In her memoir, Canal Zone Daughter, Judy Haisten describes her childhood memories of exploiting movie theater seats for their “steelies”:


“Broken seats were common because of the ‘steelies’ – steel ball-bearings that would come out of the seat mechanism if you knew how to get one. The steelie was a hot commodity. We played marbles every day at school and nothing, I mean nothing, beat having a steelie in a marble collection.

…The best way to get a steelie was from a movie-theater seat. First you had to find an unbroken seat. Next, you had to bounce hard in the seat, over and over, just right until the seat broke and the ball-bearing fell out. Then you had to move fast to catch that tiny steel ball before it rolled down the theater floor.

With a wooden floor, everyone else in the theater also heard the steelie rolling and tried to grab it. No one would waste an opportunity to get a precious steelie. The little ball rolling down the floor was free game – until it was in someone’s hands.”

Haisten’s memories are from Gamboa Movie Theater – did you retrieve steelies from other movie theaters as well? Besides movie theater seats, how would you get steelies? Why were they so significant in playing marbles? What memories do you have about finding or playing with steelies?


Movie program sheet, Balboa and Coco Solo Theaters, February 1978


  • Mimi Stratford Collins

    LOL! Judy was after my time, but any kid who might have tried that when I worked at Balboa Theater in the early ’60s I would have been “evacuated”! 😉

    I do remember marbles, and steelies, and I did read Judy’s book with a great deal of pleasure. 🙂

    BTW, I was a good marble player before my family moved to Panama in 1954. I took my hard-earned marbles with me when we moved! 😀

  • Robert A Dryja

    The following are other aspects of going to the “movies” when I was young in the 1950’s.

    The Balboa movie theater was located at the other end of the Clubhouse. Until the conversion to sixty cycle electricity occurred, it was one of two places which had air conditioning. It was here that I learned all about Tarzan, watching the matinees on Saturday afternoons in the summer. High school teenage boys wore sport coats while going to the theater if taking a girl for a date.

    We took a boa constrictor to the theater once. A boy wrapped the snake around his waist under his shirt and the snake held on to him to keep warm. As a result no adults suspected anything. A Tarzan movie was been shown if I remember correctly. The boy dangled the snake from the balcony to the children below at a critical moment during the movie. They ran away screaming, insisting there was a snake in the theater. Naturally, none of the ushers believed them and assumed they only had overheated imaginations.

    A lot of people smoked cigarettes inside of buildings. This included inside the theater while a movie as being shown. One side of the seating area was for smokers while the other side was for non-smokers. I typically sat in the higher level, balcony seats. I would watch great clouds of cigarette smoke rise toward the ceiling from the smoking area. The smoke became dramatically bright when it drifted in front of the light coming from the movie projector.

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