Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

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Back in the ’60s life was simple for a boy growing up in Key West, even as the military set up rocket launchers on the beach, the armaments aimed southerly at Cuba.

That’s the atmosphere portrayed in “Matinee,” one of the better movies made about our island. You will find it showing again at the Tropic Cinema.

To celebrate 200 years of Key West, the Tropic is showing movies filmed in or inspired by our island! “Matinee” is screening June 23-28 as part of Key West’s Bicentennial.

“Matinee” takes you back to October 1962, those scary days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Tension was high between Russia and the USA. Soviet missiles were in Cuba pointed at Key West. Anti-aircraft missile launchers were stationed along Smathers Beach. Hawk missile silos were located at the end of Little Hamaca Park. US troops were housed in Casa Marina.

But yes, this is a nostalgic, feel-good comedy.

Here we meet two local boys and a girl (Simon Fenton and Jesse Lee and Kellie Martin) who are oblivious to this impending threat as they anticipate the arrival of “MANT” – a schlocky horror film about a monster that’s “Half Man, Half Ant, All Terror!” Ads promised it would feature Atomo-Vision and Rumble-Rama.

Movie buffs will quickly realize that this Joe Dante film is a not-so-subtle homage to shockmeister William Castle, legendary producer of such classic horror fests as “The Tingler” and “House on Haunted Hill,” movies that featured such gimmicks as buzzers under the seats and glowing skeletons on a wire.

Rotund John Goodman stars as Lawrence Woolsey, the William Castle-like movie producer, arriving in Key West in a big finned Caddy. He’s accompanied by Cathy Moriarty, who plays his favorite leading lady. Woolsey picked Key West, figuring the prevailing mood of fear will stir up some excitement for his premiere. 

For “Mant” – the movie-within-a-movie – Dante added a brilliant touch, casting actors who had actually appeared in ‘50s-era science fiction flicks, notably Kevin McCarthy, Robert Cornthwaite, and William Schallert.

Robert Picardo plays the manager of a once-upon-a-time Strand Theater, delivering the line that will have local audiences rolling in the aisle, a heartfelt pronouncement that “the people of Key West are not yokels.”

Nice to have someone stand up for us Conches, whether fifth generation or the freshwater variety.

In “Matinee,” you will recognize much local scenery, clapboard houses and white picket fences – and The Strand (now a drug store). Although Oxnard, California, provided some of the street scenes and State Theater in Cocoa Beach was used as a stand-in for The Strand.

No matter. This is a film about growing up in Key West, a feel-good comedy with Goodman at his bombastic best. And it’s a great homage to the B-movies of yore.

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