The storyteller: When we saw Jaws

The movie “Jaws” was released in 1975 and came to St. Helena’s little theater just before the Fourth of July. I was 10 years old and the entire country eagerly anticipated what was touted as the biggest movie of the year. All we knew was that it was a film about a real shark that ate people, our information coming mostly from a poster that showed a huge monster with its opened jaws full of razor-sharp teeth swimming up from the depths to devour an unsuspecting young woman in a skimpy bikini.

Up to that point only biblical films such as “Ben-Hur” or “The Ten Commandments” or romantic films like “Gone With the Wind” had seen wide commercial success. In fact, the phrase “summer blockbuster” had not yet even been coined, but that was about to change — the movie “Jaws” was about to reinvent Hollywood and our lives.

Today biologists believe that this single film vilified great white sharks and led to the mass hunting of these awesome creatures. And some sociologists have suggested that this movie is the synthesis of societal changes that had been taking place since the early 1960s — gone were the days of moral Bible thumping and musical shows based on some of the world’s “greatest” stories. The new world craved edge-of-the-seat entertainment and heart-pounding titillation. And my friends and I were huge proponents of this new world order.

“Matt, you want to join me to watch ‘Jaws’?” I said through the mouthpiece of our avocado-green phone. My index finger was twisted into the cord so that you could only see its tip, rings of green plastic making a sort of tube.

“I’ll ask my mom,” Matt said, and then with desperation in his voice, “we just gotta see that movie.”

“OK, you check with yours and I’ll check with mine. I’ll call Todd,” I said and hung up the phone by pressing the small white button on the handset rest.

I dialed the number on the large round dial and listened as rapid clicks signaled each numeral’s return back to the baseline.

Todd’s brother eventually picked up.

“Is Todd there?” I asked.

“Who wants to know?”

“What do you mean? You know who this is,” I said.

“He doesn’t live here anymore — he was taken away by the secret police,” Todd’s brother said. I could sense his grin through the phone.

“We’re going to see ‘Jaws,’” I said

There was a beat of silence.

“‘Jaws’? I’ll get him,” he said.

I heard their front door slam on the other end of the line, then running footsteps getting increasingly louder.

“Tim. ‘Jaws’?” Todd yelled, panting into the phone. “How can we get in?”

“I’ve got a plan,” I said, not really having a plan. Then, without thinking it through, “We’ll get our older brothers to take us.”

“Are you crazy. Why would they do that?” Todd asked.

“Don’t worry. I’ve got this,” I said as I pulled the cord tight around my finger so that the blood rushed to its tip and made it turn red. I could feel my heart beating in my fingertip.

“Jaws” was the first movie I actually remember watching at the Roxy in 1975. The little theater changed its name to “The Liberty” in 1976, and today it is now called “The Cameo.” The theater is one of the gems of Napa Valley. It is 102 years old this year, and, according to Cathy Buck, its current proprietor and steward, it is the oldest single-screen theater in the country.

I’m sure that I watched other movies at this theater before “Jaws” — perhaps “Charlotte’s Web,” some Disney films and probably many others — but in my memory all these were erased by the trauma I suffered from watching “Jaws” in a dark theater in the summer of 1975.

Today watching any movie is a simple, almost mundane act. You can order one online and then watch it on your phone. Movies can be bought, borrowed or rented. But back in 1975 the concept of owning or renting a movie was as strange and bizarre as if someone had come up to you and asked if you wanted a kale smoothie.

To us, movies were an event — something that required preparation, like top athletes preparing for their seminal race. On movie days we’d wake early and get our chores done, then we’d gather in groups and talk about what to expect. Some kids would make up stories and others would reminisce about shows they’d seen in the past.

“I once knew this guy that got his leg bit off by a shark,” Chad said, bending his leg back to show what the injury must have looked like.

We all knew that these tales were imaginary, but having them told with earnestness and flare was good enough for us — there were some great storytellers in our group.

We would also talk about what candy to consume during the film. Some voted for Milk Duds, and I lobbied for Snickers, but Matt told us about a new candy called Gummy Bears.

“No really, they’re made of wax. Or, they have wax in them, something like that. At least that’s what I heard,” Matt said, his eyes wide. “But they are soft and chewy, sort of like thick Jell-O,” Matt continued, imitating chewing with his jaw. “They come from Germany.”

“Well, I’m getting those,” we all said in unison.

We stood around imagining these waxy new candies from a foreign land.

“So, Tim, how did you get your mom to force your brother to take us?” Ricky finally asked, his face full of skepticism and curiosity.

Kids are survivalists. They are small and nearly always at a physical disadvantage over those who are bigger and older. But because of this limitation, they have evolved to be extra clever or cute to get their way.

“I just told her that we were scared to go by ourselves,” I said, a huge grin plastered on my face.

“And she bought it?” Matt asked, shaking his head.

“Hook, line and sinker.”

In reality my brother and his friends were thrilled to “have” to go to watch “Jaws,” but as soon as our mother dropped us off and turned the corner, they glared at us and told us, “After we buy tickets, get lost, we’ll see you after the movie.” Back in the 1970s 10-year-old kids could go to the movies without parents and be expected to return unscathed.

We bought our tickets and entered the dark, velvet-lined theater. We bought a few bags of Gummy Bears and sat in soft chairs, transfixed by the theater’s dim lighting. The lights faded to black.

When the movie was over, our lives had been changed forever. We had learned a few critical life lessons. First, apparently if you swim in any large body of water you are likely to be consumed by a monstrous shark. Second, being scared in a movie theater is a feeling that should be repeated often. And last, being a teenager is both dangerous and exciting. We were hooked.

Later that summer our older brothers invited me and my friends to water-ski on Lake Berryessa. They had never done this before. We were shocked. Why would they have possibly invited us? But that is another story.

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Originally published in the St. Helena Star.