Oliver Jensen’s “Days of Unconditioned Air” (“A wet, cold air suffused the building”) revived a tiny addendum of memory in me.
In the late 1920s, when I was eight or nine, I was permitted on Saturday mornings to enter the Strand Theater on Capitol Square in Madison, Wisconsin, to watch and listen to a young man, a friend of an older sister of mine, play a half-hour organ concert broadcast over radio station WIBA. The thrill of entering a movie house without paying was almost as great as hearing the splendid four-manual Wurlitzer in lonely glory. The theater, advertising air cooling with the usual snow-and-ice marquee banners, was, as Mr. Jensen observed, wet and cold. It also smelled, the result, I suppose, of wet air settling all summer into the stage draperies and the seat upholstery. To counter this, the theater employees—when the organ broadcast had ended—went up and down the aisles with huge flit-guns, spraying a perfume throughout the house. The Strand Theater was draped in royal purple in that day, and the perfume smelled purple, rather like Juicy Fruit gum tasted. It countered the smell of must and mold and dirty laundry, however, and probably added an intriguing element to Gloria Swanson films of the time.