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The Joy Theater of Shreveport

by Billy B. Smith
I saw a photograph of it in a history book about my hometown: the old Joy Theater on Texas Street. It is long gone now, as many movie theaters from the 1950s are, but seeing the photo brought back fond memories of my youth. The Joy was somewhat scandalous because of both the types of movies it showed and because of the kinds of patrons it attracted. My parents mandated that I was not to go near it - forbidden fruit, if you will - and so it became an object of curiosity, a place I couldn't wait to check out. I realize now that the Joy provided a treasure trove of celluloid history.

I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, during the fifties and sixties. My family lived about fifteen miles from the downtown area, but trolley service was readily available to take intrepid adventurers to the central business district where all the great old movie theaters were located. As early as eleven or twelve I was allowed to ride the trolley - and this was the kind that received power from overhead wires - by myself downtown. My parents hardly ever gave a thought- although the Joy gave rise to an exception - to their son becoming a victim of abduction, molestation, or sexual perversion. These depraved crimes rarely occurred back then, or at least they were not given much publicity. The closets were still full of the unusual.

Most of the downtown movie theaters when I was a kid were off Texas Street. Within a three-block area to the south were the Saenger, the Don, and the magnificent Strand, the largest and most elaborate palace the city had to offer. It was the kind of theater that had double balconies, private boxes, and an atmospheric ceiling where I could look up and see the stars twinkle and the clouds roll by. The Majestic and the Capitol had been in operation shortly before my treks downtown, but the former had become a clothing store and the latter an office building. The only movie theater on Texas Street was the Joy.

The Joy's back wall faced the rear wall of the Saenger, one street over. Only an alley separated the two theaters. The Joy had a curved horizontal marquee and an enormous vertical sign rising up from it, spelling out in white letters against a red background, JOY. It was one of the first sights a traveler saw when he turned on to Texas Street from the west. Texas Street was full of pedestrians in the fifties, and the Joy was in a prime location to attract weary shoppers seeking some distraction from their labors. The theater opened before noon, and it normally offered double features; patrons could spend up to three or four hours inside and still have plenty of time to make more purchases later. A kid like me could spend all day there if he wanted to, seeing the same movies over and over. It was a great place to go, even though my parents disapproved.

One of the reasons for their fears concerned the types of movies the Joy showed. The theater specialized in horror, science fiction, a combination of the two, and what I considered at the time to be offbeat crime stories. I must confess that I would tell my mother that I was going downtown to see some insipid comedy or a western at the Strand, only to make my way into the Joy to experience some of the old black and white features that are today considered classics. I remember seeing such gems as The Thing, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Killer Shrews. I always tried to get home before dark after watching these films. Something about them made me shiver.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
I did not recognize at the time that those crime stories were masterful examples of film noir. What was once thought of by many people as "B" movies or just cheaply made Hollywood fillers turned out to be skillful stories of angst, paranoia, and brooding. The Joy would often show some of these works from the 1940s, so I was never deprived of material from the noir genre. Today, film study of the forties and fifties is an avocation of mine, and only now do I have a deep appreciation for the Joy Theater's contribution to my work.

Another reason my parents wanted me to avoid the Joy is because they thought it was a haven for perverts. I didn't even know what a pervert was until I became a teenager, and even then, I wasn't real certain. Never in my trips into the Joy was I accosted by anyone. I felt as safe there as I could be. However, my parents' worst fears almost came to fruition one time, but the event did not happen at the Joy. My friend, Carver, and I had just left the Joy and were headed south down Louisiana Street to a magazine store we both liked. Out of the alley that divided the back walls of the Joy and Saenger came a grizzled old man who tried to entice us to come with him, promising all sorts of delights beyond our wildest dreams. Carver and I knew enough to take off running. We never told anybody about this. It occurred only that one time. It was not the Joy's fault.

The Joy was owned and operated by a theatrical wizard called Joy Houck. He had other theaters in North Louisiana with the same name. In fact, my city even had a Joy Drive-In. But the old Joy on Texas Street was special. It showed historically important films; whether by design of by accident, I cannot say. The Joy went out of business while I was in high school. The huge vertical sign was removed, the marquee taken down, and the building gutted. The last time I checked a hat store had moved into the location.

All the downtown theaters - with the exception of the Strand, which has been restored to a legitimate theater - are gone now. So have my youth and those days of innocence. But I will always remember the Joy and the pleasure that was dispensed there. The name truly bespoke of the emotion it aroused both in me and in thousands of others.
Billy B. Smith
"They shoe horses, don't they?" >
July 1 , 2006 Column
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