An excerpt in celebration of National Hot Dog Day

A Symphony of Horror


Sal loved the flickers. He said it was like seeing your dreams in the middle of the day. But for Piper, it was the only way to see a dream. So when the time came to meet Sal at the theater, she ran the whole way so she wouldn’t miss a thing.

She had told Houdini that she’d be going to the movies with Sal and he had asked, “Isn’t that the boy you were with the last two times you were late?”

Piper blushed and promised that she would be home before dark. “After all, how much trouble could I get into at a movie theater?”

Nedick's at the Shore Theater

The Loew’s Coney Island Theatre opened on June 17, 1925, across from the original Nathan’s. Nedick’s, a competing hot dog chain, had a restaurant on the corner of the building.

At seven stories tall, the Loew’s Coney Island Theater was the tallest building in Coney Island. It stood across from the construction site of the Half Moon Hotel, which would be taller. So it was difficult for Piper to lose her way.

Storm clouds had gathered in the sky, but at least it wasn’t cold enough for more snow. Piper made it to Nedick’s just as the skies opened up. Sal was waiting there beneath an umbrella and staring at his pocket watch.

“I knew you’d be late,” he scowled.

The smell of the butter-toasted buns drifted from the orange and white lobby of the fast-food restaurant, luring the two companions in for a taste. Sal fished out a couple of dimes and gave them to the boy behind the counter who handed them two hot dogs and two orange drinks in return.

“Nathan’s may be a New York institution, but Nedick’s is far better,” he said, biting into his frank.

Piper looked at the hot dog and gave him a skeptical look.

“What’s the difference? A hot dog is a hot dog.”

But when she sank her teeth into the bun and its tasty contents, Piper’s mouth exploded with glee. She savored it for a few seconds and then with a full mouth she declared, “If they served Grape Nehi, this place would be heaven.”

When they finished their hot dogs, they made their way to the movie palace. A glass display in back of the lobby showed black and white photographs for upcoming films.

“I hear they’re gonna start making talking pictures,” Sal announced.

Piper scoffed. “Talking pictures? How awful!”

“It’s gonna be swell,” Sal said with a self-assured nod.

Piper spotted a snapshot for The Son of the Sheik.

“Coming in July!” she gasped.

“Valentino?” Sal said, rolling his eyes. “He’s such a cake eater.”

Then he bought a bucket of popcorn, grabbed Piper by the wrist, and dragged her away from the display case. An usher in white gloves and a red suit led them down the aisle to their seats.

“Ninth row, please,” Sal directed the usher.

Piper could tell by the usher’s body language that he was annoyed by Sal’s request.

“Why the ninth row?” she whispered.

“The ninth row is the best seat in the house!” he said, counting the rows as he led her down the aisle.

“Says who?” asked Piper.

“Says me!” replied Sal, pointing to the center of his chest. “Seven, eight…nine! Here!”

Though the theater lights were still on, the usher shined his flashlight down the row. Sal and Piper slipped into the first two red-velvet seats and waited for the movie to start.

Piper was suddenly aware that everyone in the theater was looking at her. No, looking at them. Whenever she lifted her head to glance around, they quickly looked away. She had no idea why until Sal passed the bucket of popcorn. His hand accidentally brushed hers. The contrast in their skin tones had never been more apparent.

It didn’t matter that Sal and Piper weren’t even teenagers yet. All anybody saw was a black boy and a white girl alone together. In a movie theater. On Valentine’s Day.

When the house lights dimmed, Piper felt a sense of relief. Then she was ashamed of her relief.

Sal had been oblivious to the whole affair. Piper could sense his excitement as the movie projector flickered to life and its white light beamed through the haze of cigarette smoke.

The first thing that popped up on the screen was a newsreel that showed a horse named Crusader winning a race, a woman in Italy breaking a bottle against a ship, and a monkey with pants riding a bicycle.

The final news segment’s title card announced in big white letters, “Harry Houdini to testify before Congress. World-famous magician proposes law that would make fortunetelling illegal.”

The film footage showed a Congressman prodding Houdini for his opinion on astrology. Houdini’s response flashed on the last title card:

“I do not believe in astrology. They cannot tell from a chunk of mud millions of miles away what is going to happen to me.”

The theater broke out in laughter and Sal nudged Piper in the ribs.

The projectionist changed reels and the cartoons began. The first one was a Felix the Cat short and then there was a Krazy Kat short.

“That was a complete rip-off of the Felix cartoon!” Sal complained.

“SHHH! Be quiet!” someone shouted behind them. Piper felt herself sinking in her seat.

The main feature began and Piper knew right away that it wasn’t going to be her cup of tea. She yawned during the very first scene and almost fell asleep when the hero took a weird ghostly carriage ride to a seemingly abandoned castle.

Only when the ominous doors of the rundown castle inched open did Piper sit upright up in her chair. A tall, pale figure clad in black ambled through the gate to greet the hero. The audience booed and hissed when the villain came on screen.

This was Count Orlok, and his appearance sent shivers down Piper’s spine. Clutching Sal’s arm, she whispered, “Holy horsefeathers, Sal—he looks just like my…”

But Sal didn’t hear her. He was joining the others in jeering at the film’s rat-like antagonist.

When the catcalls had died down, Piper decided to wait until the movie was over to tell Sal. She didn’t want to risk annoying the people behind them again.

So she remained silent when Count Orlok tried to suck the hero’s blood from a wound on his thumb, even though the scene was virtually identical to the night when her father attempted to do the same to her.

“Owww!” Sal squealed as Piper’s nails dug so deep into his forearm that they almost pierced the skin.

The sudden commotion earned Sal another sharp hush from the tenth row. Sal glared at Piper irately when somebody threw popcorn in his woolly hair.

The storm outside was raging so fiercely that Piper could hear the crashing thunder over the harmonious sound of the mighty Wurlitzer organ. The melody started building to a crescendo, indicating that the movie was racing to its climax.

Piper chewed her fingernails as an eerie shadow crept ever closer to the hero’s wife, cowering in bed. Count Orlok sank his teeth into the woman’s throat. Then the film cut to a rooster crowing outside the house. In his obsession to drink the heroine’s blood, the Nosferatu had mistakenly stayed out until dawn.

The audience applauded as the villain, attempting to escape the rays of the rising sun, vanished in a fiery puff of smoke. But this time Sal didn’t join them, which Piper found odd.

She had little time to dwell on it, however. Before the audience could learn the fate of the hero’s wife, a huge boom shook the theater. The projector went dead and the lobby lights blinked out. The freak storm had caused a power failure and the terrified movie patrons fell over each other trying to escape the inky darkness.

Nathan's Famous

The author at the original Nathan’s in Coney Island.

“Stick close to me,” Piper said, taking Sal’s hand. “I was always a ringer in Flashlight Tag.”

“Okay, I’ll hold onto you,” Sal replied, “but I can see you just fine. Your freckles are glowing!”

“What are you talking about?” Piper touched her cheeks. She could feel heat radiating from them—the same sensation she had felt in the morgue.

A strange feeling compelled her to raise her head. She thought she spied someone looking at her from the balcony. She couldn’t tell whether it was a boy or a girl, but whoever it was seemed to be floating in the air.

No, not floating. Flapping.

“Let’s get out of here,” Piper urged Sal.

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