Staten Island’s St. George Theatre in the year we ran it, 1976, had the highest per capita concession sales (translation: most food sold per customer) of any theater in the five boroughs of New York City. We may not have been able to fill more than a few hundred of our 2672 seats, but most people arrived at those seats loaded down with a chunky assortment of what we offered to eat: fresh buttered popcorn, candy, soda, ballpark hotdogs on Italian buns, and Haagan Dazs ice cream. Many came back for seconds.
How could we make that thirds? Dean (my husband and partner) pondered this question, and then he remembered reading about a study of subliminal advertising. In 1957, a researcher named James Vicary had inserted a single frame (not discernible to the conscious mind) with the words “Eat Popcorn” into a movie — as well as another frame that suggested “Drink Coke.” Supposedly, popcorn and Coke sales increased dramatically, results that were subsequently deemed a hoax. Dean forgot the hoax part.
Our experiment in subliminal advertising had as much to do with the smell of pot as popcorn. On a busy Friday or Saturday night, especially during midnight shows, certain ushers were often amongst the missing. Where were they? In the heat room, a space approximately twenty by twenty by forty feet, in the bowels of the theater, where all the air circulated, using large fans. During cold weather, a gigantic radiator covered one whole wall of this room, over and around which cool air was drawn from the auditorium and returned to it warm. Since pot smoke made its way into the heat room along with the cold air, some ushers thought they could get a contact high hanging out there. They didn’t. But Dean thought the system might work in reverse!
One Saturday morning, he asked two ushers to haul an old popcorn warmer into the heat room, then, right before showtime, they loaded it with five or six jumbo bags of popcorn saturated with extra butter. Up through the vents in the floor of the auditorium came the smell of fresh buttered popcorn. We’ve lost the statistics, but popcorn sales did increase dramatically. Of course, given all that pot smoke, the munchies had a lot to do with why our concession sales were always astronomical.
Forty years later, I’ve made the acquaintance of a professional concessionaire, Hot Dog Donna, who operates out of a converted ’88 Toyota Dolphin RV in Nyack, New York. I wish I’d had her pulled pork on a bun to offer my blissed–out pot–drenched customers! I envy her portability: if only we could have hitched our stand to a trailer and towed it away from the lovely, extravagant palace it was fatally attached to.