It was really a box! Cris sat inside, like the gypsy mannequin in the fortune-telling machine at Coney Island. To this day, free-standing box offices are magnetic to me, they’re irresistible, like the clam on a just-opened shell, or the ring in a fancy jeweler’s satin-lined coffer, or that little ballerina in a hand-carved music box from Italy. The box office at the movie palace I briefly ran in Staten Island, after I’d grown up and moved to New York, was not free-standing, and a good thing too. Given the dicey nature of our tough urban streets in 1976, it was just as well that our teller’s cage-style box office was inside the lobby of the St. George Theatre. But that didn’t keep me from thinking about my sister at the Mt. Lookout.
The term “box office” grew out of the era that preceded Nickelodeons, when any storefront could become a “theater.” With a sheet on the back wall of a bare room, and chairs, often as not, borrowed from elsewhere, early theater owners were in business. A simple box standing in the doorway, to sell and collect tickets completed the start-up. The more successful a little theater became, the more permanent the box, which grew, eventually, large enough to hold at least one employee. As the great movie palaces vied to attract multitudes, that box in the doorway got fancier still, part of the dream of escape.
Palaces came in all shapes and sizes, but all were designed to start the movie-going fantasy well before the viewer had even paid for a ticket. On the subject of S. Charles Lee’s Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo, Maggie Valentine observes, “...all the lines of the lobby, from the [free-standing] box office and the marble terrazzo to the undulating side walls containing the poster cases, coordinate to pull the customer toward the entry” ( p. 98). The free-standing box office was an intentional clam-shell, with Venus at its core! S. Charles Lee himself admitted that one of his architectural goals in designing free-standing box offices had been to flatter the attendant. Here’s Valentine again, pursuing the theme of theater visibility, “Rippling plaster ‘lids’ resembling the caricatured marcelled hair of leading men sat atop glass walls, which were etched with flowers, the name of the theatre, or the pattern of the terrazzo. The base was polished aluminum, stainless steel, bronze, or marble. The entry doors echoed these motifs with circular windows, etched glass, or polished bronze.” (p 102).
Ah, those circular windows! The Mt. Lookout had them, even in the Cincinnati suburbs: two half-moons of glass meeting to form a pair of doors to the left and right of my sister’s magic showcase.
So here’s to (fancy) portals of commerce in cities and towns all over the world: the Crest Theatre in Fresno whose box office resembles a cake with royal icing, the glass-brick and chrome box office of the Surf Theatre in Ocean City, New Jersey, the Ohio Theatre in Columbus, whose pagoda-like box office could qualify as an elaborate “tiny house.”
That’s what probably attracted me in the first place, to my sister’s Art Moderne single room on a Mt. Lookout sidewalk. I was after all a little girl, and wasn’t it, really just a doll house? My sister, the living doll, dwelt inside.
Afterthought: My mother didn’t approve of Cris’s theater job, partly because, gorgeous as my sister was, her study habits were abysmal. Our mother also thought the theater a little seedy; but had she known! Years after Mother died, Cris confessed to me that on New Year’s Eve the year she worked at the Mt. Lookout, she’d been sitting in the glass booth when a car careened suddenly around the corner on two wheels spitting out a single bullet, which penetrated the glass just above her head. What a glamorous corpse she might have made...!
A decade and a half later, I sat behind the bars of our (interior) box office at the St. George Theatre, wishing I could just let a few kids slide by for free, the way my sister had waved me through. But the 35-cent free ticket of my childhood was, by then, ninety cents, and we needed every penny.