Leroy was short and slender, but he styled himself big. Sporting his signature strut (modeled on the boxer Mike Tyson), he made his way toward Dean. “...Woman at the door wants a hotdog, wants two actually an’ a small corn...I told her the movie’s almost over, but she don’t care. Says all she wants is dinner. Candy stand closed, right?”
The stand was more or less functional, the coffee and popcorn still warm. “No problem, let her come on in,” Dean replied. He’d fix up the dogs and corn himself.
This kind of thing happened all the time in a neighborhood where dinner and a movie could translate into just dinner, if we were willing. Whole families sometimes came in and asked to order food for take-out. We did have the highest per capita stand in all five boroughs, which is to say our average patron spent a buck fifty on a ticket and about the same on food. That’s a lot when you consider that a Big Mac in 1976 cost 65 cents. The national average on concession per movie patron was just under 90 cents. Those who couldn’t afford the movie just asked if they could buy dinner. The woman in question became a regular, always showing up towards the end of the last showing, as if to say, “All I want is food.” Who could blame her? Sabrett’s all beef ball-park hotdogs on homemade Italian rolls that had arrived fresh that morning, dijon mustard. Fresh popped corn with clarified butter, fresh coffee, and, if you could afford dessert, Haagen-Daaz ice cream, first of its kind in NYC, delivered weekly by a skinny guy in a station wagon.
Then there was the jazz dude, a retired side-man who used to show up in spangled (sequin) suits, each with a matching hat. I assumed these were his show outfits: one in Kelly green, one purple, one scarlet, one gold, one silver. He paid for the movie, but never sat down, ordering himself a hot dog (“yellow dog” he called it — with mustard) and a small Coke. Then he stationed himself just outside the concession stand, where, through the glass, he could see — but not hear — the movie.
Paullie, whose regular beat was concession, studied the dude’s speech patterns and continuous rolling monologue, till he could repeat it exactly. “I had the wimmins’, lots an’ lotsa wimmens...” A list would ensue including but not limited to Shirley, Georgia, Geneva, and Lorraine. “He really makes that hot dog last,” Paullie reported one night. “Eighty bites, on average!” A concessionaire has to keep alert somehow...
I was selling tickets one June night, when I heard a woman’s voice and thought I might have encountered a ghost; no one appeared to be standing there. Then a head peaked over the edge of the marble box office sill, and I realized that a tiny old woman, leaning for support on a market cart, and almost invisible, thanks to her height, was trying to get my attention. Her name, I would later learn, was Dr. Oppenheim. She lived in an apartment right around the corner, and I became quite friendly with her over a period of several months. But that night we had yet to introduce ourselves. “I really only want one of your famous hot dogs!” she exclaimed. “Is that alright?”
“Of course!” I said, then waved her past Leroy, watching her shuffle slowly behind the market cart, a make-shift version of a wheeled walker. She emerged a few minutes later with her hot dog, and stopped again in front of my ticket window.
“Terrific!” she said. “People are talking about these out on the street, and I figured I don’t need to sit through The Dragon Dies Hard to get one.” So began a wonderful dialogue between the two of us, which lasted deep into the fall of that year. She was a retired family doctor, living alone, frail, but mentally vigorous, a lover of poetry, opera, and philosophy. Two of these three are passions of mine.
A little after Dr. Oppenheim stopped coming, driven away, I suspected, by the chill winds of November, we tried to put dinner and a movie together, under the guise of a dinner/movie special. You could clip our ad from the local paper and, for $4.95 including admission, you could choose from a pre-fix menu at a struggling local restaurant just opened down the street. The menu included a credible burger, greasy fries and other items, some less disappointing than others. Our partnership was brief — Chubby went out of business after Thanksgiving. Anyhow what were we thinking? Every burger somebody bought from him was a hot dog we wouldn’t sell at our high per-capita stand.
What drove me to these recollections? Last night, Dean and I went out to Alamo Draft House in Brooklyn for dinner and a movie. I’ve been holding off going to dinner and a movie as combined events, though NYC is crawling with opportunities (Metrograph, Nitehawk). Even though, forty-plus years ago, with our high-end concession stand, we more or less pioneered the concept of dinner and a movie under one roof at the St. George, I’m not used to major comestibles (a burger in my case) including wine, while sitting in a recliner watching the movie screen. Feels a little too much like home.
It was a good burger and an excellent movie (don’t miss it, RBG, about the venerable Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg), but my mind strayed momentarily to maintenance. If Coke syrup and popcorn are hard to clean up after, what’s it like to keep a dinner movie theater clean?
The recliner made me reflect that Dr. Oppenheim might have been lured into the dark after all, to watch a Bruce Lee double feature, if we could have offered her what in those days would have been a Barcalounger, to kick back in. Imagine them all: the good doctor lounging with her hot dog, the jazzman propped up beside her in his spangled suit, and the lady from the street, if she could only have afforded the price of a ticket and dinner.
Meanwhile, I think I agree with Charles Cohen, the owner of the newly-refurbished Quad Cinema in Manhattan. “We considered dine-in for about a minute, but to me, a first class moviegoing experience is not one where the person next to you is eating a steak,” he reflected. Gotcha.
Afterthought: Returning to the subject of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her tastes, at least for opera, remind me a lot of Dr. Oppenheim’s, who was Ginsburg’s age almost a half a century ago. Wonder if (the notorious) RBG likes hotdogs?
Afterthought 2: One of the cleverest front lobby marketing strategies I’ve seen in a long while is a Ruth Bader Ginsburg cardboard prop-up of a long black gown with lace collar at the top. Behind it is a step on which an admirer of the Justice can stand, placing her/his head in the slot above the collar for a photo-op.