
“Here you go,” he said.
The seat was near the aisle and about halfway down.
“Can you say sausage and sasparilla sundae?”
Vera Maude took a deep breath, closed her eyes and said,
“Shaushage and shashparilla shundae.”
The jangly piano music was starting up.
“Good,” the usher whispered. “That’s the password for the ladies’ room.”
“Enjoy the show - and behave yourself. Remember - the only entertainment allowed in the theatre is on the screen.
“Aye aye, corporal.”
She settled into her seat. When the title card came up, Vera Maude burst into laughter. Embarrassed, she stifled herself.
"The wedding bells have such a sweet sound but such a sour echo."
She placed a few puffs of popped corn on her tongue and then drew them in and chewed carefully. Heaven.
The newlyweds have a wedding gift coming to them from Uncle Mike - a new house and a lot to build it on. Everyone should have an Uncle Mike, thinks Vera Maude to herself. And now Keaton is straddling two moving automobiles, that is until a motorcycle scoops him up and then skids out of control.
“Blah ha ha…!”
This time Vera Maude's laughter was mixed with the rest of the audience’s.
"To-Day: Tuesday 10"
When the side of the unfinished house fell around Keaton like the side panel of a house of cards, leaving him standing in the window frame, Vera Maude lost it. Half-chewed popcorn and a cotton ball came flying out of her mouth and hit the woman seated in front of her in the back of the head. The woman turned around – it was she of the bird's nest hat from the ticket queue. Vera Maude sunk in her seat.
“To-Day: Wednesday 11”
A piano mover was walking down the street with an upright rested on one of his shoulders. Keaton confirmed the order, and when the mover passed the piano to him, Keaton was almost crushed under the weight of it.
“Wah ha ha…!”
“Oh, get off,” said a man in a grey suit seated near Vera Maude, “that’s not a real piano.”
That really burned her. Not only did this guy have no imagination, he needed to brag about it. And what was worse, the air in the theatre, cool and refreshing at first, was now thick with tobacco smoke.
"To-Day: Thursday 12”
Keaton’s wife was taking a bath and dropped the soap on the floor. There were whistles from the men in the audience. Just then a hand came over the camera lens, allowing the young lady to retrieve the bar of soap and save her dignity.
"Hey – she kind of looks like you,” said a fellow seated nearby.
“And you bear a shtriking reshemblansh” - she had to take another breath - “to whatever shtuck to my boot.”
"To-Day: Friday 13”
The unavoidable house-warming, accompanied by a terrific storm. As the spinning house spewed its guests, Vera Maude screamed with laughter which continued unabated even after the scene was finished. If she had laughed any harder she would have lost her filling. Instead she lost the rest of her popcorn.
The woman from the ticket queue was standing over her now, whispering at the top of her lungs, and some boys a few rows back were pelting them both with Maple Buds. The usher appeared.
“Sorry, champ, but people are complaining and I have to ask you to leave.”
Vera Maude was laughing with tears streaming down her cheeks, and the side of her face that still had feeling in it was starting to hurt.
“Ah ha ha…no! Ah ha ha…oh, I think I’m going to be sick...ah ha ha ha ha…quick - sashparilla something something…promise me you’ll tell me how it ends?”
“Sure, now if you'll just follow me."
She was leaning on him like a drunken sailor.
“Is this the first time you've walked a girl up the aisle?"
She still had a few giggles left in her.
"First time today - now mind the flashlight beam before you hurt somebody."
"Hold me close, corporal."
"I noticed you're losing your accent. You got someone I can call to come get you?"
"I'l be fine once I get outside. Hail me a streetcar?"
copyright Michael Januska, 2011