Off the Wall Cinema

Off the Wall
Off the Wall Cinema, Cambridge, MA

I just did a guided meditation online. Full disclosure: I am terrible at meditating. I fidget and squirm. Every sound around me demands my attention. My focus is anything but calm. Anyway, early on in this meditation, I was asked to picture a time when I felt totally at peace with myself and the world. After several minutes of frantically searching for such a time and place, I settled on Off the Wall Cinema, circa 1984.

Off the Wall was a very small theater in Central Square, Cambridge, MA. Instead of the usual theater seating, you sat at small tables. Coffee and pastries were available to snack on during the show. I went to a lot of movies during my first few years in Boston in the early-to-mid 1980s. That was when I discovered that popcorn and apple cider are a perfect combination. Most of the theaters I remember attending are now gone. Off the Wall is one of them.

As a kid I remember being a Laurel & Hardy fan, but at Off the Wall I also discovered and fell in love with silent stars Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. At Off the Wall I became a fan of animated shorts. (Favorites include “The Big Snit,” “Sky Whales,” and “Tony de Peltrie.” Look them up.) It was where I first saw classics like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. (I no longer think of the latter as the feel-good movie it is supposed to be, but that’s a subject for another post.) If you are getting the impression that Off the Wall was off the wall, you are correct.

Before moving to Boston in August 1983, I already had one year of college under my belt, so it wasn’t like I was freshly out of the nest, but it was in Boston that my world truly blossomed. The next few years were a time of exploration and experimentation. If there has been any period of my life I could live over exactly the way it happened the first time, that would be it.

Off the Wall closed in 1986, near the end of what I consider my short Golden Age. In 1987 I went back to school and cut my hair. I tried desperately to be normal. That was a bad idea. I’ve since tried to recapture the wonderful sense of endless possibility I felt during the glory days when Off the Wall was flourishing and I was young. I didn’t get there during my meditation session, but I did have fun remembering those happy days.

 

The Annals of America

annals of america

In this era of Wikipedia, it’s hard to imagine a time when we relied on bulky multi-volume printed encyclopedias to get our information. When I was a kid, my grandparents gave me a set of World Book encyclopedias, and that set got me all the way through high school. Then when I was out of school, I fell prey to a shifty hardselling salesman who conned me into buying an overpriced set of Encyclopædia Britannica.

Except it didn’t happen that way at all. There simply came a time when I missed my World Book, and wanted to update my library, so I called the salesman, not the other way around. He came to my apartment and sold me a handsome set of the 1985 15th edition Encyclopædia Britannica. The covers were padded and beautiful. It felt nice just to hold them, and reading them was even better. Yes, they were expensive, but I didn’t consider them overpriced. Over the years, I more than got my money’s worth out of those books.

Additionally, the encyclopedias came with a perk: a 20-volume set of collected period documents called The Annals of America. This awesome set of hardcover history books covered American history from Christopher Columbus through Gerald Ford. It was prepared in time for the 1976 American Bicentennial. I never made it through the entire set, but I read several of the volumes cover to cover, and bounced around plenty in the remainder. It was a valuable resource and again I more than got my money’s worth.

My last attempt to get through all 20 volumes in chronological order (I’m anal that way) came just after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I was feeling patriotic, and thought there was never a better time to read about American history in depth. I started over at the very beginning. I wasn’t working at the time except for a part-time position, so I had lots of time to read, doing much of it while laying out by the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The historic location only added to my feeling of intense patriotism. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a halt to all air travel. There were armed guards at government buildings. There was an odd feeling in the air. And there I was, getting my suntan and reading these hefty books.

Sadly and stupidly, I somehow got sidetracked and abandoned my project of reading The Annals of America straight through. Even more stupidly, my wife and I moved away from Cambridge, a town we loved, a couple years later. Then money grew tight and I had to sell several possessions which I now wish I had back. Included in that number was my beloved set of Encyclopædia Britannica and also The Annals of America. I hope whoever has them now is getting a lot out of them. I hope they are being read and loved, not gathering dust on a forgotten shelf.