With its brocade curtain, 2672 seats, gilded dome and full stage, the St. George had been the island’s premier house, run by the Fabian Chain, which had also owned the Paramount, a few other now-defunct theaters and a briefly-successful drive-in, whose land had been sold off to build the mall. In our theater year, the “District Office” (in faded gold lettering) — an office which stood at the back end of our theater’s elegant corridor — was already a storage room. Was that where Sy Fabian had held court in his time? The St. George had been a flagship, first-run, but by 1976, we were reduced to battling the Jerry Lewis and others for scant second- and third-run product, movies like Blazing Saddles (1974), Jaws and Dog Day Afternoon (both1975), not to mention Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). It was hard to book viable movies. Once, desperate and ashamed, we even ran a xxx porn title I can’t recall the name of. It drew a sad and scanty audience.
Twelve years later, when I saw Cinema Paradiso — and years before I began to write Starts Wednesday: Coming of Age in a Movie Palace — I longed for the St. George, and I wondered what was happening to the movie business anyhow? Better still these days I wonder what gives with the habit of going to movies? The day after another Oscar extravaganza, I’m reflecting on something Mike Nichols once
said in an interview (a slight paraphrase), “Film is an act of the unconscious... [You are] sitting alone in the dark, and the dream begins.” Can this happen on an iPad? An Android? The flat screen in your kitchen? Or at a cineplex — which is, after all, a kind of glorified box?
Tomorrow I’m off to Philadelphia, to see Still Alice with my sister at the Ambler Theater, it’s a ritual —we do this once a month. And while there are plenty of other theaters in Philly, we always go to the Ambler, a restored treasure of a theater. It’s like in the old days, when there was a theater in every neighborhood. What’s showing at the ....? Like then, we’re picking the theater first, the movie second!