As Newtown Changed, the Theatre Stayed the Same

The Newtown Borough that Marie Hutchinson remembers from her youth is, not surprisingly, a remarkably different place from the one that exists today.

But the movie theater she lived three doors down from is not.

Some of Marie’s happiest memories of the Newtown Theatre come from the several years during which her father ran the projector. Earl Hutchinson would become a prominent builder in the area, but early on, he worked at the theatre as a side job.

“The theatre’s pretty much the same as I remember it from then,” Marie says. “The sound system improved and there’s air conditioning now. Back then, they’d open the side door in the summer and turn on a couple of big fans. But otherwise, it looks and feels very similar to the Newtown Theatre I grew up going to.”

While their father was working, Marie and her four sisters were usually nearby during the Saturday matinees, watching from their favorite spot: the first couple of rows in the balcony. “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this,” says Jane Fitzpatrick, one of Marie’s older sisters, “but sometimes we sneaked a couple friends through the side door.”

Their mother frequented the balcony during those years, too, Jane recalls. She usually sat in the back; it was a quiet, discreet place for her to nurse outside of their home. “I guess she just wanted to go to the movies,” Jane says.

Marie, who’s lived in Newtown Borough for much of her life, may not be able to remember most of the films she’s seen at the theatre through the years, but one stands out clearly to her: the rerelease of Gone with the Wind. Jane believes they saw it sometime during the early fifties.

“The theatre was really the heart of the town while I was growing up. There just wasn’t that much else around,” Marie says.

Case in point: Jane’s high school graduation ceremony was held there in 1946. Hers was the last class to graduate from Newtown High School. The graduates—25 strong—sat up on the stage, their friends and family filling the seats.

All these years later, most of the Hutchinson sisters haven’t travelled far. Marie’s lived in the same brick home on Centre Avenue for the better part of the last four decades. Jane lives a block up from her, on Congress Street, and another, Ann Hendricks, lives on Jefferson Street. A third sister, Ginny Carver, lives just outside of the borough. And their eldest sister lives in a nursing home in Chester County.

Their brother, Brud Hutchinson, a prominent area builder in his own right, died about 10 years ago. His son, Michael, and his family reside in Marie and Jane’s childhood home now.

It’s been a while since either Marie or Jane has seen a film at the Newtown Theatre, but Marie recently had a subscription to the Newtown Arts Company, which brought her back to the theatre on a few occasions. She took her grandson to see To Kill a Mockingbird and her granddaughter to see Beauty and the Beast.

Somewhere along the way, she won a gift basket, which included even more tickets. She gave them to her son because, she says, it was important to her that he and his family experience the theatre at Christmas. It likely wasn’t too different from how he remembers it as a child, or even how Marie does from when she was a child.

The Scenes That Changed Movie Intimacy

Jack and Rose in Titanic. Jack and Ennis is Brokeback Mountain. Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca. All of us have an onscreen kiss that captivated us and stands out in our memory. Later, it would shape your perception of the tender act. You may even have tried to reenact it.

As A.O. Scott put it in an article for The New York Times Magazine, titled A Brief History of Kissing in Movies

“Cinema may not have invented kissing, but I suspect that over the course of the 20th century, movies helped make it more essential. What is undeniable is that movies—Hollywood movies especially, but far from exclusively—made kissing more visible. They established a glamourous iconography and an elegant choreography for an experience that, in real life, is frequently sloppy, clumsy, and less than perfectly graceful.”

But the first onscreen kiss was just as awkward as first kisses tend to be in real-life.

The first onscreen kiss

Thomas Edison is responsible for many of the innovations in the movie industry, so it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that he’s behind the first onscreen kiss, too.

The Kiss was one of the first films shown commercially to the public. Based on its title, it’s not surprising that it was also the first film to feature a kiss. A mere 20 seconds long, the film was shot in 1896 at Edison’s Black Maria studio in West Orange, NJ.

Short as it is, The Kiss sparked a torrent of disapproval. The Roman Catholic hierarchy called for censorship. Newspaper editorials called for police to shut down theaters that screened it. But, Pandora ’s Box had been opened. Not immediately, but within the next few years, kissing worked its way into other movies, including The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899) and The Kiss (1900)—movie titles weren’t exactly original back then—as well as another Edison short, filmed in 1900, this one friskier than his first.

By the turn of the century, everyone but the most conservative influencers and, of course, the Church, stopped pretending like they were so offended. And then, kissing became so much more than just a kiss.

“Kissing was permissible as a hint at ‘the sexual act’ that could not be directly represented; and in the movies, thanks to the enhancements of lighting, makeup, close-up, and decoupage, it was an even broader and more suggestive hint than it was onstage,” Scott writes. “A movie kiss was also, for a long time and under various formal and informal censorship regimes, a substitute for everything else.”

The first onscreen sex scene

Thirty-seven years would elapse between that first kiss and the first onscreen sex scene, and even then, it didn’t come from a Hollywood-produced movie. Though it does feature one of its most legendary actresses.

The 1933 Czech-Austrian romance Ecstasy was one of Hedy Lamarr’s first roles. The sex isn’t even the most progressive aspect of the scene in question. That would be this: Lamarr’s character achieves orgasm. Neither actor’s face is shown, however. Nor, for that matter, are they even shown naked. There is nudity, though; Lamarr skinny-dips throughout a fairly lengthy scene.

Unlike The Kiss, Ecstasy didn’t exactly inspire a wave of imitators. Sex has long been a means for Hollywood to push boundaries, but those moments have come at irregular intervals over the last 85 years and often fell flat until their gravity became more apparent. Or, rather, we caught up.

There’s Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller, North by Northwest, which features, arguably, one of the most sexually charged non-sex scenes in film history. At the end of the movie, Cary Grant’s character suggestively invites his new wife to the upper berth of the train, and the train immediately enters a tunnel. Hitchcock later described it as “probably one of the most impudent shots I ever made.”

In 1982, Personal Best, a box-office flop starring Mariel Hemingway, became one of the first mainstream movies to depict a romantic relationship between two female leads. And eight years later, Henry & June, the story of a love triangle starring Uma Thurman, became not only the first movie assigned an NC-17 rating but the first one (of three) to be nominated for an Academy Award (Best Cinematography). (Wild at Heart, one of the other two NC-17 movies, was also nominated for an Academy Award in 1990.)

It would be a reach to say that by the time Brokeback Mountain debuted in 2005, it was just another love story. There were other films before it that featured romantic relationships between male leads, but none were as straightforward in their depiction. For that reason, Brokeback is the exception here, because its box-office success felt like a turning point rounded in real time.

Other notable onscreen firsts

If this article draws a picture that describes screenwriters and movie directors as our moral compasses, that should end here, because, while movies can be considered art, they’re also products. And for that reason, the audience has held the upper hand through much of the last 125 years.

Island in the Sun (1957) is widely credited by historians as featuring the first onscreen interracial kiss. But that kiss ended up on the cutting-room floor. What made it into the movie is a passionate embrace and some serious cheek-rubbing. Another decade would pass before the actual first interracial kiss found its way into a movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and even then, it was shown reflected in a mirror.

The first same-sex kiss? It came a lot earlier than you’re thinking. The 1927 silent movie Wings depicts two combat pilots vying for the affection of the same woman—when they’re actually way more into each other. Not only was it somehow spared a box-office death, Wings went on to win the Academy Award for Best Production. (The next year the academy merged that category with another and named the new one Best Picture.)

If only it had modern-day marketing behind it.

7 Movies The Stars Hope You Forget

The bottom of the domestic grosses list is comprised of anonymous horror flicks (Satanic, anyone?), unfunny comedies (Paranoid Girls?), and bland dramas (The Chambermaid).

So, rather than recite a true list of the lowest-grossing movies of all time and drop a bunch of titles that you’ve never heard of and likely never will again, we’re highlighting the bottom dwellers with some surprising stars. 

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Flakes
Stars:  Zoey Deschanel
Released:  December 19, 2007
Grossed:  $778*

Even with the studio blatantly dangling indie darling Zoey Deschanel as bait, no overly-self-respecting hipster was ever going to buy into a comedy about an undiscovered rock star biding her time as a cereal bar manager.


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Christmas in Wonderland
Stars:  Patrick Swayze and Carmen Electra
Released:  January 25, 2008
Grossed:  $689

It’s hard to say where exactly this saccharine-sweet comedy fell off the rails: Patrick Swayze in the twilight of his career (and, sadly, his life), Carmen Electra in the prime of hers. Or maybe it’s that a Christmas movie was released in late January.


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Meeting Evil
Stars:  Samuel L. Jackson and Luke Wilson
Released:  May 4, 2012
Grossed:  $525

When you’re in every other movie, as Samuel L. Jackson has been for the better part of the last 30 years, it’s only natural that there be some duds. Meeting Evil, a movie that’s received more reviews than there are people who paid to see it, is the worst of them.


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2:22
Stars:  Teresa Palmer
Released:  June 30, 2017
Grossed:  $422

Teresa Palmer’s made a pretty nice career for herself over the last decade (Bedtime Stories, Warm Bodies, Hacksaw Ridge), but 2:22 is a film built upon a plot twist that’s more of a wet noodle, and no one outruns an over-promising “thriller.”


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The Marsh
Stars:  Forest Whitaker
Released:  March 23, 2007
Grossed:  $336

Forest Whitaker has played a significant role in dozens of blockbusters. Most recently: Black Panther and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. But even he couldn’t buoy The Marsh, which was released a month after he won an Academy Award for The Last King of Scotland.


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Trojan War
Stars: Jennifer Love Hewitt
Released:  September 26, 1997
Grossed:  $309

Jennifer Love Hewitt was at the height of her Party of Five popularity when Trojan War debuted, yet this formulaic rom-com was still somehow ahead of its time. Her next three movies, starting with I Know What You Did Last Summer, released a month later, earned $138 million combined.


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Playback
Stars:  Christian Slater
Released:  March 16, 2012
Grossed:  $264

This was three years before Mr. Robot reminded us that not only was Christian Slater still alive, he’s an impressive actor in the right role. This one, however, can be counted among a two decades-long list of ones that clearly weren’t.

*All grosses are domestic only

Have You Heard About the Movie that Made $30—Total?

The last few years have seen some eye-popping opening-weekend box office totals:

  • Avengers: Infinity War (2018): $258 million
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015): $248 million
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2015): $220 million
  • Jurassic World (2015): $209 million

These days, it’s not uncommon for a movie to make a quarter of a billion dollars over two or three days. But if we told you that one major motion picture earned just 30 bucks total, there’s no way you’re buying it, right?

Well, believe it.

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Zyzzyx Road, released in 2006, was probably never bound for greatness. It stars a pre-Grey’s Anatomy Katherine Heigl alongside Tom Sizemore, who was arrested during filming for repeatedly failing drug tests while he was on probation. In the film, Heigel’s character is seduced by an out-of-towner. Naturally, they murder her boyfriend, stuff him in the trunk, and head out to the Mojave Desert to bury him, where chaos ensues.

While none of that sounds especially promising, it was a series of decisions that were made about the film’s distribution that would doom it to a historic low. Zyzzyx Road was made for $1.2 million with John Penney writing and directing and Leo Grillo producing and starring.

Penney had a number of cult movies to his credit, like the William Hurt film Contaminated Man. Grillo fell out of acting after a couple of minor TV roles about 25 years earlier, but he saw the movie as an opportunity to support his real passion: animal rights. Specifically, he wanted to use his share of the movie’s profits to start making animal movies.

Grillo decided to prioritize foreign sales and release Zyzzyx Road domestically later on, banking on his costars’ rising popularity. (Grey’s Anatomy would go on to become one of TV’s highest-rated shows and Sizemore landed a short-lived VH1 reality show).

But in order to do so, the film needed to fulfill a Screen Actors Guild agreement, which permits low-budget films to pay actors a lower rate as long as the film gets a domestic theatrical release. So Zyzzyx Road was shown once a day for six days at a theater in Dallas.

It earned, yes, $30, though Grillo later found out that the movie’s makeup artist saw it with a friend, so he refunded her $10.

Zyzzyx Road was released on DVD in 23 countries and went on to earn about $368,000 before the end of the year. But by then, the media had already declared it the “lowest-grossing film of all-time,” a title it still holds.

Why is Hollywood in Los Angeles?

For the Obvious Reasons, Plus a Couple of Dubious Ones

 Hollywood’s origin is not the glamorous story you may be hoping for. But it is at turns a sordid one, which at least entices our modern palate for darker, morally-ambiguous entertainment.

It should probably come as no surprise that in a place that’s synonymous with bringing dreams to life, all is not what it seems.

A Christian utopia

Four years after arriving in Southern California and buying 160 acres in the foothills west of Los Angeles, Harvey Wilcox officially registered “Hollywood” with the Los Angeles County recorder’s office. It was February 1, 1887.

Wilcox was a real estate mogul from Topeka, Kansas, but he envisioned a place where he could start from scratch and build a utopian community for devout Christians like himself and his wife, Daeida.

As Harvey sold lots, Daeida raised money to build churches, a school and a library. By 1900, nine years after Harvey’s death, about 500 people called Hollywood home, compared with 10,000 in Los Angeles at the time.

It’s not entirely clear how the Wilcoxes arrived at the name Hollywood. The popular theory is that Daeida met a woman on a train with a summer home called Hollywood. But it could just as easily be a reference to a red-berried shrub, known as California holly, that grew in abundance in the area.

Either way, in 1910, 23 years after Harvey and Daeida Wilcox founded their town, it merged with Los Angeles. A year later, the first film studio moved there.

There goes the neighborhood

There’s a funny story about the legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille and his place in the beginning of Hollywood as we know it. He and his crew boarded a train in New York and headed west to shoot The Squaw Man, which was later proclaimed to be the first full-length feature film shot in Los Angeles.

But their sights were set on Flagstaff, Arizona.

“When we got off the train in Flagstaff, it was colder than when I left New York,” DeMille later said. “We looked around and said this doesn’t look like the type of country The Squaw Man was laid in, so we got back on the train and came out to California.”

By 1909, a surging interest in motion pictures was forcing studios to boost their production. Up until that point, New York, New Jersey, and Chicago had served as the centers for early film production, but directors started seeking locations with more reliable weather year-round. Word about Southern California’s abundant sunshine spread fast.

As did its non-union labor. It was the perfect storm. As the studios entered into feature production and built more elaborate and authentic sets, they needed craftspeople in large numbers, everybody from carpenters to dressmakers. The freedom to exploit them was irresistible. DeMille estimated that the skilled laborers on the set of The Squaw Man were paid up to 50 percent less than they would have been on the East Coast.

It’s hard to imagine the irony of the situation was lost on the filmmakers, many of whom, it’s believed, arrived in Hollywood fleeing their own exploitation. Thomas Edison—yes, that Thomas Edison—and his Motion Picture Patents Company, widely known as “The Trust,” held the patents on almost all of the technologies involved in film-making at the time, from the cameras to the projectors. As one account describes it, “if you wanted to be in the movie business, you did so at the pleasure of Thomas Edison.”

And Edison, apparently, ruled with an iron fist. The Trust took to the courts often to prevent unauthorized use of everything and allegedly hired mob-affiliated thugs to make its presence known.

Once California became a viable option, the decision, for many, became clear: Run. Enforcement would be trickier, at least, because Edison was in New Jersey. And California judges were developing a reputation for being less friendly to The Trust’s patents.

Of course, once they were there, California’s other advantages quickly became clear: lots of different geography and architecture within a short drive and land was easy to come by. But all of that was mostly a happy coincidence.

The sign makes it official

The HOLLYWOOD sign is one our most iconic landmarks. Would it soil its image to know that it was originally an advertisement for an upscale real-estate development called Hollywoodland?

Around 1923 (the date is disputed), Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler and his partners spent $21,000 to erect the 45-foot-high white block letters, which were anchored to telephone poles and illuminated by 4,000 light bulbs.

Regular maintenance on the sign stopped when the development went under during the Great Depression. The “H” even fell over at one point, so it briefly read OLLYWOODLAND. Ownership of the sign passed to the city in the mid-forties, and the LA Recreation and Parks Commission apparently pushed to have it razed. But the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce saved it. In 1949, it removed the last four letters and restored the rest.

That sign, however, is not the one that stands today. Again, it fell into disrepair, helped along by some arsonists who set fire to the second “L.”

This time, Hugh Hefner intervened and staged the 1978 equivalent of a Kickstarter campaign, rounding up eight other donors, each of which pledged $28,000 to fund the construction of a new sign that was finished later that year.

That sign is the same size as the original, but it’s supported by steel footings. And if you consider the millions spent since on blowing it up on screen, $250,000 was a bargain.