On Memorial Day in 1976, the auditorium of our rented theater was about as vacant as it would be for a long time. Taxi Driver was on screen, almost first-run, but, despite the fact that it had generated some pretty decent numbers the previous five days, hardly anyone was there to watch it. Holidays are miserable days in the movie business, starting and ending with Christmas, but also including Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, Easter Sunday, and the 4th of July. We gathered around the concession stand to chew the fat, trying to forget the fact that the projectionist was pulling down almost fourteen dollars an hour (equivalent to around $75 in today’s money) for showing a movie to an almost vacant house.
It was on one or another of these holidays — I can’t remember which movie we’d managed to pry loose from one of the distributors--that absolutely nobody showed up for a matinee. Carbons to run our antique projectors were costing us a small fortune, but we needed to keep on time, in case someone showed up in the middle of an advertised showing. The solution? Dean went to the candy stand and called the booth, ordering the projectionist to run the movie — without benefit of the crucial spark the carbon creates that lights the film. Accordingly, the film, including the audio, was still running, literally spooling onto the take-up reel, but through a darkened projector.
Halfway through the movie, a man strode into the lobby and paid for a ticket, then stopped at the candy stand to buy a small popcorn. Over his shoulder, I could see the screen blossom. Dean had called the booth already, “Light it up!” He’d ordered Gabe, the projectionist. As our solitary patron made his way toward the auditorium doors, the movie was clearly on screen.
I like sitting in a vacant auditorium, but our patron got nervous. Twenty minutes after he sat down, he appeared at the candy stand.
“Can I see the manager?” he asked.
“Speaking,” said Dean, who had sent most of the staff, including the concession staffer, home early.
“Can I have my buck fifty back?”
“Well, cuz there’s nobody else in there...”
“I mean, it’s, like well...spooky. There’s nobody else in there.”
“I can give you a pass. You could come back later.”
“Well...okay, you think anybody will be there...later?”
“Hopefully,” said Dean, who scrawled a pass on the back of a concession reconciliation form. Then he reached for the phone. As the patron wandered out into what was left of the day, Dean spoke to the booth, “Gabe, pull the carbon.”
“Why?” Gabe wondered.
“The guy left!”
At certain moments I wonder, Should we have?
FLASHBACK FORTY YEARS:
Wednesday, May 26, 1976
Taxi Driver hit the screen at The St. George Theatre.
"All Seats, All Times, $1.50, children 90 cents."
(Text from the original listing:
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