The slide changes again. This time I’m in New York City, all grown up, It’s 1969. This theater is one of the old houses on Broadway — they blur a little bit in memory, though they were all grand, if a bit tarnished. In this fantasy, the house hasn’t been twinned yet. I walk down a center aisle strewn with unswept popcorn. Most of the bulbs in the chandelier still work. We take our seats in the front row for 2001, a Space Odyssey. Clouds of weed smoke form their own Milky Way.
Finally, I’m in Staten Island, the most “outer” of the boroughs, farther, to a Manhattanite’s perceptions, than the most distant galaxy. I’m running my own movie palace, the St. George Theatre, two blocks from my house.
What on earth has impelled me and my husband to rent those 2,672 empty seats? We have a great staff, friends who’ve kicked in money, and some fifteen or so dedicated teens, not to mention a handful of older neighborhood men, who help keep the peace. It’s 1976, a desperate year, the year before the city itself almost declares bankruptcy. We’re as hard up as the city, but young and full of plans. We love the theater and give all our energy, time and money to keeping its doors open and at least one movie (Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, The Man Who Would Be King and a couple hundred other titles) on our giant grape soda-stained screen. We had thought to turn the place into a rock palace, but in Staten Island? Who are we kidding? Although we boast on our expensive new answering machine that our neighborhood next to the ferries is “lower, lower Manhattan,” nobody takes the boat to find us, except the head projectionist from Radio City Music Hall, our friend Bob Endres, who signs on to run spot from our booth during the occasional live show.
If you were entertaining parallel theater fantasies in your own mind, while I ran mine, they might have taken you to The Uptown, Philadelphia’s answer to NYC’s Apollo, or the long-ago razed San Francisco Fox. Or even the Kimo in Albuquerque with its Pueblo architecture and decorative effects. There’s actually a canoe in the lobby.
Question is, after this pandemic is over, will there be any aisles left to walk down? Any screens — larger than a bedroom flat screen or a laptop — to watch together? Live performance? — even Broadway is silent.
I continue to predict we’ll all fly out of the house eventually, especially if Pfizer knows what it’s talking about. When that happens, we’ll be sitting shoulder-to-shoulder again in the dark — almost as good as sex!
To quote Adam Clayton Powell Junior, shunned by an angry U.S. Senate, “Keep the faith, baby.”
1. 2001: a Space Odyssey was not an instant success. Execs thought it was boring, but stoners, meanwhile, found the ultimate flick to turn on to. "In Harper’s, Pauline Kael observed, ‘The ponderous blurry appeal of the picture may be that it takes its stoned audience out of this world to a consoling vision of a graceful world of space.’”
2. Not every theater is dark and vacant right now: a few small-town movie houses are commendably, hanging in there, like the North Park, in Buffalo. And then there are drive-ins, especially in the sun belt, having their revival moment.
3. I originally conceived of this fantasy as “Theater of the Mind,” then researched the phrase, only to discover it refers to early radio.