Batman on the Boardwalk

A terrified 8-year-old finds comfort in a frozen custard swirl.

The Strand 5 on the boardwalk in Ocean City has been entertaining—and occasionally terrifying—summer audiences since 1938.
Photo: 217 Photography

I am not a thrill seeker. I don’t do roller coasters, you’ll never see me jumping out of a plane—willingly—and I don’t enjoy scary movies. As a kid, I liked my movies animated, with a happily-ever-after ending.

But in 1989, the movie of the summer was Batman. It was everywhere. Every kid under the age of 12 had a Batman T-shirt—as did a lot of grownups. Radio stations had Prince’s “Batdance” on every hour. The bat was back, but darker, closer to the original Batman comics than to the TV series. This was no portly Adam West. This was a gritty movie that I wanted to stay as far away from as possible. Criminals? Guns? A killer clown? The 8-year-old me said, “No!” Loudly. Probably while crossing her arms and stamping her feet.

My parents had already seen the movie, but my brothers—ages 4 and 11—were dying to go. So my dad cut me a deal: He would treat us all to the movie at the Strand 5 on the boardwalk in Ocean City. If I wanted to leave, he’d take me out of the theater for ice cream.

Fine. So one afternoon, the six of us (my mom and sister included) packed into a row at the old Strand 5. This was no roomy, modern metroplex. The seats were small, the floors sticky. The screen was a tiny white rectangle, not much larger than today’s flat-screen TVs. The Strand was falling behind the times.

But here was Batman! It would be great here—according to my dad, at least. I’d be fine, he assured me, while my stomach rumbled. He and my brothers were on the edge of their seats before the movie even started. I wore a hoodie so I could shield my eyes, if necessary.

I tugged my father’s sleeve after Jack Nicholson appeared as the Joker. “Wait until the Batmobile,” he said. I did. I tugged his sleeve again.

“Wait until the Batwing,” he said. I did. I tugged his sleeve again.

“The movie’s almost over,” he said. He was enthralled. I hid my face in my mom’s shoulder until the Joker died.

After the movie, I stepped onto the boardwalk and took a deep breath of salt air. It was still daylight. The boardwalk, the beach, the sand—nothing had changed. No killer clowns. No revenge fantasies. And I got my ice cream: my favorite, a chocolate-and-vanilla frozen custard swirl from Kohr Brothers.

“If she has nightmares tonight, you’re taking care of her,” my mom told my dad as she paid for my cone.
I didn’t have nightmares, probably because I couldn’t sleep. I stared at the ceiling. I thought about what I’d do if I lost my parents. Then I tried to focus on Vicki Vale’s dresses, and wondered if I’d ever be that pretty. I dozed off around dawn, then slept on the beach all morning.

By the time I got over my movie fears, the Batman saga had morphed into Batman & Robin, which I also saw at the Strand 5 with my brother. I was 16 by then and it terrified me in a different way. It was a truly awful movie.

The Strand 5 is still on the Ocean City boardwalk, dishing up summer blockbusters on those same small screens, along with its popcorn and sticky floors. It will probably be showing The Dark Knight Rises as its big movie this summer. Best movie theater in the world? Not a chance. But it’s a tradition. Even if the movie scares an 8-year-old or two.

Jen A. Miller is author of The Jersey Shore: Atlantic City to Cape May.

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