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.

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