People were drawn in off the street by our spectacular concession stand, which, we often joked, could function as a fast-food restaurant with a darkened movie screen in the background. With all-beef Kosher hotdogs on mini-Italian breads that were fresh-baked daily (topped off with Dijon mustard), fresh-popped corn with real butter, [Eat Popcorn!]frozen Snickers and twenty-odd other candy bars, and the first ever Häagen-Dazs (so avant-garde it was delivered by a man in a station wagon), we boasted the highest per capita stand sales in the five boroughs of New York City. There were whole families in our desperate urban neighborhood who used to walk in and ask if they could “just buy dinner” (no ticket) and take the food home, so perhaps we should have tried the dark-screen idea after all.
It cost us $13.75 an hour in 1976 to pay the union projectionist, wage that seems cheap until you compare it with the buck fifty we charged an adult for a ticket or the 35 cents the jazzman paid for his Coke. Carbons to burn in the projectors (the source of light that made the movie do its magic on-screen) cost roughly a hundred-seventy-five a box, and we ran through two or more per hour. It cost way more to keep that booth running and the movie on-screen than we raked in most weeks at the box office window. We owed the concession company that stocked our beloved candy stand whatever we sold in hotdogs, so there was no profit there.
With our big screen to the North
and our snack stand to the South,
we’re the St. George Theatre,
living from hand to mouth...
—so went the little ditty we used to sing, to the tune of a now-long-forgotten American Airlines television commercial.
I would think it had all been a waste if we hadn’t kept the St. George, now a working performance house, alive for one more year in what has turned out to be its almost full century of life. During our tenure at the St. George, from April, 1976, to March, 1977, old movie theaters, many of them palaces, were meeting the wrecker’s ball in ever-increasing numbers. It was a year that would see the demolition of the Moon Theatre on Douglas Street in Omaha, Nebraska, the Orpheum in Portland, Oregon and many others nationwide, including both the Shubert theater and my beloved RKO Albee in Cincinnati, my hometown.
It had been the Albee’s imminent destruction — eight hundred miles away — that partly fueled my passion for working at the St. George in the first place. Where the Albee once stood in Cincinnati, just across the street from Fountain Square, a Westin Hotel currently squats. The aforementioned Portland Orpheum was replaced by a Nordstrom’s, BTW. There are parking lots, shooting galleries, garages, lumber yards, warehouses and Chinese restaurants where theaters once stood, all across America.
Thanks to luck, perfect acoustics, low real estate values, and a hard-working family, the St. George still stands. The jazzman no doubt still haunts the lobby every Wednesday afternoon, eating his “dog” and watching a phantom movie through the glass, while mumbling the names of his old lovers to himself. At least that’s what Paulie, the concession staffer who listened to him, thinks he was reciting, all those forty years ago.