A friend — who used to work with me at the St. George Theatre in 1976 — remembers:
There was a group of boys...about 10 or ll years old. They only had a few quarters among them. They wanted to get in so much, one of the boys started dancing for me, hoping he would impress me, and I would let him in. His dancing was great. I said to him, "Take one of your quarters and ride the Ferry...dance for people and you'll make enough money to get in here, I'm sure." They did this, and the dancing kid came back, later, smiling big time, he proudly showed me a fist full of dollars. He said, "I did it! I'll be back for the show later, I'm gonna buy me a new pair of [Nikes?]"—I forget which kind of sneakers he said, but they were the rage back then.
Makes me wonder. Maybe after that he kept dancing on the boat and got up his confidence, and caught the Number 1 (Broadway Local) to 125th St for an audition at The Apollo or Dance Theater of Harlem. Or he went to Times Square and danced on 42nd Street, where a Broadway producer noticed him. Some members of the original cast of Hair were recruited that way.
Other performances in the theater lobby for the benefit of box office staff were less obviously translatable to the stage, the weekly appearance, for example, of old Dr. Oppenheimer, a retired internist who wheeled her shopping cart into the lobby once or twice a week to buy hotdogs and talk to me. The good doctor was barely tall enough to be seen above the edge of my marble sill, but all the same she had a presence. Peering through her wire-rims, she laid a gnarled rheumatoid hand on the sill for support. “Well, since you’re still here,” — I assumed she meant you haven’t folded yet — "...may I please go in and buy another of those excellent hot dogs?” She’d buy one, then eat it while telling me stories about the Vaudeville actors whose St. George Theater dressing rooms were robbed in the thirties while they were performing or the time she heard the boxer Jack Dempsey speak at a bond rally during the war. “This place has a history,” she insisted, as if I didn’t know.
Dean camped out in the box office to make business calls, on silent Wednesday afternoons, covering a shift we would otherwise have had to pay someone minimum wage for. He recalls a particular man, who often came in, mid-forties, well dressed, with a little bit of a limp. He never bought a ticket, that wasn’t the point.
He’d wait politely — while Dean finished whatever call he was on — then mumble, “wass playin’ nex week?”
“Don’t you want to go to the show now?” Dean always asked.
“Nah, seen it. wass next?” was the unvarying reply.
Not knowing from week to week what well-worn flick we could get our hands on, the first few Wednesdays Dean told him the truth, “Haven’t booked it yet.” The man thanked him and left, only to return the following Wednesday, at approximately the same time.
The summer wore on, and by way of varying the script, Dean started making up fantasy double and triple features: Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, or Casablanca, Citizen Kane and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Sometimes a first-run movie came to mind, one he knew we’d never get our hands on.
“There’s something in the works called Star Wars, it’s gonna open here next spring...” he told his interlocutor.
“Seen it,” the guy said, he always said that. It wasn’t due out 'til spring of ’77, but that didn’t seem to matter.
“...check witya next time...” and he was out the door.
We used to joke that we could close the whole place down and just sell hot dogs. Well, maybe, as long as we kept the box office open too.
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Note: A few weeks ago, I shared an afternoon on the North Shore of Staten Island with my good friend and fellow NYC blogger, Clifford Browder. We happened to find parking near the St. George Theatre, so walked in for a brief glimpse of the place. A summer performance workshop for children was rehearsing in the lobby just past the foyer — singing, dancing — there was a piano set up. Among other things, the theater's education outreach program includes “...modern, jazz, ballet, hip-hop, street tap...preparation for auditions, and performance.” It’s interesting to observe that the desperate kid with the quarters was only slightly ahead of his time.