The traveling minister called out of nowhere. Easy money! No projectionist to pay, no box office or concession staff, and at least a few of us “managers” could sleep late. But at 1:30 A.M. Saturday, as the midnight show was winding down, our father-and-son cleaning service, tired of spilled Coke syrup and popcorn, and knowing they’d have to clean the whole place, including the balcony, resigned.
It was early in our theater enterprise, only a month since the theater’s “Grand Opening.” We had plenty of entrepreneurial energy and a brand-new Electrolux canister vacuum I’d just bought. In subsequent years, this rolling steel can would acquire the nickname “R2D2” for its resemblance to the Star Wars character, but in 1976 Spielberg’s epic hadn’t yet burst into the public imagination. Gleaming and still nameless, our vacuum was a work horse, and a good thing too. We also had a broom and an endless supply of trash bags. After the last usher left, three of us — all members of “management” — climbed the steps to the balcony, lugging the vacuum behind us. We would ace this, then maybe catch a nap before the sun rose.
Should’ve been a cinch in the balcony — that part of the theater was off-limits to the audience with its endless popcorn and spilled Coke. But somehow, despite our strategically placed Balc ny Closed sign on the lowest step to the Loge and a rope across the stairs at the other end of the lobby, there was more life upstairs than we thought: an empty bong, candy wrappers, a sweater, even a pair of panties! Why was I surprised? “Off-limits” means “come in” to at least a third of every population.
As for finding surprising things, a friend once discovered a gun stashed between seats in the upper balcony of a hometown theater. Only about ten at the time, she wrapped it in a scarf, then tried to hide it in a bedroom closet back home, but her daddy, thankfully, got wise.
As I worked my way down the aisles with R2D2 that night (a colleague vaulting the seats just ahead of me, clearing away the bigger trash), I was ignorant of time. In a movie palace there is no daylight —that’s why pictures of half-demolished palaces, with their pierced domes, seem so shocking. Emerging sun-blind like the nocturnal cave creatures we’d become, we were stunned to learn it was seven thirty! The church people would be in the lobby in about forty-five minutes, to claim their temporary sanctuary.
We’d taken better than six hours to clean the place. The area near the Orchestra pit, including the pit itself, had been particularly vile — banana peels and condoms. It smelled suspiciously like a subway platform — I will not elaborate.
One of us broom-swept the stage, to which in only a few hours, hundreds of “saved” souls would find themselves drawn, having “cast off” their crutches.
The Reverend — whose name is lost to memory — arrived on time with a crew, including one man whose job it would be to audiotape the sermons and testimonies, and make instant high-speed copies for sale in the lobby, an impressive operation.
Dean and I strode out into the light of day, looking forward to breakfast alone together at the St. George Clipper, a diner down the street. It was — I forgot to mention — the morning of Dean’s 30th birthday. I seem to recall he had an omelette.
- R2D2 is still viable, having outlasted about six vacuums bought since then, none of which has ever cleaned a movie palace. When the Miele was last on the fritz, I drafted the Electrolux, despite the vacuum repair shop’s warning that it could “have a heart attack at any time.” So far, so good...
- Unbelievably, a vacuum entrepreneur is offering a vacuum cleaner that is also a replica of the original Star Wars R2D2! Check it out!
- Two years ago we visited The Valencia in Queens, one of the original five Loew’s (New York) “Wonder Theaters.” Like many surviving palaces, the theater has morphed into a dedicated sacred space, the Tabernacle of Prayer for All People, displaying in its lobby a wall-ful of crutches and canes thrown down by ecstatic congregants in one or another service. The projection booth serves these days as a “prayer tower.” The congregation has, for the most part, taken exemplary care of this Rococo/Spanish/Pre-Columbian atmospheric theater.