Robinson’s Ramblings: Nightmare On Stadium

Call it growing pains. Stadium Boulevard has always been busy. Since its birth in 1960, Stadium has experienced heavy doses of vehicular cholesterol. Snarls, short tempers and nightmares accelerated over the past few years as the west end of Columbia endured the stretch marks caused by steroidal commercial growth. And the arterial sclerosis along Stadium has grown progressively worse.

I had a nightmare there once. But more about that later.

Now Stadium Boulevard is getting a makeover, long overdue. And just as it is with that knee surgery you’ve put off for too long, expect some down time. Major sections of the road will close for repairs, as the current five-lane road will morph into a six-lane, divided highway, with a median wide enough to allow dual left turn lanes into the feeder streets. Closing Stadium Boulevard will shift the traffic load to Fairview Road, Bernadette Drive, even the Columbia Mall parking lot. Get ready for confusion and traffic bottlenecks and swear words and finger pointing. But that’s not my nightmare.

A lot of folks will feel the pinch as the Missouri Department of Transportation builds a divergent diamond interchange at Interstate 70 and Stadium. This divergent diamond interchange is a brand-new engineering innovation of French origin. In the entire United States, only one such interchange exists. Wouldn’t you know, it’s in Springfield, Mo.

Some of the funding for this project comes from three local transportation development districts: the Stadium Corridor, Columbia Mall and the Shoppes at Stadium TDDs. At any of the stores in these aforementioned locations, your purchases include a half-cent sales tax to help fund portions of the $19.6 million project. The TDD taxes will be collected over 18 years.

But that’s not my nightmare.

For several months, most people who venture out to Columbia Mall or Macy’s will experience a detour or two, unless they bike or walk or arrive by helicopter. Nothing scary. Certainly not as scary as my nightmare on Stadium Boulevard.

The beginnings of my nightmare date back to the old Biscayne Mall.

Biscayne Mall bit the dust 15 years ago, replaced by the less boxy shapes of the Shoppes at Stadium. But Columbians who date back to the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s remember Glover the Clothier and Wyatt’s Cafeteria and House of Fabrics. My nightmare had nothing to do with them, or the hot potatoes at Alexander’s Steak House, or Cloud 9 Gifts or Ann’s Fashion Center or the Stag Shop or the old Kroger supermarket, or SupeRx Drug, or the Walmart that eventually replaced Biscayne Mall’s anchor stores, the old Woolco and Montgomery Ward.

My nightmare wasn’t because of the parking lot, either, which, by the way, still has a footprint ample enough to support the Tilt-a-Whirls and Ferris wheels from traveling carnivals.

And it had little to do with Jerry Lewis, although the Jerry Lewis Triplex Cinema soon became the Biscayne III Theatres, where the seeds of my nightmare sprouted.

It was a cold winter night in 1974. I was a college student on a double date with a single mission: all four of us had pooled our courage to see “The Exorcist.” The movie was still in the first few weeks of its long run.

Warned that the 7 o’clock show would be a sellout, we dropped by the box office two hours early to buy our tickets. Then we drove around Columbia, apprehensive as hell, but not worried about tickets or time or gas, which was about 50 cents a gallon. We ate chalupas at Taco Tico, and took our time getting back to the Biscayne III Theatres, because we already had our tickets.

When we arrived, with just minutes to spare before the movie, my nightmare began. The only spot left with four seats together was in the center of the front row. Our eyeballs seemed inches from the screen, within projectile vomiting distance of Linda Blair. But that wasn’t my nightmare.

The movie began, and 250 faces were riveted to the screen. As with all classic horror flicks, the first shock came fast. And that’s when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I was distracted by an almost imperceptible movement. Like bookends on either side of the giant movie screen, floor length curtains concealed emergency exits. Good, I thought, if somebody shouts “Fire!” or the movie gets too intense, we can escape. But I became aware that something was happening behind those curtains.

Although the movie was plenty intense, I began watching subtle changes in those curtains. Leading up to each shocking scene, just before the tension peaked onscreen, the curtains parted slightly, as if a drawstring pulled one side of each curtain back an inch or two, just enough to allow a small lens to peep through. The movements through these curtains was so slight, and the onscreen drama was so intense, that nobody else seemed to notice the cameras. Nobody except me. Just as each scene reached its horrific climax, the cameras clicked their shutters, and captured infrared images. Then the cameras retreated. The photographer was documenting crowd reactions, collecting a sea of faces expressing horror in unison.

Except for me. Obsessed by the idea that somebody was taking my picture, I did what anybody in front of a camera would do: I posed. There must have been 30 terrifying scenes during that two-hour movie, and each time, the curtains parted slightly, and the infrared cameras clicked at just the right moment to catch an entire audience gripped by fear. And me. I smiled directly at the cameras. I waved, flashed the peace sign, gave two thumbs up and other digital gestures. I made flesh goggles with my thumbs and forefingers and Magoogled the cameras throughout the movie. When the feature was over and the screams had turned to sobs, 250 terrified people left the theater and tried to rebuild their shattered courage. Most were careful not to wander off alone, and it’s a good bet that 250 bedside lamps stayed on all night for weeks afterward.

But that wasn’t my nightmare.

Without knowing the details, I knew exactly what had taken place in that theater, during that movie. Somebody took two rolls of photos of a chorus of screaming faces, all telegraphing the same emotion. And me. The photographer must have gotten permission from the theater management to photograph the crowd, but best I could tell, nobody in the crowd knew about it.

Since no usher ever showed up to escort me from my seat, I suspect the photographer only realized what I had done when he retreated to his darkroom to process the images he’d captured: 249 scared faces and me, on the front row, hamming like a dolphin at Sea World.

I have no idea what the photographer did with his pictures. But I’ve always wondered.

I’m sure I ruined the shots. Every one. At least from the photographer’s perspective. But that’s his nightmare. I meant no harm. I was just having fun. He didn’t tell me how to respond to the camera, and I didn’t ask. Yeah, I imagine the photographer was upset, even though he had not secured my cooperation — or the cooperation of anyone seated in the theater — to capture our fright. From his point of view, how could he tell us without ruining the spontaneity of our reactions?

While no one was hurt in filming these captive animals as we squirmed in our seats, the shoot does raise the issue of forgiveness versus permission. I think “Candid Camera” would have secured signed photo releases from its victims … after the fact.

In the years since, I’ve become aware that the simple act of buying a ticket to a theme park or a concert or a ball game gives the promoter permission to use your face in advertising. Maybe shooting a theater crowd is fair game.

Well, the photographer captured 30 images of my face, front row center, acting up when maybe I should have gone along with the crowd. On the other hand, since that frightful night, I’d always wished that I had arranged that photo shoot, maybe for a book cover or an album cover. Alas, I’ll never see those photographs, much less possess one.

But that’s not my nightmare, either.

Back out on Stadium Boulevard, when the construction is over and the dust settles, there will be cameras. They’re not hidden behind curtains. In fact, their positions are documented, publicly debated, and well-publicized in an effort to reduce red light violations. But even an exorcist would have trouble stopping careless texters and drunks, eaters and shavers, speeders and daydreamers from driving through stoplights.

Even with all the publicity, these cameras will continue to catch careless drivers.

That’s my nightmare.