“Popcorn,” sighed Dean.
At the St. George Theatre, a 2,672-seat Staten Island movie palace we kept open for the better part of a year beginning in 1976, popcorn was (strange comparison?) our life blood. And if indeed it was a kind of plasma, that Sunday afternoon we badly needed a corn transfusion.
There was at that time, in our community and many other towns and cities in the United States, a sisterhood of theaters, most with single screens;“twins” were the rare thing still, and the multiplex was at least a decade in the future. In Staten Island, there were around eight mostly single-screen houses, including our local Paramount Theatre, the only other palace on the island, a high chrome Art Deco wonder, with suggestions of the Chrysler Building in its facade.
In the summer of ’76, the glory had mostly passed from palaces, once first-run houses, but now, even on a good night, likely two-thirds vacant and lucky to be showing some or another shop-worn classic. So it was with us and with our sister, The Paramount, fighting us for the same sorry trickle of customers. Rivals, sisters, it was one and the same thing.
One warm summer night earlier in the year, an usher from the Paramount had showed up with two fifty-dollar bills begging for “...singles and quarters, man...we’re out.” Change to a small business of any kind, especially on the weekend, is never given lightly — especially in those days of abbreviated banking hours. All the local banks closed at three on Friday, and that was it for the weekend. We crossed our fingers that we had enough change to make it to Monday, and gave him a heavy sack of rolled coin.
Now we were out of popcorn, another — almost equally vital — kind of currency. A brief call to the Paramount’s manager, and one of our staffers was on his way to pick up all the “pre-pop” we wanted.
“Pre-pop," I muttered. “...oh well, beggars can’t be choosers.” We were concession snobs, queens and kings of fresh popped corn with real butter, Kosher hotdogs on homemade rolls. If Michelin had awarded stars to theater concession stands, we’d have had at least four. Still, we were grateful.
Within 30 minutes, our messenger returned to the lobby with four enormous clear plastic bags of commercial pre-pop. I began to shovel the stuff into the warmer, while Paullie melted Odell’s (clarified) butter to top it off. Whew! — back in business. There was no scent of popped corn on the air, but, although sales of corn were down, I consoled myself with the notion that the audience was probably too stoned to notice there was only pre-pop.
The following morning a truck rolled up with ten five-pound tins of kernels. We knew right away what we had to do. It took over four hours, but we popped enough corn to refill each of the clear plastic bags, and that very afternoon drove them down the road to the Paramount, where they were (no pun intended) warmly received.
What became of The Paramount? Neither of our palaces would make it to 1978 showing movies; such was the fate of single-screen houses in the mid to late seventies.
But like the St. George, our Deco neighbor still stands, a testament to luck and low real estate values on the north shore of Staten Island. The Paramount endured the usual twists and turns of post-movie theater transformation: The Paramount Nightclub, a rock concert hall (featuring The Ramones, Squeeze, even the B-52’s), becoming at last a storage facility for a local sporting goods store that occupied, eventually, all the storefronts in that block. This last may have not been such a harsh fate. Basketballs and hockey sticks are benign cargo, and the sporting goods mogul, Steckman’s, had to keep the theater’s roof repaired to ensure that his stock stayed dry. Unluckier shuttered palaces — Loew’s Kings, for example — suffered terrible damage from unrepaired roofs.