When Etta Place and Card Player #2 Came to El Paso in August 2019

For a year now, I’ve had a story to tell that in light of dire circumstances required that I hold off awhile until the moment was more appropriate. In the grand perspective, this story has more to do with humanism than it does with any of my own travels through and observations of Arid America. To frame it properly, as its totality paradoxically embraces sheer delight and abject horror separated by only a few miles and a few hours, I needed to anchor this story in a safe harbor, and to that end I often turn to something I know a little bit about—novels written by Ernest Hemingway. In Chapter Three of The Sun Also Rises (1926), Jake Barnes and a woman named Georgette have a few drinks on the terrace of the Napolitain Café in Paris. He’s mildly surprised that she wants to order a pernod. “That’s not good for little girls,” he tells her. “Little girl yourself,” she replies. “Dites garçon, un pernod.” Not to be outdone, Jake orders one, too. Then for the benefit of his American reading audience, Hemingway explains, “Pernod is greenish imitation absinthe. When you add water it turns milky. It tastes like licorice and it has a good uplift, but it drops you just as far.” That café scene in the novel precisely frames how I felt on August 2-3, 2019.

The better part of this story traces back to the dedication of a movie script that simply says, “Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true.”

For a few summers now, the El Paso Community Foundation has sponsored the Plaza Classic Film Festival, a celebration of cinema and a chance to watch again on the big screen movies released when the Plaza Theatre in downtown enjoyed the first decades of her glorious life. A year or two ago, Christina and I went to the Plaza to watch “Star Wars,” which was the first time I had seen the movie at the theater since the summer of 1977. So each summer, the Community Foundation selects about forty films or so to round out a two-week film festival, and in August of last year the selections included Beau Geste (1939), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Pulp Fiction (1994), Steel Magnolias (1989), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and Carrie (1976), and so many other incredible films. One movie from 1969, however, grabbed my attention like no other, and I asked my wife out on a date to drive from Las Cruces to El Paso to watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on a Friday night. I had read the schedule of movies in The El Paso Scene, a cool little newspaper dedicated to arts, music, and happenings in El Paso and the Mesilla Valley, but I must not have read it closely enough. Oh, I read the pertinent details that tickets cost ten bucks apiece and the theater would open in time for the movie to begin at 7:00 PM, but I apparently failed to read closely and critically, which reminded me of the observation that “he who laughs last, thinks slowest.” I suspect the wise one who jotted down that dictum had me in mind. . . . Later, I realized that I had missed one important piece of information.

So, as Steve Miller wrote, we headed down to Ol’ El Paso a little bit early to find a parking space and buy tickets at the box office. A small gathering milled about the theater entrance, and there was a buzz in the air, an expectation of something special about to happen. Minutes passed, more people arrived, and the electricity amplified. Then, from inside ushers opened several of the doors into the incredible Plaza Theatre lobby. A wide, red carpet ran the length of the floor from the doors to the far recesses of the interior, which was unusual as that floor treatment signifies something special, and we instinctively created two aisles on either side of that plush carpet. Just on the opposite side of the archway where Christina and I were standing was a display table containing items relative to the movie festival, and I was delighted to see Cindy Williams, one of my favorite people, holding court at that table. She and her husband, Gary Williams, occupy soft spots in our hearts. Gary’s with the Community Foundation, and one of the principal good guys along with Bernie Sargent who gave me a chance to work in historic preservation in El Paso, and Cindy’s a librarian, so when we chat it up, the range of subject matter is beyond interesting. But so you know, although they have identical names, neither starred in “Laverne and Shirley” nor coached the men’s basketball team at the University of Maryland, just to be clear. So, Cindy asks me, “Aren’t you excited!?!” “Absolutely! I have not seen Butch and Sundance in years.” She looked at me as if I was overlooking something pertinent, and she must of clearly intuited that I was indeed missing something.

Just as printed in the slick, tri-fold film festival program, The El Paso Scene noted “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) with Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott. Plaza Theatre Kendle Kidd Performance Hall, $10 (PG).” Made sense to me; after all, each appears in the cast, along with Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Cloris Leachman, Timothy Scott, and George Furth, and other wonderful actors and actresses. As an aside, Cloris Leachman, who played Agnes, portrayed Ruth Popper two years later in The Last Picture Show, another one of all-time favorite motion pictures. George Furth played the memorable but beleaguered Woodcock, and Timothy Scott appeared as News Carver, a member of Butch’s gang. He appears in the train robbery scene when Sundance asked, “Use enough dynamite there, Butch?” Some years later, twenty to be exact, he played the role of Pea Eye Parker in Larry Jeff McMurtry’s incredible tale, Lonesome Dove. But at this moment, I sensed some gears in my head begin to rotate, and with a great epiphany, I finally figured out what was about to happen. “He who laughs last, thinks slowest.” And within moments, after talking a bit more with Cindy and Gary, the air of expectation charged the room, and then they entered the lobby. I had returned to my place in line, and right in front us walked Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott. I tried to snap a picture or two to little success, but I made eye contact with both of them, extended my right hand, and Mr. Sam Elliott shook my hand and looked me right in the eye. And then they continued on down the line, shaking hands with fans before disappearing into the auditorium. We followed suit, and sought out two seats toward the front along stage left.

Too much backlight, but on the red carpet arrive Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott
Mr. Sam Elliott upon shaking my hand
Cordial and gracious, Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott say howdy

About fourteen rows back from the orchestral pit, from whence the sounds of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” were playing (how else can it be?), we found a largely empty row as most folks were seeking seats toward the middle aisle for a straight on view of the screen. As we settled in, an usher asked us politely whether we were expecting any others to join us to sit in the adjacent empty seats. When we answered, he asked if we would be willing to move a couple of rows forward so a group of eight could sit together. You bet. And then the lights dimmed, and the director of the film festival emerged on stage to welcome everyone and make a few remarks before introducing the evening’s honored guests.

Pretty cool, huh?
Chairs on-stage and guests soon to arrive to tell true Texas tales
A large crowd inside the resplendent Plaza Theatre in downtown El Paso

For about a half-hour, we were regaled with tales of movie-making, insights about Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and their own recollections of filming Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Undoubtedly, we in the audience were much richer for their words, and I was singularly impressed how they interacted with each other. Granted, they are a long-standing married couple, but they are also two accomplished performers who understand how to banter back and forth to carry forward a story without interrupting or talking over one another. Among the first topics the MC broached was about how each of them became part of the movie’s cast. Katharine sketched out how her agent spoke to her about the script and a role to play Etta Place, a young school teacher in search of something more exciting than conducting class in a one-room schoolhouse. She graciously noted that prior to being cast in the role that she had enjoyed a bit of success and subsequently found her name listed prominently alongside Paul’s and Robert’s. As for Sam, he related that he was not as well-known at that time, but a minor role was his for the taking if he was interested. And then lauding his wife for her talent, he said in that wonderful voice of his, “Yep, I didn’t even see my name in the credits. I just appear as Card Player #2.” (Lots of laughter.) About a key feature of the script, the MC asked Katharine about how Sundance and Etta were involved with each other, but Etta was also sweet on Butch. She paused a moment, looked over at Sam, and replied, “Well, I thought I had both of them.” (Much more laughter.) Somewhere along this point, the MC looked out across the audience and said to his on-stage guests, “It looks like in honor of the film a lot of folks are wearing cowboy hats tonight.” To which Sam replied without missing a beat, “Hey, it’s El Paso, man!” And that’s when he talked a bit about growing up in El Paso, something I did not know beforehand. In their stories, we were treated with recollections of their working with Paul, who was already a big star, and Robert, who was making himself known in Hollywood as well, and in perhaps an unexpected statement, Katharine said she was really looking forward to seeing the movie tonight because she had not seen it since it was first released. As the interview wound down, Katharine was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award similar to the one Sam received a year earlier in the same hall, and to great applause and their gracious and humble acceptance, the honored guests exited stage left. And a moment later, that same usher escorted them and about six guests to the row we had just vacated, so I can honestly say that Christina and I and Katharine and Sam all enjoyed viewing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in close proximity. That ain’t too shabby.

For the next near two hours, the big screen was illuminated with one of the most well-crafted, brilliant films in the pantheon of American cinema. Under the capable direction of George Roy Hill to translate onto the screen the incredible screenplay William Goldman wrote, Butch and Sundance remains in my opinion an unquestionable masterpiece. The fact that the film contains the three elements that make a movie great, according to Colonel Sherman T. Potter, “horses, cowboys, and horses,” only heightens its brilliance. Yet while we watched and remained swept up in the film’s grandeur, none of us could have conceived of the dark events that were in motion well beyond the Plaza Theatre but still too painfully close to home. And there at the movie’s end, with Butch and Sundance cornered in that village in Bolivia, outnumbered and running low on ammunition, and Butch planning their next trip to the English-speaking country of Australia, the final showdown scene plays out in color giving way to a sepia-tone as the cry “Fuego! Fuego! Fuego!” sounds to a lowering curtain. And as the credits rolled, the momentary silence in the hall hung palpably in the air before a thunderous applause echoed throughout the space. As Christina and I stood and looked about as the attendees began filing out, we waved in appreciation to our distinguished guests, and they nodded in return. Outside the Plaza through a side exit, we chanced upon some friends of ours and talked about the movie and such. We were delighted to see Melissa and Bernie Sargent and Margaret and Ken Smith; Margaret’s grandfather and great-uncle were two of the principals of Trost & Trost Architects. After exchanging pleasantries, we headed back toward the front of the theatre, where the marquee lettering displayed the evening’s final film and folks were entering the lobby, and happened to see once again Katharine, Sam, and their friends walking down the block to the Mills Building (designed by Trost & Trost) for a dinner party. And with that, Christina and I walked a few blocks east on San Antonio Street where we were parked near the Aztec Calendar and The Tap and drove home to Las Cruces.

Comparable to the plot structure of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” as well as the café scene in Chapter Three of The Sun Also Rises and Charlie Robinson’s incredible song “Loving County,” the events afterwards became surreal. In the hours between the end of the movie and mid-morning next day, Saturday, August 3, a young man had driven from the Dallas area to El Paso with a truck full of guns and murderous thoughts on his mind. We first learned of the unfolding tragedy on Saturday when Christina began receiving a lot of text messages asking, “Are you alright?” “Are you in El Paso!?!” “Is everything okay?” Real messages in real time.

Until the reality of events prior to that moment shattered our illusions, we never suspected that a mass shooting would occur in El Paso, Texas. To the victims, Requiescat in pace.

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