I ran a “mom and pop” theater once, a 2,672-seat single-screen movie palace, the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, back in 1976. Okay, it wasn’t like a tiny Paris revival house, but we did once or twice play to fewer than six or seven people, making the vast gold and red-velvet interior seem vaster.
It was on Wednesdays at the St. George, matinee day, when we could forecast our losses for the week. If the matinee did squat, we knew the movie’d be a doggie for the whole weekend: true for Gable and Lombard, equally true for The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea.
One particular afternoon, nobody at all showed up, all 2,672 seats empty. What to do? Dean (the “pop” in our mom and pop operation) called Gabe in the booth and instructed him to kill the projector, but keep the sound track going, so we’d stay on schedule for the evening, in hopes that somebody eventually would show up. “Then,” he pointed out to the grizzled projectionist, “you can just fire up the projectors to go along with the sound. Why burn expensive carbons when nobody’s watching?”
Around four thirty, a lone customer appeared. He bought a ticket, grabbed some popcorn and headed into the dark. Dean instructed Gabe to fire up the projectors, and the movie bloomed on the screen.
Seemed okay, but a few minutes later, our single patron reappeared.
“Can I have my money back?” he asked Dean, who was stocking the concession stand.
“What’s the problem?”
“Well, it’s just so lonely in there...” the man confessed.
That, apparently, would never happen in the City of Light, where the love of cinema trumps all, and where, remarkably even today, people would rather go out to the movies than stream or binge-watch Fresh Off the Boat. And the rep houses (long vanished in New York, for the most part), are so various in Paris that often two or three versions of a movie can be had in different parts of town. Want to see the 2013 Great Gatsby? You have to be careful not to show up at the 1974 or even the 1949 Gatsbys showing at other unrelated locales.
The other thing Sedaris prizes about going to the movies there is the silence. Parisians simply don’t talk during the movie, not even teens on a Saturday at a slasher flick. He prizes this silence, what he calls, “the French dark...” which he could never find in Chicago, where a neighboring moviegoer insisted on listening to the Cubs’ game during a movie. Or other places in the U.S. where people would rather defend their rights of self-expression than surrender to what’s on screen.
This was particularly the case at the St. George in ’76, where, even before Rocky Horror, people talked back — or just talked — all through the movie. Our auditorium, in those happy times when the orchestra section was almost full, buzzed like an open-air market on a good Saturday.
So how is it that Paris gets away with this degree of cinema refinement? How do those tiny cinemas survive, sans even a concession stand, to offset costs? Apparently someone wanders the audience selling candy and ice cream from “...a tiny tray around his neck.”
Moviegoing habits seem to be dying out on this side of the water, offset in some places by luxury seating and table service, but Paris cinema goes on, a lovely anachronism, silence and choice in a city that takes its movies seriously, the city where, in fact, movies began.
1. The original Sedaris essay was excerpted in a lovely book, Paris in Mind, edited by Jennifer Lee, Vintage Books, 2003.
2. If you do make it over there, I have it on recent authority that you’ll need to break a few codes to figure out movie-going in Paris, and a detailed guide to all the cinemas doesn’t hurt either. Here’s some news from a couple who conquered the cinemas there. Also, visit www.secretsofparis.com Don’t forget, you’ll be watching movies in English mostly, not French. I think that’s some of the allure for Sedaris, the familiar made unfamiliar.
3. Next time I get to Paris, I intend to check out the Grand Rex, largest single movie auditorium in Europe (2,750 seats). Wonder if they have a candy stand?