Television, ironically, achieved over the course of those eight nights what we in our grand old movie palace had failed to do. We’d been trying to bring our white suburban and black urban audiences together under one wide dome to watch movies — not an easy feat in a neighborhood many white people were afraid to drive through. It didn’t help that, after winter set in, our beloved St. George Theater had no heat, thanks to a landlord who was actively trying to evict us. Then, in that most desperate winter — from January 23 through January 30, while Roots aired — we were for the first time completely vacant. Our scant winter audience, those few brave souls accustomed to sitting in their hats and coats in a cold auditorium, had stayed home in front of their own televisions.
VCRs existed, but they were toys of the rich, so when a program aired, you watched it — or missed it. And everyone knew that Roots was not to be missed, a game-changing event. The last night set a nationwide Nielsen Ratings record for the largest audience ever to view a televised show. That record would not be bested until 1983, when M*A*S*H aired for the last time. Roots was obviously the ultimate triumph of television over movies, that had been coming for some time, but it was much larger. Except for me, the managers and skeleton crews of other theaters, and whoever else was unlucky enough to work nights, everyone watched, as the forbidden story of slavery unfolded. A
scandal some years later, would call into question some of the details of Haley’s tale; was it fiction or non-fiction? But inaccurate or not, it was a story that needed to be told. I was glad, the morning after each of those eight nights, to hear our staff, black and white boys and girls who loved and trusted one another, buzzing about Roots.