In the 1950’s, the question wasn’t “Are you going to see it?” but “When are you going?” Speaking of which, if you've never seen this movie--starring David Niven and Cantinflas (the original, not the 2004 remake), it’s well worth hunting up on Netflix. With a cast of 68,000 extras, shot on location in 112 countries, it cost producer Mike Todd six million dollars to make, an epic of epic proportions, the perfect vehicle for America’s aging but still mostly pristine movie palaces. Six million dollars, by the way, is roughly equivalent to fifty million dollars in today’s bucks. Todd had to sell his production company to finance the film.
Debt and Christmas at the movies, a theme dear to my heart. Let’s move ahead to Christmas Eve, 1976. I’m standing in the lobby of the St. George Theater, the movie palace my husband and I are going broke trying to save. The Albee, back home is closed now, about to be torn down. I can dimly recall how it used to look at Christmas time, with what must have been a twenty-five foot tree in the lobby. The entire building smelled of pine branches. Even the ante-chamber to the ladies powder room had a wreath. The Albee had celebrated a birthday every Christmas Eve, the anniversary of its opening in 1927, but this Christmas I think of it, dark and closed, the center of a demolition battle its advocates will lose.
Meanwhile, here I stand in our barely-heated lobby, pissed, because we can’t even have a wreath behind the concession stand. We’re actually too strapped for cash to buy one, but I had clipped some pine branches and begin decking the halls, the lobby and concession, when our omnipresent fire inspector appears. This was the guy Dean called “the crocodile” — leathery skin, a wide predatory smile. He appears out of nowhere and commands me take it all down.
Meanwhile, showing on our wide stained screen is a low-budget “documentary,” In Search of Noah’s Ark, one in a series of movies whose raison d’etre is to present “scientific” evidence of events depicted in the Bible. Noah’s original ark has been found on Mt. Ararat, or so the documentarian claims. We’d managed to cobble together a deal for a “four wall.” Sunn Pictures, a Utah company, had bought us out for two weeks, so all we had to do was show up and open the doors and the concession stand. The movie drew busloads of Christians, but our regular patrons have stayed home in droves, angry because the theater is suddenly charging three fifty for what are normally buck fifty seats.
Later that night, back home, I make eggnog and decorate my own house with pine branches, and dream of David Niven and his co-star, Cantinflas, drifting over an immaculate white 70-mm screen in a large colorful balloon, slightly removed from worries of day-to-day survival in a decidedly earthbound movie palace.