Ike and Mama and the Once in a Lifetime Movie
By Carol Snyder – 1981
The movie matinee is the high point of the week for Ike Greenberg and his friends on East 136th Street in the Bronx. Even the newsreel is full of surprises now that it’s 1920 and the war is over. So when Herbie loses his two cents’ admission, the other boys think up a scheme to sneak him into the movie without paying. Somehow things go wrong, and Ike, his cousins and his friends Danny Mantussi, Tony Golida, James Higgins and the Murphy brothers are in big trouble.
When Mama tells them they must put matters right, Ike has to come up with another plan, one that will earn them all some money. Then he remembers that the great director D.W. Griffith is actually making a movie only a bike ride away.
Ike and his friends bring their scheme to a triumphant conclusion, surprising and delighting their families, in a funny and heartwarming story. The lively illustrations are by Charles Robinson.
The Once in a Lifetime Movie
Ike almost gave them all away with a shriek of joy when he saw what was sitting on the three tall wooden legs. It looked like three boxes sitting one on top of the other, with a big, thick rubber band stretched along the side. But Ike knew it was the Pathe movie camera. His heart beat with excitement. At least he’d gotten to see a real camera. One dream had come true. He’d worry about getting home in this snow a little later. It couldn’t hurt to watch for a little while. And maybe they could still be extras and earn a dollar-fifty each. That was a lot of money. A dollar and fifty cents could buy 600 pounds of potatoes, even, Ike figured. But what would make Mr. Griffith choose them? Ike wondered, waiting for an idea.
Morton Weinstein poked Ike and pointed, “Look at that beautiful lady,” he gasped. “Isn’t that the lady with the sad eyes. The one from the busted movie . . . Busted Flowers?” “You mean Lillian Gish, the star of Broken Biossoms?” Ike had barely said the words when he realized Morton was right. It was Lillian Gish, and next to her, standing at the doorway, was a man Ike knew must be “a somebody of importance” because even Miss Gish listened to him, saying, “Yes, Boss.” Ike had never seen such clothes. The tall man wore a heavy camel coat with a thick belt with double holes in it and big cuffs. He had striped knit gloves on his hands, and he smoked a cigarette. His wide-brimmed hat, his nose and his finger all seemed to point in the same direction.
“That’s gotta be Griffith,” Ike whispered to James Higgins. Ike’s mouth stayed open. He couldn’t believe he was really seeing the famous Mr. Griffith from the Pathe newsreel, the man in charge, the man with the money . . . and Lillian Gish, yet, a real live movie star. Wow!
“Yeah,” James answered, shivering with excitement as well as cold. He buttoned his top button.
“Shoot it, Billy!” Griffith spoke to the cameraman through a megaphone, and Ike and the boys jumped at the loud sound.
“What the heck is that?” Bernie grumbled. “It looks like a witch’s hat with a hole at the point.”
Ike looked at the megaphone, then his attention turned again to the camera and he listened to its comforting whirring sound.
“Build a fire, Billy,” Mr. Griffith shouted. “Build it under the camera so the oil in the camera doesn’t freeze.”
And Billy listened, yelling, “Yes, Boss.”
Everyone listened to Mr. Griffith.
Then, Ike noticed that other people had walked from that distant car he’d seen and now stood near the camera. But they were not filming and they were not acting. They, too, were watching, and there were kids among them.
“Hey, guys,” Ike said, pointing to some other boys. “Looks like we’re not the only ones who want to be extras. How are we gonna get Mr. Griffith to ask us.7” Putting the problem into words made Ike think of an answer. “Let’s help that man, Billy, build the fire.” So they politely offered to help. But still, no one asked them to be extras.
A man on the crew clapped a piece of wood on top of a slate and said, “TAKE NUMBER ONE.”
Miss Gish was already standing at the side of a building which was painted to look like a general store. She had a dark cape wrapped around her and a kind of stocking cap on her head. And she carried a basket.
“Silence!” Mr. Griffith’s voice bellowed through the megaphone, “Not even a word!” he added, pointing his finger at the onlookers, then touching it to his lips.
Ike thought the way he said that sounded like Mama. So he was sure everyone would listen. And they did … all except Morton Weinstein who thought he was whispering to Ike.
“If we hang around, maybe they’ll play a love scene,’’ Morton said.
Dave poked Morton in the ribs with his elbow. “And maybe you’ll be in it,’’ Dave said. Sammy made a kissing noise.
Mr. Griffith did notice the boys, but he did not ask them to be extras. He asked them to be quiet. Then he smiled and waved at the other onlookers as if he knew them. They waved back.Ike figured he and his friends didn’t have a chance to be extras. Mr. Griffith would surely choose the people he knew. He shivered and took out the scarf Mama had stuffed in his pocket. He wrapped it around his neck, waiting for an idea.Behind Ike, the trees struggled with the wind, and the chains that held them rattled and pulled taut. Ike could see his footprints in the snow, and worry about the ride home zigzagged through him. But this was so interesting. Just a little while longer wouldn’t matter.
“Now!” Mr. Griffith got everyone’s attention with one word . . . just like Mama, Ike thought. “In the next scene, remember Miss Gish, you’re shopping for the barn dance party. MEES GEESH, do you hear me?” Mr. Griffith joked with her name. “Swing your basket,” he instructed, “and walk like a young girl. Hop around.”
“Young girls don’t do that,” Miss Gish said.
“How else can I get the contrast between you and older people if you don’t jump around like a frisky puppy?” Mr. Griffith answered.
Then Ike and Tony and Morton and James and all the other boys couldn’t believe their eyes . . . Mr. Griffith, this big, tall, somebody, hopped around shaking his head as if he had curls. Ike wasn’t sure who got the idea first, but one by one the boys all hopped around shaking their heads like Mr. Griffith, hoping he would see how well they’d listened and what good actors they were. Then he’d choose them for extras for sure.
But Mr. Griffith didn’t notice. He was busy watching Lillian Gish. “That’s a DARB!” he said, and laughed, raising his arm and making a circular O.K. sign with his thumb and finger.
“What’s a darb?” Danny whispered to Ike.
“Sounds like a part from a chicken,” Ike muttered.
“It must mean something is O.K.,” Morton added. “Look at Mr. Griffith’s fingers.’’
“It must mean something is even better than O.K.,” Ike said. “Look at his smile. To me this snow is a darb!” he added, enjoying the word as he lifted a handful of snow and licked it, wishing he had syrup to pour over it. The snow felt good and tasted so clean. This was going to he a real snow. They hadn’t had one all winter. They hadn’t had a single snow’ ball fight either. As they watched the cameras and the actors, Ike made a snowball, but he didn’t throw it. He put it down next to him. The snow was getting deep very fast, he noticed. How would they get home? But he decided they would stay just a little longer.
Then Mr. Griffith was pointing at him. “What’s your name?’’ he said to Ike.
Ike coughed to clear his throat. “Ike Greenberg,’’ he said.
“Well, Ike Greenberg . . . You want to earn some money?”
Ike almost choked with excitement. This was the big moment. They’d he extras for sure. Then Ike laughed as he remembered Papa’s voice saying the same words. “Someone is going to reach out and say ‘You want a job, Ikey Greenberg?’ In a factory you earn money.” He couldn’t believe it. For once, Papa was wrong.
“Yes,” Ike said, looking up at Mr. Griffith, “I’d like to earn money.” Then he looked at his friends.
“Come here,” Mr. Griffith said, starting to walk.
He didn’t stop walking, so Ike walked fast to catch up with him. Ike’s heart thumped. He wanted to ask Mr. Griffith if the other boys could he in the movie, too, hut what if Mr. Griffith got mad? Finally Ike got the words out nice and loud. “Can my friends earn money, too, Mr. Griffith?” he said, feeling very brave—and very generous at including his friends as extras in the movie. He was sure Mr. Griffith had seen them walking with a hop and had liked how they’d acted, too.
“Of course they can help,” Mr. Griffith said. He looked up at the sky and said, “Looks like there will be a lot to do.”
Ike couldn’t understand what the sky had to do with it, hut he was very happy as he called his friends. The hoys crowded around and Ike told them the good news. They slapped him on the back, their way of thanking him for including them.
Then, Mr. Griffith signaled to his crew, and much to Ike’s surprise there were … no cameras … no action . . . just three men handing out shovels to Ike and his friends as Mr. Griffith shouted to the boys, “Clear a path so we can put the camera on the platform with wheels. I’ll pay you each a nickel.” Then he yelled, “Billy! Move in! Get that face on Miss Lillian! Get that snow on her lashes. Real tears now, Miss Gish—for the sad scene before the ice floe. You can’t make viewers cry with make-believe tears! Don’t act it . . . Feel it!”
“Shovels!” Danny Mantussi muttered giving Ike a dirty look. “We rode all the way to Mamaroneck to shovel snow?” This time Danny didn’t give Ike a thank-you slap on the shoulders. He gave him a swat!
Ike felt terrible. He was sure he’d figured out how to get to be an extra. “Well, anyway, we’ll still earn money,” he said, looking on the brighter side. “Five cents is not a dollar-fifty but it’s something.” That’s all he could think of to say. He felt so disappointed. Shoveling they could do on East 136th Street. The sanitation department always hired them to shovel the snow down the manholes so the streets would be clear for traffic. And they paid a lot of money— twenty-five cents an hour.
Ike pushed the shovel in. This was not what the hoys had dreamed they’d be doing in the first big snow. They’d waited all winter to have the East 136th Street snowball fight. A lump the size of a snowball grew in Ike’s stomach as he and the boys shoveled the path clean. He ached to bend down, put the shovel aside and take a handful of that glistening white miracle and make the most perfect snowball. He forced himself to finish the job. But after the last shovelful, unable to stop himself, Ike dropped the shovel, grabbed a handful of snow, rolled it, patted it and then—as if the snowball had a mind of its own—it flew out of his hand and zoomed right at tall Danny Mantussi, always the first target in the East 136th Street snowball fight because . . . well, how could anyone miss such a big target?
Okay, so they wouldn’t be in the movies, Ike thought,* but they wouldn’t miss the fun of the first snowball fight. At least they would have a good time.
Before anyone knew what was happening, snowballs were flying left and right. Sammy threw one at Ike, and as it slithered down his neck, Ike shivered and pulled his scarf tighter. Tony Golida’s black jacket had white marks all over the back, where snowballs hit as he hid his face. Morton was screaming his usual, “Watch out for my glasses,” and James Higgins threw the biggest snowball of them all.
The boys were too busy to notice the whirr of the movie camera and Mr. Griffith shouting orders. “Billy, don’t miss the kid with the snow down his neck. Quick! Get the kid with the glasses. Get them all, Billy. That’s it! Get them all. What a darb! What an absolute DARB of a snowball-fight scene!”
Finally the boys were satisfied and snow covered. They looked up.
“Now that’s what I call acting!” Mr. Griffith said. “Here’s a dollar-fifty for each of you.” He reached into his pocket and paid each very snow-covered and surprised boy. Then he gave them each another nickel for shoveling.
At first Ike was speechless. He’d never seen so much money! The boys yelled “Thanks” and patted Ike on the back, a friendly pat. “What a good idea you had, Ikey,” they yelled.
“See, I told you I’d think of something,” Ike said, and he looked up at the sky, through the snowflakes and waved to someone higher.
The boys jumped up and down in the snow yelling, “We’re in the movies! We’re stars!’’ And James Higgins felt the dollar bill between his thumb and middle fingers the way Mama always felt cloth. “We’re rich!” he yelled. “We can take all our folks to the movies and our brothers and sisters, too!”
“We’ll fill up the whole theater,” Ike added. “And wait until the usher sees all of us paying customers.” Then he looked around at the piled-up snow . . . “If we ever get home.”
He wanted to stay some more to watch the camera and all, but he knew this snow meant business. After all, it had been saved in that cloud up there for three months.
“We better get on our way,” he shouted.
“Let’s break—a short break,” Mr. Griffith bellowed through the megaphone. “I’m hungry! Let’s eat,” he said. “And Miss Gish, pull your cape tightly closed . . . I’m cold.”
Ike wondered if he was thinking of Mama waiting and worrying at home or did Mr. Griffith really talk just like her.
Then Mr. Griffith thanked the boys and asked them where they were from and how they would get home in this blizzard.
Carol Snyder was born and raised in Brooklyn and attended Brooklyn College. In addition to writing, she teaches a writers’ workshop and lectures in the New Jersey young authors’ conferences. She is the author of two previous books about Ike and Mama, Ike and Mama and the Once-a-Year Suit and Ike and Mama and the Block Wedding, which was the winner of the 1979 Association of Jewish Libraries Book Award. Ms. Snyder and her husband live in New Jersey with their two daughters.