Chief Sunrise, John McGraw, and Me (Timothy Tocher – 2004)
“Rich in period detail, Chief Sunrise ,
John McGraw, and Me captures all the
personalities and excitement that
defined baseball in the era of Ty Cobb
and Christy Mathewson.”
We were ambling down 116th Street in a light drizzle when we stumbled upon the Regent Theater. “Ever been to a motion picture?” Chief asked. I’d been to nickelodeons a few times, usually when the old man wanted me out of the way so he could shine up to some woman. He always said the best thing about them was the sign on the wall that said Stay as Long as You Like. Once, when I was little, I sat through so many showings of a stagecoach being held up by Indians that I could still run the whole adventure through my mind without missing a detail.
But the nickelodeons had been small and raggedy with shaky camp chairs to sit on. Judging by the size of this place, it might be worth seeing. I looked up at the marquee. “Broken Blossoms,” I groaned. “Sounds like a girlie picture.” Chief pointed at the poster next to the ticket window. It showed one boxer smacking another on the jaw while the beautiful Miss Lillian Gish covered her eyes in fright.
“Looks like a sports picture to me,” Chief said. “Let’s go.” We paid our dimes and walked into a lobby made from shiny stone. Chief said it was Italian marble, and it had streaks running through it like a cat’s-eye I once owned, so he might have been right. The floor was covered with a soft, red rug that reached into every corner of the lobby. A man dressed like a banker out for a night on the town tore our tickets in half, and we walked inside.
Between my gawking and the low lighting, I bumped into the back of a chair. But the chair had so much padding that it didn’t hurt. We walked downhill, past hundreds of those padded chairs, all bolted to the floor in curving rows. When we reached the front, we flopped down and sank into that softness. I leaned back and stared at the stage in front of me. Instead of the movie screen I had expected, there were heavy red curtains with fancy pompoms hanging from the top. I looked up and gasped at the high, curved ceiling. Fancy, gold lights filled with dozens of glass lamps shaped like candles but run by electricity glowed in the dimness. The ceiling itself was painted sky blue.
Puffy clouds floated on its surface. It was like being indoors and out at the same time. There was so much to see that I was almost disappointed when the lights dimmed, the curtains parted to reveal a huge screen, and the show started. But that didn’t last for long. We were sitting close to the piano player, and –whatever happened on the screen, he put you right in the mood with his playing.
While we watched the boxer train, his hands thumped up and down on that keyboard like the boxer’s fists slamming into the heavy bag. But when Miss Lillian Gish, who played the part of the boxer’s beautiful daughter, came into view, his fingers tickled the keys ever so softly.
The boxer reminded me a lot of the old man. If he lost a fight or any little thing went wrong, he’d take it out on Miss Lillian Gish, just the way my father would get liquored up and come after me. Each time he hit her, I had to look away from the screen. My eyes flooded with tears, and I was glad Chief was so engrossed in the story that he wasn’t paying any mind to me.
For a while, it looked like things were going to work out for Miss Lillian Gish. She ran off from the boxer and met this Chinese man, who hid her and took care of her. He was a bit of an Ethel, sitting around writing poems all the time, but she needed somebody gentle after being used for a punching bag. As the weeks went by they fell in love.
I wish we’d have left right then. If I had known the ending of the picture was going to be so sad, I would have. Some Nosy Parker spots Miss Lillian Gish and tells her father where she’s living. He shows up, and when he sees that she’s in love with a Chinaman, he goes berserk.
“You’re a disgrace to the family!” it says at the bottom of a screen filled with his angry face. Then, believe it or not, he grabs her by the throat and strangles her. That piano player was banging outdeep, sorrowful chords that pressed down like lead weights on my chest.
It was stuffy in the theater, but my skin burst out in goose flesh, and I shook with cold. I swore right then I’d never go back to my old man. If he found me, I’d beg Chief, or John McGraw, or even a cop if I had to, to help me. I was worried that Chief might think I was a bird for letting a motion picture shake me up, so I tried not to let him get a good look at me when the lights came on. But I think he was as rattled as I was. He kept his face toward the window as we rode the streetcar back to our room. Neither one of us ever mentioned that movie again.