Peter Jakubowicz: Pittsfield and me, 50 years later


PORTLAND, ORE. — I was born in Pittsfield, although I have not lived there in decades. When someone asks where I'm from, and I say Pittsfield — I usually get asked whether I know Elizabeth Banks. I do not. And I am then asked where Pittsfield is and what it's like.

What usually first comes to mind is going to see "The Towering Inferno" at the old Capitol Theater with my dad on my 10th birthday. And then I wonder whether that theater still exists; and I wonder how Pittsfield must have changed since I lived there.

I don't know that I would recognize the place today. I know little of Pittsfield as it is today. I wonder, for example, is there still an ice skating rink on the third floor of the Boys Club, where I played hockey?

Let me clarify that I didn't do jail time or scam people or murder anyone in Pittsfield, and I don't have anything much to hide. I just lived there for 18 years, attended Pittsfield High School, graduated, and left: an event that surely went unnoticed by everyone and everything there except, presumably, my parents and, possibly, my pets. Although I bet my pets got over my leaving pretty quickly.

I don't know whether the odd assortment of places I remember still exist (Lulu Pond, Dick Moon's Sporting Goods, George's Variety Store, the Highland). I know I could check whether they do, but I don't want to. Let's call my reluctance to do so a personal quirk.

And, odd but true, the first thing I always remember about my hometown is that ersatz movie date at the Capitol Theater on North Street. I wish I could say it involved my first kiss, a great date, or even a great movie, but it was none of those things.

On my 10th birthday, my mother told me I could see any movie, with my dad. I looked through The Eagle (I do know that is still the local paper), and I chose "The Towering Inferno."

Headache inducing

Soon after the movie began, I started to have a bad migraine. Besides the pain, the only thing I remember about that movie is that Fred Astaire was in it — presumably tap dancing was no longer a marketable skill, even then — but I made a go of it for probably the first 45 minutes (it was, after all, a birthday present) before telling my dad I had to leave because I hurt so much.

I distinctly remember that on the way out the woman sitting in the aisle seat asked whether everything was all right, my dad briefly apprised her of my malady, and she said, "This movie would give anyone a headache."

I have never tried to watch the movie again (please don't ruin the surprise in case I ever do), but whenever anyone asks where I'm from "The Towering Inferno" and the anonymous woman's comment are the first things that come to mind whenever I say Pittsfield, a city of decidedly no skyscrapers unless a local architect lost his mind after I left the area. And I couldn't even say whether the Capitol Theater is still standing.

I want to have a more rah-rah attitude when asked about my hometown, but the inevitable thought (however fleeting) of that movie makes it hard, although the story has elicited much laughter with people over a certain age who know the movie but have no clue where on Earth that Pittsfield place is.

I have tried adding that Pittsfield is where Herman Melville wrote at least a good chunk of the dismal commercial failure of a novel that killed his writing career — "Moby-Dick" — but that unsolicited factoid has been greeted with uncountable looks of indifference, incomprehension and pity. And things only get worse when I add that I wrote my master's thesis on Melville's masterpiece.

My dad (with whom I had several madcap adventures ice fishing on Onota Lake) is still in Pittsfield. As is my mother, who once insisted on coming with us, inexplicably bringing a beach chair along, and had a picture of her sitting on it published in The Eagle. I still have a copy of that, in the unlikely event you are interested in seeing it. My kids are fascinated by it.

I will be in Pittsfield for a few days at the end of the year. I have a little catching up and fact checking to do. But, please, don't tell me how the movie ends.

Peter Jakubowicz is a writer in Portland.


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