According to The New York Times, Hollywood’s “sense of self” is in trouble. How surprising is this, following a 78 percent drop in ticket sales?
1976, coincidentally the year Network came out. Hollywood was undergoing a similar crisis of identity. No pandemic then, but a massive recession. It was so dire New York City had barely avoided bankruptcy (saved, finally, by funds from its teachers union).
We (that is me, my husband, some friends) chose this far-from-ideal time to go into business running the St. George Theatre, a gleaming (if a little bit shabby) movie palace. Yep — an opulent single-screen theater, while something called The Fox Plaza Twin had just opened its cheesy doors in the more prosperous suburban South Shore of our NYC “waif borough,” Staten Island.
Hollywood’s crisis of the mid-seventies, brought on by the recession and the vacuum left by the “studio system,” had only been exacerbated by openings, all over the U.S., of “twins,” and the “twinning” of single-screen theaters like the St. George.
All at once there was no product and too many screens.
But thanks to a canny booking agent and a deal of good old-fashioned “moxy,” we managed to keep that big screen lit with something or another, as long as we were in business, even if that turned out to be a little less than a year.
Time to escape. Here’s a post I’ve slightly re-written; it was originally about the mechanics of the projection booth, the vulnerability of aging projectors. But it also shows how strong the need was (and probably still is) for movie-going. You think we’re all gonna stay home forever when this pandemic is over? Think again! Now here’s a piece of past glory:
It was the week we ran The Exorcist, July 28, 1976.
Wonder of wonders, for once we weren’t losing money! Despite the fact that the movie was two years old and playing at another theater in Staten Island, we’d filled the house, all 2,672 seats! Our palace was spooky, a veritable house of shadows; it had drawn people of every age and demographic to see Linda Blair throw up pea soup and spin her head like a top. Just as we were congratulating ourselves on actually making a little money — could we pay off some of the loan we’d taken out on the concession stand? — the phone next to the hot dog warmer rang. My heart fell, as from the dome, into the orchestra pit. The only person likely to call on the concession phone at such an hour was the projectionist, and he never called except when something was about to break.
Sure enough, he told Dean, “Your exciter lamp is about to fail.”
Sound was delivered on a separate optical track that ran down the length of the film and was made audible by something called an “exciter lamp.” Exciter lamps for our nearly antique carbon arc projectors were scarce: ideally, we should have had three in the booth at all times, one for each projector, and a third in reserve. Of course we had nothing in reserve: spare change, candy, popcorn, toilet paper, carbons, money to pay anybody, no safety net no how. An extra exciter lamp, when we hadn’t paid ourselves in several months? Foolish extravagance.
“How long does it have?” Dean wondered.
“Well,” Gabe yawned (hoping for the rest of the night off), “it may make it through the night, but when it goes you ain’t gonna like what you hear.”
When an exciter lamp begins to fail, it picks up only part of the optical track, which causes an intermittent effect, not dissimilar to the sound of an outboard motor layered over spoken words.
So there we were on a Saturday night, last show: around fifteen hundred people in the house, the balcony actually open. Sam and I had already taken the night’s receipts — a considerable amount of cash — to the night depository two doors down. We couldn’t have refunded anyone’s money if we wanted, and we didn’t want to. I was just settling into the notion that we would make it through on what was left of this old lamp. Max Von Sydow — the senior priest in the movie — had commenced the rite of exorcism, driving the Devil from the soul of the possessed little girl, when the sound track went to mud. Dialogue became harder and harder to discern.
To reconstruct what this sounded like, try an experiment:
“The power of Christ compels you, the power of Christ compels you...”
While pronouncing these words (Max Von Sydow’s lines from the movie) keep your mouth slack and shake your head violently from side to side, so your lips shimmy. That’s “motorboating,” the effect that used to happen several technologies ago, when an exciter lamp was about to die.
A brave group of seven or eight patrons gathered near the orchestra pit, making its way up the aisle to the lobby.
“We need to see the manager...” a self-appointed leader stated.
When Dean appeared, they sang out in unison, “We want our money back!”
“What’s the problem?” Dean queried, feigning ignorance.
“Hey man, can’t you hear? ...the whole thing’s under water in there — can’t make out a thing...”
Dean paused, then took his best shot, “It wasn’t well advertised, but this version of the movie is actually the director’s cut!”
“The director put back some scenes originally taken out, with special effects. The Devil in this version possesses the entire room, everybody: little girl, priests and all!”
Silence. The stunned complainants absorbed this new information.
“Really?” asked one gullible young man.
“Sure! ...And you’re missing the best part of the film right now!”
There was some grumbling, a little discussion, then the posse, including its skeptics, retreated back into the theater. Five or six rows in, I heard someone say, “No, no — it’s, well, special effects of some kind — a director’s cut.”
Next day one of us — was it me? — trekked into the city, to 42nd Street, the porn district, where equipment of the same vintage as ours still existed, and borrowed a spare exciter lamp to see us into Monday.
Twenty years later at a neighbor’s Christmas party, a short balding man with gray hair, who seemed an older version of someone Dean had met once, approached.
“Didn’t you manage the St. George Theater?”
Dean nodded. “A long time ago.”
The man grinned and poked his right index finger into the center of Dean’s chest. “ I don’t care how long it’s been — that was no director’s cut!”
Dean grinned back and reached for his wallet, “You want your buck fifty back?”
“We had a damn good time anyway,” his interlocutor insisted.
A good time, yes. Movie-going dies hard!