Forty seven years later in 1976, a team of young would-be entrepreneurs who had grown up under the domes of similar palaces, took our turn at running the shopworn, mostly empty but still elegant, St. George.
What did I know of movie theater management that April? I hardly understood the lingo agents and vendors spoke, though some of it was recognizable. Alright, so issues of Variety did show up, from time to time, at our house, but I had never cracked them. They seemed clubby, and the brash show-biz dialect put me off. The very first week we ran the St. George, our booking agent (a short dark-haired dude who dressed in Dacron and pulled down his regular paycheck from the showbiz mogul, Ted Mann, wished us Boffo Socko on opening night with our first double feature, Blazing Saddles and Bananas. Only afterwards did I learn what “boffo” and “socko” mean and that, as a matter of fact, side-by-side in a sentence they actually form a redundancy. Both mean “very good” when applied to B.O. (not “body odor” — “box office”). So our agent Nick was wishing us a very very good night. Now if he’d added whammo to those verys, he’d have been anticipating something on the order of a sell-out, which Blazing Saddles sadly fell short of, as did the vast majority of the films we showed in our theater year.
By the time we left the St. George, we were broke, yes, but I was a little more fluent in theater operator patois. I knew that a movie (or any kind of show) with staying power or “stamina,” has to have legs, a term with such legs of its own, it’s traveled beyond show-biz. Scandals, the ones that involve senators in washrooms or presidents in oval offices, can also be said to have legs. (What is politics anyhow, if not a big show?).
When, BTW, the actual legs in a movie are as provocative as Madeline Kahn’s are in Blazing Saddles, they definitely have sex appeal, a term Variety takes full credit for inventing. Who knew? It’s in their Slanguage Dictionary after all!
We never ran a horse opera after Blazing Saddles (which was, after all, a satire of one), but we did run three Bruce Lee Kung Fu’s which, I now learn, are sometimes called chopsocky. We ran Cooley High, about growing up black in the Cabrini-Green projects, in Chicago. It’s a classic these days, an early example of black cinema, though some list it under the genre Blaxsploitation. The previous is not a Variety coinage, though it sounds like it. The word was actually minted by L.A. NAACP head Junius Griffin, a film publicist.
Three to five hundred people a day (if we were lucky) in a 2,672-seat auditorium meant we were flopping — or laying small eggs — a lot. But we got lucky a couple of times. Once only, we actually had a sellout: boffo (boffola), whammo, socko, The Exorcist, in its return to the big screen, which required us to open the balcony for two weekends. After that, we returned to our usual doggies, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, Bad News Bears, In Search of Noah’s Ark. That last was a four-wall, which Variety reminds us is “...a theater rental contract where the producer assumes responsibility for all of the expenses of a show and gets all of the revenue.” Essentially, it reduces the theater operator to the role of sharecropper, which, by Christmas, we more or less were.
Six storeys above our theater’s mostly vacant orchestra, in the projection booth, Gabe, our aged projectionist, unspooled the film that arrived each week in hexagonal canisters. “Unspooled” still circulates at Cannes they say, despite a dearth of actual film...
In the end, we failed spectacularly to achieve the house nut, (cover our operating expenses). Short of cash and hope, you could say we ankled (walked out on) our jobs at the theater. The landlord had nixed us, as in a certain well-known Varietyheadline from 1935, “Stix Nix Hick Pix,” (hit this link, if you want a translation).
In the year of the theater, there had been some consolations. For one thing, we had a terrific staff, who would have worked for free if we’d let them (we were tempted). Just up the hill, beneath a bush in our yard, a stray bitch had given birth that spring to six pups. It was a cold April: two died immediately. We took the remaining four inside and raised them on powdered milk from doll baby bottles. The pups — Boffo, Socko, Ruffian and Ralph — lived, for a time, in the theater’s mezzanine. It was, finally, Ruffian and Boffo we ended up keeping. Now she really had legs!
- By now you may have figured out that all the underlined slang in this article was at one time invented by Variety. Some rag! (not their coinage apparently).
- Ruffian the dog was named for a thoroughbred filly who died after breaking down at the track in 1975.