The St. George Theatre, a 2,672-seat palace, was on the “buck fifty” circuit in the year we ran it, which usually guaranteed the movie patron two movies for one “low low” price. There was always an “A” feature, for which we paid at least a modest percentage of tickets sold, and a “B” which cost a flat fee. Among a number of pairings, we ran:
The Devil Within Her and Embryo (for marquee value, I love this combo)
The Man Who Would Be King chased by Cops and Robbers
At the Earth’s Core and (if you can dig it) The Land That Time Forgot
But my personal favorite, almost a found poem, was The Giant Spider Invasion paired symbiotically with The Legend of Bigfoot. This last always conjures an image for me of a gargantuan foot grinding into dust a colossal spider.
There is (or used to be) a fine art to creating double features. It’s a great “buy one, get one free” marketing concept, that probably saved the nascent movie business of the 1920’s during that plunge from the cliff of financial ruin we call The Great Depression. There’s a myth that the entertainment business prospered after Wall Street crashed in 1929, but it just ain’t so. Do the math: national income in 1929 was 85 billion, but by 1932, it was 41 billion. Eighty-five thousand businesses failed, and some of them, you can be sure, were movie theaters, whose owners watched admission sales fall 27 percent by 1932. (actually modest by today’s Pandemic figures...)
But the Depression wasn’t a health-created crisis; it was more absolute, with little hope for an upward spiral. Some theater operators were actually taking items in barter, even food, in exchange for tickets. That’s no way to run a business, so what to do? Raffles? Sure. Dish Night? Definitely.
The most reliable hedge against massive box office losses was, it turned out, the B movie, made quickly at minimal expense. Episodic movies in a series — like The Thin Man for instance — could be paired with the more costly A feature. Who could resist Myrna Loy and Asta? Often a B was just plain lesser, as with The Rawhide Terror, paired with John Wayne in West of the Divide. Which is not to say a big name actor was never in a B flick. Wayne also starred in the B pic, Ride Him, Cowboy (1932, Warner Brothers) and The Man From Monterey (1933, also WB).
In our brief time at the St. George, John Wayne briefly graced our large soda-stained screen in the company of the notable Katherine Hepburn, both starring in Rooster Coburn, part of a lamentable double feature with Gable and Lombard (Jill Clayburgh and James Brolin). Rooster was the second-to-last movie Wayne would make. As for Gable and Lombard — which Roger Ebert called a “mushy, old-fashioned extravaganza” — what was our agent thinking? Couple movies? Two more disparate couples there never were. Rooster ought to have qualified as the A picture, but by 1976 John Wayne, and westerns, were so over, possibly even more intolerably so to our urban mostly teen and largely Black audience than a re-hash of thirties Hollywood.
Double features were in their twilight phase by then. Except at drive-ins and on the “buck fifty” movie house circuit which was all an aging movie palace could hope to qualify for. Everything was second or third-run. We rented one A pic for, generally, a third of the gate and one B for fifty dollars flat. (Once we tried to book two Bs from two separate distributors — which would have allowed us to rely on candy sales for a living — but Warner and UA checked with each other and squashed our effort).
For a six-hour projection shift, we usually scheduled three films: A B A (the A picture twice, the B feature once), although it was tough sometimes determining which movie we ought to consider our A, since everything was basically shop-worn. We opened the theater with Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and Woody Allen’s Bananas — a good pairing — with Bananas clearly the B in every sense, by virtue of its greater age (already six years old). Looking back without the benefit of my check ledger, I find it difficult to tell in some cases which movie we only paid a flat fifty for, showing just how short of product the industry really was.
Here’s one pairing where the A pic is obvious. How could we have run the great Dog Day Afternoon with the deplorable (Borgnine/Carroll) Law and Disorder? Some marriages were never meant to be.
Double features may have faded in the age of the multiplex, but, as Siri says, “Here’s something I found”: Double feature: The act of seeing two movies for the price of one at a public movie theater. You watch the first movie, take special notice of when the next movie will start, hang out in the restroom until the appropriate start time, and then mosey on over to the correct theater. It causes undue stress for only saving 10 bucks, but it can make an afternoon fly by. —Urban Dictionary
Towering Inferno and Earthquake were our “Shake and Bake” special, a fave if just to see the letters on the marquee.
Hang in there! If you’re afraid still to go to an indoor movie, just remember spring is here, and drive-ins are in a renaissance! This summer for sure I’m off to the Mahoning in Pennsylvania, to catch at least a double feature!