In 1976, along with the above-mentioned husband and a group of friends, I tried my hand for a year at running a 2672-seat movie palace in St. George, Staten Island, the St. George Theatre.
Our theater was and is a gilded plaster Spanish Baroque six-story cave, where slightly old flicks (Taxi Driver, The Exorcist, The Man Who Would Be King) could be had for a buck fifty. You could share this nightly waking dream, in the time-honored tradition of cinema, without knowing anybody or saying anything to anyone. This week I’d like to offer a story my insomniac husband/business partner shared with me about life at the movies. Here goes, in Dean’s own words:
I had a grand theater dream. Every once in a while I have one, and they almost always happen at the St. George. It was a Saturday, late afternoon, a matinee. I was in the balcony, but instead of being a twenty-nine-year-old terrified theater operator, I was a boy, maybe 10 or 11. I was sitting halfway up on the extreme left side looking down at the screen. It was crowded, two-thirds full and there was the sweet-grass smell of popcorn. It was a Western. John Wayne, visible mid-chest to the top of his hat, was looking at something offscreen to the right. I’m not sure I heard him say anything. I was with around 2000 people, and yet I was totally alone. Isn’t that the magic of why we come to theaters? We want to share with other people the experience of the movie, but we want to be alone — like community and privacy all at once.
When I woke it was such a vivid memory, I switched on the flat-screen and went to Apple TV, then Netflix, searching for movies with John Wayne. Then I stopped. Even if I do have a fifty-inch screen, I didn’t want to see that image shrunk down so small. The John Wayne in my dreams was a couple of stories tall. I wanted to keep him the way I thought I saw him from the balcony.
With all of our personal screens, are we losing something? I have three: iPhone, iPad, flat-screen, but I didn’t want to see that image or any part of that movie on anything so small, and I didn’t want to see it by myself.
That is what the movies, a product of the 19th century, refined in the twentieth, gave to us, that we must not lose, as we wade more deeply into the twenty-first: being alone together in the dark with a two-story dream.
I reminded Dean that we actually did show one John Wayne/Katherine Hepburn title, Rooster Cogburn. Early in the year as it was, we were so busy worrying about how to keep the place open that neither of us considered sitting down to watch that or most of the other movies that followed.
Yet, in his dream he watched, transporting himself back to his boyhood in Deer Park, Ohio — when John Wayne was fairly standard fare — and, as dreams give us the liberty to do, placing that little boy in the balcony of the theater he would one day struggle with the rest of us to keep open, his own personal version of Back to the Future.
Have any two-story dreams?