Dog Day was the senior half of a strangely-matched double feature we’d booked with Law and Disorder (an Ernest Borgnine / Carroll O’Connor comedy whose target audience were distinctly an older crowd). Dog Day was already more than a year old by the time the film canisters arrived in our lobby, but we were a “buck fifty” house ($1.50 for adults, 90 cents for children) — and lucky to get it at all. Starring a heartbreakingly young Al Pacino, it’s the more or less true story of a desperate man, John Wojtowicz (Sonny Wortzik in the film), who tried to rob the Chase Manhattan Bank at 450 Avenue P in Gravesend, Brooklyn, for money to, among other things, buy his lover a sex change operation. Before the story rolls, Sidney Lumet gives us New York City at street level the way it was then. How did he know we’d be watching from the future? The streets were trash-strewn and desperate: he shows us the sheer grime of it all, the anger and cynicism of ordinary citizens, ready to cheer a man with the audacity to rob a bank. (In the seventies, banks actually housed substantial amounts of cash!)
The desperation was entirely real. What else were we doing in an aged movie palace, if not hiding from the streets? We had a kind of sanctuary. We had at least the illusion of safety — under our pleasure dome and in the cool recesses of the alcoves, the defunct green-tiled water fountain in the lobby, the pink and white-tiled candy stand with its sweet and grassy (popcorn) smells.
Outside people were getting mugged, sometimes right under the marquee. A fist-fight blew up there one afternoon, resulting in one guy knocked out of his Birkenstocks — they remained pointed downhill on the pavement while he flew sideways into the street. He got up, using his teeshirt to staunch the blood, and moved on. Nobody called the cops.
The need to keep things to yourself was primal, which is why we had grown men from the neighborhood working off the books on weekends — to keep some of the tougher local kids from walking on the backs of the theater’s seats or assaulting each other with broken bottles in our lobby.
The shops up and down Hyatt Street — the luncheonette, the barbershop next to the theater — were part of another era. I never saw a soul go into the barbershop; it was as if the ninety-year-old barber lived there, periodically flicking dust off his red Naugahyde chairs with a frayed whisk broom.
Night was another thing altogether, the street deserted, sounds of glass shattering. The bank’s night drop was only two storefronts away. Some nights I just didn’t go, but hid the cash in a locker with spare flashlight batteries.
Dog Day was one of many movies I watched in snatches. Seeing it a year or two ago for only the second time, I remembered parts of it, and other parts seemed new, which may mean I had never seen them at all. I’d get some popcorn, go in and sit down for a half hour or so, then remember that I needed to figure out how to make payroll and still buy cleaning supplies — and pay the carting company, who, it was rumored, would break somebody’s kneecaps if not paid in a timely fashion.
That detail from my actual theater-management life fits the tenor of Dog Day nicely — that and another movie we showed that I occasionally revisit, Taxi Driver — about a Vietnam Vet with violent streaks who drives a night taxi and tries to save a prostitute. Desperation was part of the Zeitgeist, which is why I savor my memories of the theater’s cool lobby and sheltering dome. Like a medieval cathedral, it held us: you could walk in there and drop out of time.
Thanks to the ravages of Covid, many parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn seem just a little more like the New York City of the seventies that I remember. Since, until the Pandemic, NYC was becoming a playground of the rich, I wonder if this come-down might have in it the seeds of salvation. Will artists and the middle class return?