We failed, of course. This cultural center idea, successful in many communities now, was more than a generation ahead of its time. Leap forward almost forty years to last Saturday afternoon, and, in a box of junk at the top of a closet, I’ve found the “Fire Book!” It really is the Little Red Book of the St. George Theatre in that hapless year, 1976: a red four-subject notebook which served as a kind of unofficial log and manual.
It pays to clean out your closets every now and then!
Why a Fire Book? Originally intended as a record of fire inspections, with a bright red cover that seems to advertise that fact, the very first page of the book addresses fire inspectors specifically. “Fire Warden, please sign and date,” it says, in hopeful block print letters. The rest of that page is blank. The FDNY had its own forms of documentation, with which to write us up, for fire buckets more than 12 inches off the floor and other infractions.
The next few pages are blank, but on page three, an undated and incomplete inventory of candy available at the concession stand follows, written in the adolescent hand of an unnamed high school student: Baby Ruth, Good & Plenty, M&M Plain, Nestle’s Crunch (Large), Hershey Chocolate (large), Spearmint Leaves (box), Raisinets, Goobers, Chocolate Almonds, Sno-Caps, Charleston Chew, and so on. The list follows for several pages, ending in a chart with prices, in alphabetical order. Four more blank pages, then something in Dean’s own hand:
GONE WITH THE WIND +
GODZILLA VS. MEGALON +
STARTS WEDNESDAY +
DEATH MACHINES +
Deeper into the book are SCREEN SKEDS, each dated for the period we ran the movie. From May 12 to 18, for example, we ran Jaws on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Monday and Tuesday, at 7 and 9:10, alternating with trailer packages at 6:49 and 8:59. On Saturday and Sunday, Jaws started at 1 PM, and we were off-screen just before midnight (11:48), avoiding the expensive overtime the Projectionist’s Union (Local 306) would have charged after midnight.
What is the meaning of all this, the blank fire log, the incomplete candy inventory, the more-than-complete log of movie times and trailer packages? I remembered the Red Book, though Dean has entirely forgotten it.
"You kept it at the concession stand, where you liked to do business, in the middle of things,” I reminded him, “You took a shift at selling candy and saved a few bucks, while you were at it.”
Mao had his Little Red Book, and we had ours, so important once, and these days a research trove for me. Pain is written in those pages, but only I can see it. Although the theater never burned (no thanks to the fire inspectors), the business we were running was, in a very different sense, on fire — it ran in the red, losing money day after day after day.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention an item in the middle of the book, a list of the candy and soda and hot dogs most of us took from Concession. Each staff member wrote down the item taken, plus his or her name, expecting the candy to be deducted from a paycheck, but Management (as we styled ourselves), didn’t have to reimburse the meal of hot dog and popcorn and coffee--and whatever else--we took to keep us going. We never paid ourselves. Someday we would — or so we thought.
MANY THANKS TO CLIFFORD BROWDER FOR A BRILLIANT BLOG POST ON MOVIE THEATERS
(Think you know everything about movie theaters? Check out French provincial theaters of the fifties, tales from the wild side, off Times Square in the xxx-rated Sixties, and art houses where the film got yanked). I guarantee you'll learn something at No Place for Normal: New York!