I lived the last half of my childhood in Solomons Island and Dowell, Maryland. I was known then as Howard Manning. My father, also Joe, was a marine biologist at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, and my mother, Betty, worked there as a librarian.
I lived in the Washington, DC area for my first nine years and moved to Solomons Island in January of 1951. My fourth grade teacher at the Solomons Elementary School was Mrs. Sollers, followed by Mr. Witheridge in the fifth and sixth.
Growing up around Washington, I was accustomed to seeing movies at huge Art Deco and Victorian palaces such as the Capitol and the Warner. About a week after we moved to our tiny rented house behind what we called simply “The Lab,” Fran Beaven, the 15-year-old son of my father’s co-worker of the same name, escorted me to the movies, and I was in for quite a cultural shock: Evans Pier.
Fran held my hand as we plowed through the first room, with its slot machines (they were legal then) and noisy patrons, the second room, with piles of work clothes for sale on the shelves, and finally the forbidding door that entered the theater, with the river running underneath. I was surprised that they didn’t hand out life preservers. I bought some Nik-L-Nips (remember the little wax bottles with colored syrup?), slunk down in my seat, and watched the double feature. Between features, I discovered the bathroom, down in front on the left, where you presumably did your part to replenish the Patuxent.
I got used to it, but when we bought a house on St. John’s Creek, in Dowell, I seemed to go more often to the D&L Theater uptown. Owner Charley Dowell, who also ran a tavern on Dowell Road, would sell tickets and popcorn every night. I passed for 12 years old until I was 16, paying only a quarter, if I recall correctly. My mother never knew. After the movie, we’d all go to the D&L snack bar next door for ice cream. Carl and Mary Lou Breland, the owners, were close friends of my parents.
There were many times that the creaky D&L projector would break down, and we’d clap and stomp our feet till Charley got things going again. One time I was watching a western movie. The story started in some dusty Kansas town, but less than halfway through, the star and his sidekick got stranded in the desert. Suddenly, without warning, they were back in town again, and everything was just fine. Then just as suddenly, they were back in the desert again. When the movie ended, they were struggling to find water. It was just downright bewildering.
A week later, I asked Charley about it, and he told me that he got the reels mixed up and showed the middle of the movie at the end.
I left for college in 1959, and my father finally got a job in Annapolis. My parents moved to the Eastern Shore in 1966, and I got married and moved to New England. I get back to Solomons Island about once every 10 years for my high school reunion (Calvert County High). The D&L is gone, and it’s hard now to pinpoint where it was. Solomons Elementary is now a maritime museum. The last time I visited, it still smelled like my school.
A few years ago, my wife and I ate lunch at a restaurant at Evans Pier. The theater is long gone, and the restaurant has real bathrooms. I thought about what it was like in the 1950s, and it all seemed unreal. The last flick I saw there was Psycho. The creepy old movie house was a perfect place to watch Hitchcock’s thriller. My mother came with me, and she was so scared, she held my hand.