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(8/14/01 7:29:52 am)
Reply OUTDOOR THEATERS
It was springtime, l998, when my wife and I traveled to the Holy Land.....Israel according to the maps, globes, and
travel brochures. A memorable, twelve day journey, from the ramparts of Masada, to the bowels of Old City
Jerusalem, seeing and walking on giant slabs of limestone; excuvations, down to streets and byways, more than
twenty centuries old, marveling at the square boxes and other figures gouged, into the stone by Roman
soldiers.....the guide said it was games like crossout, you know, the ‘X’ and “0”, we all did as kids---well maybe you
still play the game...com’on, getta a life!
As an old retired Navyman, it makes me think of the Special Services, and the recreational games, devices, things
for those off-duty hours. I never saw a navy recreation center, anywhere in the world, that did’nt have cribbage
boards, pinochle cards, ping-pong paddles----I suppose it’s the same with the Army and all the other services too,
but, as I pen these rememberances, I’m going to talk about outdoor theaters.
As my wife and I toured Israel, we were astounded, that there were so many outside ampitheaters. Their
remarkable design, utility, and mostly, the wonderous state of preservation such as an old Roman resort, only a
thousand feet from the shores of the Mediterrian, that was still being used----Caesareia was the name, and though
the old city had been razed by the Crusaders, and then by the Turks, it was still a magnificant site. I imagine buried
in some ancient Roman ruins, somewhere in the world, referred to then, as the Roman Empire, there is an archive,
that stored plans, sketches, or such, you know like modern day blueprints, and contained therein, are such plans, for
outdoor theaters, including the Colisium and other grand ampitheaters, such as those we saw in the Middle East.
Like the archives of the Roman Empire, there probably exists in dusty naval vaults or filing cabinets, comparable
plans and sketches for the design and construction of military outdoor theaters.
The story I’m going to tell you now is about time, places, things, people, events, and lastly, that incomparable
organization, known around the world for more than 200 years, as the United States Navy. Any Navyman, knows
of the Marines, and how they fit into that Naval Organizational Command, but there is a group, who have also been
in that Chain for more than half-century. They are named the Seabees, the Naval Construction Battalions, called
that for the ‘C’ of construction and the ‘B’ of battalions.
Another acronym, used by the Naval Department, when the Seabees were conceived and born back in 1942
was BuDocks, (Bureau of Yards and Docks), and on drafting boards, under their talented pens and measuring
devices, the outdoor movie theaters concept came to life. Oh yes, another term to use, was Advanced Base--- this
term meaning out of country, in a combat area, on some coral atoll, a steamy jungle, some God forsaken R and R
location rearward of the battle front. I’ve seen those outdoor theaters all over the world, some new and very basic-
basic, while there were those, constructed years before, that evolved into quite, remarkable landmarks.
The outdoor theater I have chosen to tell you about was at the Cubi Point Advanced Base, Philippine Islands.
The time was the early l950’s when Mobile Construction Battalions 2, 3, 5, and 9, the MOB’S they called
themselves, were stationed there. They were there, bulldozing a mountion into Subic Bay and building one of the
largest and finest airfields in the Pacific. Throughout the free world it was termed defending liberty; the Seabees
called it normal operations, one Stars and Stripes reporter called it mind-boggling, bordering on the impossible.
All is subject to change, old BUDOCKS changed to a more impressive 1960’s identification, Naval Facilities
Engineering Command, and the use of MOBS was frowned on, so they became the Naval Mobile Construction
Battalions. It was much like the crime of tearing labels from pillows and mattresses under penalty of law one jokes
about..... I still sneak the old MOB term into conversation so when I start to remenise about days gone by.....all you
readers, please excuse the crime, because I’ll speak of the MOBS, the dust and the mud, and the stifling heat that
they lived and worked in, and of the outdoor movie theater and stage, and projection booth, and seating
accomodations. And yes, of the nearby EM Club many referred to as the ‘Bloody Bucket”.
Gouged out of the virgin tropical jungle, much like all the rest of the Advanced Base called Cubi Point, the EM
Club and outdoor theater, were in close proximity to the Eastern perimeter of the sprawling camp. The razing and
grading process for the site preparation, amounted to felling enormous mahogony trees, dynamiting stumps, and
then bulldozing the area so other critical tasks could be performed in a logical fashion, later to be called
critical-path-scheduling. Of the two sites, only the EM Club had a concrete deck and a structure with a roof. It
was open all around for ventilation, due to the scorching heat and humidity. Directly East of that structure,
approximately 100 yards, was the perimeter of the outdoor movie.....When those gigantic mahogony trees were
felled, the BuDocks plans specified that the tree trunks were to be sawed in lengths of 24 inches and to be used as
the uprights for backless bench seats. At the sawmill, some of those monsterous tree trunks, were to be slabbed out
into 2 inch by 12 inch planks, thus the non-destructable, non-comfortable seats for the movies watchers. During the
excavations and site preparation, the stage area with its plywood screen, was to be the lowest point and then the
construction drivers, dozing with those marvelous D-8’s and grading with those equally wonderous ’tournapoles’,
prepared a terraced seating area to accomodate 100 benches, each 12 feet long---- BuDocks further specified that
the bench arrangement would be centrally positioned, with each half extending 45 degrees off the stage center.
What a plan! That think tank never missed a lick.... and rapid completion-----well I’m here to tell you,
creepy-crawlers were still alive and rummaging about in the much graded and prepped soil as that marvelous
entertainment center evolved there in that steamy, snake-ridden jungle.
Summer season was the rainy season and to experience rain in the Philippines was indeed something to behold---
but that did not discourage the first nighters...no, no, no, it did not, for that grand opening was like a Hollywood
premier, a barn burning turnout...... Summer days were long and the crews would work up until 1800. After chow,
if you wanted to eat, and then, on to the club, where the local beer, San Miguel was sold and consumed in reality
Around any EM Club, there are times that are described as rowdy, and knowing the ribald behavior of
construction men around the world, the Bees always performed as expected--- performances always, very
predictable, some described as colorful.
Those were the days of the DeVry 16 mm. movie projector, run one reel, rewind, load and run another.....all this,
of course, when it gets dark enough to see the movies being projected onto the white painted, sheets of plywood,
up, over the stage. About 2015 that evening, all was ready to go--- new outdoor theater, new seats, new booth, and
of course, new projectors and reels, never having been used, let alone tested.
The movie that night was named, ‘With a Song in My Heart’, kind of a swan song about a singer named Jane
Froman starring Susan Hayward....all the Bees knew Susan, for she had been with John Wayne in their movie,
‘The Fighting Seabees’, so this night, was really looking up.
The announcement was heard over the PA system, accompanied by cheers of those already seated and waiting
in the theater area, and to the whoops and hollers of those Bees in the EM Club, drinking San Miguel and waiting,
and for those visiting dignitaries, staid and straight laced, clad in dress whites, waiting----to anyone observing the
scene, it was like a green-clad tide of bodies, moving like the surf wash, from the Club to the Outdoor Theater......
stumbling, tripping on the rough clods and rocks, falling in the mud left from the afternoon downpour, and some
bodies, even crawling, as they invaded the outdoor movie seats. Not unlike musical chairs, seats were sought
----and those Bees were serious and determined seekers, for this night, some art form would enter into their drab
and dreary existance. The flat, rough-sawn benches, were uncomfortable but it was going to be like thrones for
them, and as they sat there, the rough-out muddy boondockers, the Oriental style shower flappers, or even still,
some wearing knee high rubber boots and cut-off greens, their feet touched the theater floor; the moist,
reddish-brown, earthy smelling soil, of their host country... waiting...waiting.
The outside spot lamps were extinguished, and then the tell-tale flashings on the screen, showed that the
projector lamp was on, and then the circle figures, beginning with 9, then 8 and then, sounding like counting military
cadence, at least 900 open and exuberant mouths, counted down the flashing, all the way down---then strobe like
emissions ....No other flashes , no previews of coming attractions, no geedunk sales, no used car ads, just the large
Republic Pictures logo of the spread winged eagle, and now the title leader. Strange now, the silence, as the wide
eyed viewers, spell bound and awe struck, almost as delighted as opening presents at Christmas.....oh, oh, what
happened-----the rapid fluttering of the picture on the screen, and the thrashing sounds, emitting from inside the
projector booth, and every single eyeball flashed accusingly toward the booth, almost the same sensation, as if your
lifeboat had to sprung a leak. A loud, commanding shout, from way down front, screamed a single word, to be
cought up the next nanosecond by 900 throats, a single roar;.. FOCUS....FOCUS....FOCUS.
The screen cleared, the din ceased, much like turning off a switch, and again silence, as the wide eyed Bees, like
the kids at Yule time, totally absorbed....and the credits continued, spelling out to the viewers--- a young actor by
the name of Robert Wagner, was being introduced in this film and being filmed in glorious technicolor.
Yes, it was a new projector, untested, untried, and tonight, it would not measure up to the Bees expectations,
thereby, not to their standards of movie watching etiquette......as the equipment malfunctioned, FOCUS was to be
accompanied by loud ‘boos’, cursing and swearing, and throwing empty San Miguel bottles down on stage, at the
white painted screen, and ultimately, at the projection booth itself. The operator, a guy by the name of Abie Grider,
said later, it was like being inside an empty wooden crate and having someone beating on it with baseball bats.
A call to action was establised that memorable first night; the ‘F’ word meant one thing and one thing
only...FOCUS...no care of the other utterings of profanity; that was the word, the Commandment. Several times
the delays were lengthy and the spot lamps were turned on, even though the night was clear and the sky filled with
bright shining stars. It was then some moviegoers wandered off into the trees to relieve themselves, while many,
stumbled off to the EM Club, for refills of San Miguel. This was indeed premier night; no Hollywood spotlights,
no blaring bands, just gentleman and a night out.
I was told this story next day by Ferguson, who worked with me in the ‘refrigeration shop’. He said he had
been sitting next to Snake Baker ..a kid from Boston who really whooped it up every night, and Snake had, almost
simultanously to a malfunction of the projector, fallen backwards off his backless bench, onto the muddy soil of
Cubi Point. As Snake lay there, he had begun to screech the ‘F’ word, and in decibels screamed out that were
capable of audio damaging results----frantic, demanding, up and down the range of octaves....it had been such a
slight malfunction, one of only seconds duration, and as the other movie fans ignored the Snake, and had continued
looking on, open mouthed, to a romantic interlude between the old honey Susan and the striker Robert Wagner,
the Snake had laid there on his back, among the still live and crawling earthworms, commanding to the brilliant stars
in the heaven above the Cubi Point enclave, to FOCUS....FOCUS....FOCUS....and on and on until Fergie and
another irritated Seabee, seated in back of the Snake, had snatched him up off the reddish brown, earthy smelling
soil, and jammed him down, not at all gently, onto the rough sawn backless bench, the sturdy benches, designed by
BuDocks, and constructed by those ......CB’s.
Well, let me tell you, here on closing........in the most prideful of ways , they called themselves and the other
Seabees, CONFUSED BASTARDS, you know for the CB thing; indeed, it was a matter of pride with them, just
like the MOB thing.....Marines and Army were never premitted to utter those words, only another Seabee. The
MOB..... those MAGIFICANT, OVERBEARING, BASTARDS....... a cheer from the onlookers, a cheer even
exceeding that outburst by Snake Baker that evening so long ago, when a new word was brutally thrust into the
Seabees limited vocabulary, the ‘F’ word.... one meaning, only one, to be declared in a commanding and forceful
manner, at any outdoor movie, anywhere in the world, when the equipment malfunctions, or the operator fouls
up...... FOCUS..FOCUS FOCUS.........just like the night on Cubi Point, back when we were still boys.
FOOTNOTE: On 6 March l968 I was with MOB FIVE at Dong Ha RVN. Equipment Operator 1st class Robert
Baker, the man called Snake, was serving as the enlisted men’s club manager, was badly wounded during a rocket
attack. Snake was evacuated out to the U.S.S. REPOSE in the South China Sea. We heard later that he had
survived and was recuperating at the Naval Hospital, Boston. God willing that wild Irish kid survived and went on
to enjoy a full life as much as he did back when we were all young and foolish Seabees in the Philippines.