Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Projectionist

One of the joys of newspapering in a small town is the chance to chronicle the lives of people unknown to the wider world who are heroes to their neighbors and friends.
H.A. Creef, who died last week in Manteo, was truly a hometown hero.
Mr. Creef and his wife Liz owned Manteo's historic Pioneer Theatre, where  films entertained generations of Outer Bankers since 1912, one of the nation's oldest family-run movie houses.
The theater, as well as Mr. Creef and his wife, also served as Manteo's babysitter on Friday nights.
At the Pioneer, where seats sold for $4, buttery hot popcorn, cold cokes and sweet candies  for 50 cents each, parents could savor a priceless night on the town without a worry in the world about what their kids' little eyes  and ears would see or hear.
"Magic Mike" would never play the Pioneer. For Mr. Creef, right and wrong were not 50 shades of gray, but black and white.
You see, Mr. Creef had rules at the Pioneer. No movies with a racier rating than PG ever saw his projector reels. Kids were expected to behave. And they did.
Movies enjoyed one week runs. In my time on the Outer Banks, only "Forrest Gump" got a longer showing.
My favorite Pioneer memory swirls around "The Perfect Storm," the drama with George Clooney. Commercial fishing and wicked weather, as much a part of life in Manteo as  softshell crabs and the summer drama, "The Lost Colony," were the real stars of the film. On a chilly Saturday night, my mom, sister and I hit the theater.
My sister Marty, accustomed to bloated ticket prices at Atlanta theaters, whipped out two $20 bills to pay for our tickets.
"I just need one of those," Mrs. Creef said, taking one of the  Jacksons from her. Marty was stunned.
She got another shock when we hit the concession stand. The last Atlantan to enjoy 50-cent popcorn was probably Margaret Mitchell.
Once inside, we squeezed into seats on a crowded row. Fisherrmen, some clad in coveralls, others in jeans, flannel shirts and white fishing boots (known locally as Wanchese bedroom slippers, or Wanchese wing tips for the centuries-old fishing village on Roanoke Island) were bringing their wives and girlfriends to see the movie.
Some had come straight off the boat.It was like seeing "A Perfect Storm" in Smell-O Vision.
My out-of-town visitors gave the night an aromatic five stars.
The biggest night in the history of the theater was a showing of "A Face in the Crowd," back in 1957, featuring an in-person appearance by the movie's star, new Roanoke Island resident Andy Griffith.
It is ironic that Creef passed away three days after Griffith. Manteo lost its silver screen star and  its projectionist in the same week
While the joy Andy brought to the world is well known, not many outside Manteo know about Mr. Creef. He served in town government, coached youth baseball and was active in his church. He owned a local motel.
What many don't know is that he would sometimes give free showings of popular kids films to local schoolchildren, opening for midweek matinees. "Toy Story" was featured once.
"A lot of these kids' families don't have money to come or to send them," Mr. Creef said once. "Every child ought to have experiences like that."
Like I said, Mr. Creef, Manteo's projectionist extraordinaire, was a hometown hero. While it's not theological, my guess is that if Heaven has a marquee, Mr. Creef, The Projectionist--  has seen his name up in lights.

Paul South is a veteran reporter, columnist and editor who has worked at newspapers in North Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky and Louisiana. His blog, "Out on the Porch", will appear weekly.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Andy of Manteo and Me

News came this morning that Andy Griffith, the beloved sheriff of  TV's Mayberry passed away at his home on beautiful Roanoke Island, N.C.
He was 86.
 Griffith was best known to the world as Andy Taylor or Ben Matlock on television, or as Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, the role for which Griffith earned an Oscar nomination in Elia Kazan's "Face in the Crowd."
But when I lived on Roanoke Island, a place where every year-round resident is considered a neighbor, Mr. Griffith was mine.
Do not misunderstand. We were not friends, only what I would consider a good acquaintance, despite only having met a half-dozen times or so across nearly a decade on the island.
The first time we met, I was slowly negotiating a steep flight of stairs when Griffith entered the doorway, and started up the way.
"Excuse me, Mr. Griffith," I said. He stopped.
"Take your time," he said.
I finally made it to the bottom of the stairs.
"Mr. Griffith, I don't mean to trouble you," I said. "But I'm Paul South. I've always wanted to meet you, especially since I've lived here."
"I know who you are," he said, smiling. "I read your columns and stories in the paper. And you live in that apartment right over there."
"How do you know where I live?" I asked.
"I know lots of things," he said smiling. "You never know, I might come visit my neighbor sometime."
Mr. Griffith did know lots of things. From 1960 until the series ended, Griffith showed us through "The Andy Griffith Show" that  he knew a lot about small towns, about simple pleasures and strong values.
In Mayberry, folks went to church. They found happiness in long talks, short bottles of pop, fishing in the lake and sleeping on the ironing board. They forgave transgressions. They loved God and their neighbors, even the folks on the margins. Ask Ernest T. Bass. And Andy, it seemed, set the standard for it all.
Mayberry also taught us how the problems of the world could vanish on a big front porch, after a fried chicken dinner and a chorus of "The Little Brown Church in the Vale."
In one of the most interesting takes I've ever heard on life in Mayberry, a former student worker in the media relations office during my time at Samford, wrote a paper for a New Testament class, comparing the relationship between Andy and Barney to that of Jesus and St. Peter. Peter, like Barney, was always getting into trouble, and Jesus, like Andy, always bailed out his friend.
So it is with us.
Andy Griffith as "Lonesome" Rhodes taught us the dangers of a demogogue. "A Face in the Crowd" packed a powerful punch in the days of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy and George Corley Wallace. It is one of the great American cinematic performances. And in this political season, Griffith's work on the film deserves a deep, thoughtful viewing.
And it should be noted that Mr. Griffith also won a Grammy for a Southern Gospel album, celebrating the great old hymns. Talk to his fellow congregants at Mount Olivet United Methodist, and they'll tell you that Mr. Griffith believed the words he sang.
But that is the private Andy Griffith, the one who loved his home on the island, who loved browsing at the local Ace Hardware and at the local bookstore. In Manteo, he was not a star, but a friend.
The newscasters today will talk about his support for President Obama's health reform plan. But perhaps more important was quiet, yet vigorous effort to keep the big box retailer Wal-Mart, off the island. I sat next to Griffith and his wife Cindi at the public hearing and vote. His presence, I believe, made a difference. The big-box developers lost a narrow vote.
He was not an actor that night. For the great people of Roanoke Island, he was a neighbor and friend.
Like the sheriff without a gun, Andy won with grace. The beach towns near Manteo gave in to the Starbucks. Harris Teeters and Wal-Marts of America and home-owned stores were sacrificed. Roanoke Island did not cave, thanks in part to Andy's trusted voice.
Principle and people won over profit, life imitating Mayberry art.
After our first encounter, Andy Griffith never visited his neighbor in the apartment. But a couple of years later, he gave me a precious memory that will linger for the rest of my days.
It was December, 2001. Manteo was chilly, gleaming like an elegant socialite in the glow of the Christmas season. There was a new baby in our house.Tucker was 3 months old.
As often happened in those wonderful days, I ran into Mr. Griffith near Manteo Booksellers, a local treasure lost to murderous Hurricane Irene.
"I hear we have a new baby," he said.
"Yes sir," I said. "A little boy."
"Do you have a picture?," Griffith asked.
I immediately produced an image of little Tucker, resplendent in scarlet velvet Christmas overalls.
In a flash, Andy Griffith's unforgettable grin washed over his face.
"Awwwwww, that is the prettiest ba-beeeee."
In that moment, I was in front of Floyd's Barber Shop.
And Andy Griffith was my friend.
Rest well my neighbor and friend. We will miss you.