“The only constant thing in life is change,” is a saying attributed to Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher from the year 500 BC, which, full disclosure, requires I admit to having just discovered. From my experience, I would say he was on to something.
And yet, the first thing that strikes me about these two photographs taken nearly 50 years apart is how little the building has changed over that time. The second is the images were both recorded in winter when this structure is so associated in my mind with warm summer days and ice cream.
It was known as City Drug at the time of my first memory. I was very young, perhaps four or five, and it must have been a weekend because my father was with us and not at work on the mainland. The family had ventured to town for ice cream and all was hubbub and excitement. I am looking up through the people towering above me and the only thing I can see is a white-haired man running back and forth behind the counter trying to keep up with all the orders coming his way.
A few years later City Drug was sold and renamed King’s Spa, which it always will be for me. The new owner was Dr. King B. Odell, who spent winters as a language teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, where he was also the track and cross country coach. He had been working summers as the day manager of The Narragansett Inn since the early fifties, where I worked for him years later.
He was somehow inspired in the early sixties to go into both the ice cream and movie business, as in addition to the Spa, he purchased The Empire Theatre across the street. This was the beginning of King’s Enterprises, which eventually expanded to briefly operating Sky King’s Snack Bar at the airport. To keep all these operations running, he relied mostly on his students from Moses Brown, the notorious, in all the good senses of the word, Spa Boys, whose escapades and infectious good humor made them island legends.
There weren’t many businesses on the island in those days and the Spa and Empire Theatre were two of the main attractions separated by Water Street and Rebecca. One of my earliest solo ventures was riding my bike from the west side to the Spa where I sidled up to the counter and consumed two Richardson root beers in frosted mugs for 10 cents a pop to fortify myself for the long trip home.
In addition to soda and ice cream cones for 15 cents, the Spa had the distinction of being the only Western Union outlet on the island. In these days of texting, e-mails and constant communication, it’s incredible to think the way to send important messages was by telegram, succinctly crafted since they were priced by the word.
There was also an array of some of the worst souvenirs ever made that were hauled out every spring and placed on the shelves where they defied purchase by even people highly motivated to bring a bit of the seashore home to the mainland. My favorite was a red lobster that must be still around somewhere as it was made of something indeterminate that also happened to be indestructible.
When I think of the classic movies of that era from “Lawrence of Arabia” to the “Pink Panther” series to “Cool Hand Luke,” I immediately am reminded of the Empire Theatre where I saw so many of them. The building was old and funky with rows of hard wooden seats, some of which were missing and there were occasional glitches when the power failed or the reels faltered before advancing from one to the next.
The films though were of recent vintage, usually having been released over the winter preceding. There were generally four a week, three showing for two nights and one on Thursday, which was generally family fare. It cost one dollar for adults and fifty cents for children. At that time on the island, you just couldn’t beat a summer evening that began with an ice cream cone at the Spa followed by a movie at the Empire.
For all that King Odell gloried in portraying himself as a hard driving, tight-fisted business man, he really wasn’t anything of the kind. For one thing, even in those times, no one made a fortune selling ice cream for 15 cents and movie admissions for a dollar. The casual feel to the operation seemed a whole lot more about fun than anything else, despite Doc’s protestations otherwise.
King loved a laugh and had an arcane sense of humor, which I had the full benefit of while working for him at the Narragansett. I sometimes think King’s Enterprises was a summer-long theatrical production with him directing from his makeshift office behind the Empire Theatre ticket booth. And for all the laughs and fun everyone had, from the employees to the customers, the person who got the biggest kick out of it all was him.
Was life better in the past or does it just sometimes seem that way? Are my memories reflective of reality or simply romanticized perceptions from all these years later? After all, the past can be comforting because we know what happened, whereas the present is so pressing and immediate and the future uncertain.
I have struggled my entire life with change, caught up one moment in the excitement, possibility and allure and the next crushed by the loss of something irreplaceable. I suppose that’s where balance comes in, but a look around most places one goes reveals how difficult that can be to achieve.
The Empire Theatre just recently stopped showing movies and King’s Spa has had a number of names since Doc sold it in the 80s. I don’t think I have ever even been in the building since the time of which I write. It’s nothing against the businesses or their owners, I simply prefer to remember it the way it was, how the double screen doors would slam shut behind you when you entered and the radio was tuned to the classic music of the 60s and 70s.
You can’t stop time, but maybe the past has some lessons for the future. One of the main things I think brings people back here year after year is that this island is different than most everywhere else they go. It’s distinct and authentic and that’s attractive in an increasingly artificial and homogenized world.
There is something powerful and beguiling about returning to a place where buildings and the landscape seem timeless and in harmony. You may not be able to stop time, but you just might be able to treasure and preserve the best of it. Perhaps the island’s future is its past.