Oral History Audio Interview with Eliza Marie Gilligan
about the Macarthur Theater
INTERVIEWER: Can you tell us a little about what it was like to grow up in Washington D.C.?
ELIZA: That specific area? it was very low-key. My parents said we bought the house in, I think, 1969 and I was born in 1970 and it was a very low-key neighborhood; lots of kids running around and so everyone played outside on the weekends, especially during the summer. So, everybody’s backyard opened up onto an alley that we shared. And, so all the kids would go out to the alley and sort of look around to see who was out there, wanting to play, and we would have a ball and we’d play spud or play hide & seek, or, you know, get a few nickels and dimes from our families and go up to the corner store and get the Bazooka Joe bubble gum and things like that. So, it was a very fun neighborhood to grow up in because there were kids of a good variety of ages and, you know, some people had dogs and some people had cats, and so animals to play with and things like that.
INTERVIEWER: It kinda sounds like a classic American summer.
ELIZA: Very much, very much so.
INTERVIEWER: So, can you tell me what role the MacArthur Theater played in the neighborhood?
ELIZA: Well, I lived rather far from the MacArthur, but… So, the MacArthur was in the Palisades neighborhood where Sally’s family moved to that neighborhood when I was, I want to say, five or six. I’ve known Sally, well, and I know her as Sally and not Sarah…since we were probably three years old; we met in nursery school. Then her parents moved to the Palisades and so, when I would go visit, there would be times where her mother would, you know, we would be running around outside and her mother would need to do a little shopping or a little errands or something and she would drop us off at the movie theater. And, it would be either, you know, it would be a special treat for us to go see the Marx Brothers and see them as a double feature and we would get our Twizzlers licorice and just spend the Saturday afternoon in there watching Marx Brothers as a double feature. I think one of the things about the MacArthur, well, I would say, back then, central air conditioning was not that common in houses, so… So, if it was a really hot day, we played outside as much as we could, she would drop us off at the movie theater and we could have a cool place to hang out and watch a movie, or watch one or two movies.
INTERVIEWER: Did it feel special?
ELIZA: Oh, yeah. Yeah, because the movie theater, I guess to my eyes, and I was a kid, but it just seemed really elegant because it had murals on the walls of – I don’t know if they were people with lyres, or something, and I didn’t really know what they are, but to me that’s really elegant. And, the seats had that velveteen on them that was, ooh, that was really nice. And, going to the movies is special in and of itself. The movie theater was also really big and you could watch one movie in one a set of seats, and get up and move and watch another movie in another set of seats. So, it was also a little bit of autonomy because very often her mother would drop us off or my mother would drop us off and then it would be just the two of us.
INTERVIEWER: I was going to ask about that because a lot of people told me that one thing that stuck with them was not just going to the movies, but a lot of people talked about walking there, walking there when they were young, and having it not be a big deal, not like it is now. And, this sense that your parents, you sort of, your parents sort of shooed you out of the house a little bit and then you’re on own, but in this sort of and that was part of the spirit of it. It’s a bit dark in the theater and maybe you can let your friends in, you can eat candy maybe that your parents wouldn’t allow.
ELIZA: Absolutely. We did not let our friends in per se, it was mostly the two of us, and I think sometimes it was billed to us as a treat, but if I’d been torturing my little brother, or we’d been torturing Sally’s little sister, it was a way to like, get us out of the house, out of their hair, and give our younger siblings a break. But, sometimes we took the bus down there. It would have been a little far to walk, just from where Sally’s house was, but, again, it was a neighborhood where everybody was out running around. And, you know, people knew the neighbors and the neighbors kept an eye on things and, yeah, it was very idyllic in that regard.
INTERVIEWER: Did you watch it change over the years?
ELIZA: Well, as the movie theater, some of the movie theaters started to close down in DC, and I can’t remember if I was living in DC when it finally closed, but I think Sally was. And, I remember her calling me and talking about it and saying, well, there goes a piece of our childhood. And, I think, part of it was that it was such a big theater so that you went, when you saw a movie there, it was huge, it was dramatic. It was not…you might have a big TV at home these days, and it might have a really clear high definition, but having an enormous movie screen and the big sound was really something.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember some of the movies that you saw there; do you remember the experience of that and if it had an impact on you?
ELIZA: Well, mostly the Marx Brothers. And, I also remember they would show cartoons and so seeing ‘Mighty Mouse’ in black & white, and then seeing the Marx Brothers. So, it was like an old time experience because I don’t, I did not experience a cartoon and a movie and an intermission and another movie in any other setting.
INTERVIEWER: Why do you think people have such a personal…I’ve been kind of blown away by how, when people explain their experiences of the movie, it almost seems like they sort of go into this part of their mind, they sort of go into their memories. And, it often, to me feels like, that people have quite a personal relationship to the movies. I don’t know if people have that now, with the multi-plexes. I don’t know if it’s quite as personal, and I wonder why you think that might be.
ELIZA: Well, we didn’t…the television we had, growing up in my house…was, you know, like a 14 inch black & white. So, that was the only time I experienced something that was, you know, overwhelming in a sensory kind of way. And, in a great way, a really fun way, it could be people singing and dancing, or it could be a cartoon. You know, so the screen is huge, you’re a little kid, like your feet might not even touch the ground. And, it’s just overwhelming as opposed to, maybe, waking up on a Saturday morning and watching cartoons. The picture is, you know, on a little television screen, so I think it was really dramatic and unusual, in our lifetime. I don’t know, kids growing up today, they have such a rich, visually rich experience because there are so many movies that are made for them. I don’t recall a lot of kids’ movies when I was growing up. Maybe ‘Fantasia’ came out.
INTERVIEWER: And even that was a bit crazy, that film.
ELIZA: I think I saw that at the Uptown…I think that was it, because it was the only place in my life that I would see something that was sensory, overwhelming in a sensory kind of way, visually and the sound and the experience, in that kind of way.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember how much it was when you went?
ELIZA: I don’t. And, probably because one of mothers would have handed us the money or they would have paid for our ticket. But, it couldn’t have been that much because at that time, my parents didn’t, you know, they were not wealthy. It had have had to have been something that they would have not worried about spending on a kid.
INTERVIEWER: Do you go to the movies now?
ELIZA: Occasionally. Very, very rarely, but it’s more of a hassle in a way because my life is busy and it’s a drag to find parking and it’s expensive and I could maybe watch it at home, and have a glass of wine or something; it’s not as special.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have kids?
ELIZA: My boyfriend has a son.
INTERVIEWER: Do you guys ever drop him off at the movies?
ELIZA: Noooo. No, no, no. We would never do that… And, I think the movies we want to show him, I mean, we’ve shown him movies, but that’s something we do at home; movies we saw growing up, like showing him ‘Airplane.’
INTERVIEWER: I guess I’m interested in sort of what changed, that was such a normal thing to get dropped off there, but you say you’d never do that.
ELIZA: Well, I think it’s also different with an only child, then it’d be kinda cold, like ‘See ya.’ But, I think back then there was a sense of, it was a way to give mom and dad a breather just as much as you give the kids a treat. Because the grocery store, the Safeway, was right next to the movie theater, so Sally’s mom could go to the grocery store, pick up stuff for dinner, go home, get it started or things like that. Or, it was a rainy day and we were being absolute hellions inside. So, that’s what I think of the movies and so I associate all of those with, like all the black and white classics, like the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. Even though they’re not as fancy as say, some things in 3D or high def now, they’re still gorgeous. The clothes on the women in the movies in the ‘20’s, I mean, they’re just stunning; the sequins and the jewelry and the glamour is really something.
INTERVIEWER: And, on a big screen you can see everything.
ELIZA: Yeah. But, again, it wasn’t high definition and it was in black and white and yet it was still very glamorous.