New Orleans The actor, comedian, and radio personality Jay Thomas, born Jon Terrell, died recently. I read his obituary with interest. His career had included memorable parts and some awards in shows from “Mork and Mindy” to “Murphy Brown” and more recently “Ray Donovan” on Showtime. The obits mention that he was born in Texas, lived and went to high school in New Orleans, and died in Santa Barbara, California. In almost all of the reports they mention his recurring guest spot around Christmas on the “David Letterman Show” when he would retell a classic story of the time when he and a buddy were doing a radio promo at a car dealer in Charlotte, North Carolina with the original Lone Ranger in full regalia, Clayton Moore.
As it happens, I have a story that has often been retold in my own family as an enduring classic from my own adolescence in New Orleans where Jon Terrell is also a central character. I’m not sure how it all came to be. We must have been 10-years old in 5th or 6th grade together or maybe the Cub Scouts, but somehow Jon’s mother connected with my mother in the way of the world in the 1950s and invited me go with Jon to see a Saturday matinee at the Lakeview Theater across Bayou St. John from their big house on the other side.
We were scheduled to see the classic Disney film, Bambi, legendary to all children and making another appearance at their neighborhood movie house. One thing must have led to another and by the time Jon’s mom dropped us off, the crowd there had swollen to full capacity, and we couldn’t get tickets to the show. Mrs. Terrell had someplace to go and thinking nothing of it, there was another neighborhood theater right across the street on Harrison Avenue that was playing a double-feature, so she gave us our ticket money, and said she would pick us up at the end of the show.
The movie had already started, and we ran in excitedly getting seats in the darkened theater in the back where they were still available. It hardly mattered. Within minutes we were howling in horror, crawling under the seats in fear. We would occasionally both raise our heads for a minute or two above the seats, like small prairie dogs coming up to look around from our holes, before diving down to the floor again and holding our ears.
We had walked into Frankenstein in all of its black-and-white horror, and once we lived through that and finally settled into our seats for the first run release on the double bill, it was the The Blob, hardly less frightening to two young boys sidetracked from sweet fantasy of Bambi. In the Sputnik, duck-and-cover 1950’s, The Blob was almost more horrifying to us, because it seemed it could seep down our own streets and gobble up our houses as well, eating us and everything around us as we watched helplessly.
I’m not sure if Jon ever made anything of this story, but at the time it was the longest afternoon of our lives, and for me one of the most vivid memories of my boyhood. It is also the often unspoken explanation for why I usually change the channel and walk out of the room whenever anything remotely like a horror movie rolls across the screen.