One night, while I was cleaning up some spilled popcorn and just hangin’ out, I jokingly suggested we try “Dish Night.” My sister, born during the Depression, had told me that on Wednesday nights at the Hyde Park Theatre, on the village square where we grew up, you could get a free piece of china for going to the movies.
Dish Night was real, a phenomenon that died out, for the most part, in the late nineteen thirties, as the national economy improved. The St. George Theatre may not ever had had a dish giveaway. In its day it had been managed by the Isle Theatrical Corporation under Solomon Brill. The smaller mom and pop houses were the ones that took a flyer on china. Bank Night (a kind of lottery that gave away cash prizes) and something called Screeno were other boost-your-audience schemes worth your while to investigate. The 1937 Romantic Comedy, Thrill of a Lifetime featured a song entitled “Keno, Screeno and You.”
Getting back to the scene around the candy stand, none of our ushers, a generation younger than we were, knew what the hell Dish Night had been, so Dean felt the need to explain.
“Yeah,” he said. “Nana [his grandma] talked a lot about it. She had some fancy dishes with gold rims that she’d gotten on Wednesday nights in the thirties. Trouble was, they would never say in advance what piece of china they were giving out that night — a plate, a bowl, whatever — and Nana didn’t believe in going to the movies just to get china. She had to want to see the movie. She hated Fredric March, wouldn’t go when his movies were on screen. Somehow that’s when they’d give out the meat platter she was dying for, or the serving bowl. The following week she’d go, because she wanted to see that movie, but then she’d end up with another dinner plate.”
Dish Night and other giveaways turned a lot of theaters around. In the early years of the Depression hardly anybody had discretionary money, and movies, new as they were, suddenly seemed an unnecessary luxury. Theater owners lowered their ticket prices, sometimes as low as ten cents for an evening feature, but that wasn’t cutting it. Enter the china distributors; Salem was apparently the leader. They were in trouble too, having to lay off factory workers, with little demand for dishes, at a time when people were drinking out of canning jars and eating off tin plates. They struck deals with theater owners, selling them china at wholesale prices, and agreeing to let it be given away.
It worked: women especially came out in droves and brought their families to the movies. One Seattle theater owner gave out a thousand pieces of china at a cost of $110 on a Monday night, but he took in $300—a whopping $250 more than he’d made the previous Monday. In some theaters, the ushers stood on chairs by the door, reaching into big wooden crates, dropping straw and wadded-up newspaper all over the fancy carpets. But nobody cared: it was dish night!
In “Dish Night in New Rochelle, New York,” Edwin A. Rosenberg of Danbury, Ct., recalls:
“...my mother would sometimes attend these shows while my brother and I were in school. Later, at supper she reported with amusement that, as happened every time, just at the most dramatic or romantic scene, when the audience was most deeply caught up, there would be several crashes as a few of the day’s freebies slid off laps onto the floor.” (Ticket to Paradise: American Movie Theaters and How We Had Fun, by John Margolies and Emily Gwathmey, Little Brown, 1991).
On a site dedicated to Hammond High School in Hammond Indiana, I found the reminiscence (below). It contains a reference to a story by the highly-regarded comic writer and performer Jean Shepherd.
“When I was a teenager, I happened to come across a story by Jean Shepherd, published in Playboy magazine, about the ‘Orpheum Gravy Boat Riot.’ It struck me as being so funny that I had to share it with my mother one morning as we sat in the kitchen. Doing so was a confession that I had been reading the cultural smut publication of its day, but I thought that by telling her about Jean Shepherd's great story, I would reveal that I was truly reading the literature and not just thumbing through the photographs of bare-breasted women.
I went through every detail of the story as to how the Orpheum manager, Leopold Doppler, enticed women during the Depression to attend movie matinees by handing out an inexpensive dinnerware. The entire promotion came to a halt, I explained, when Doppler handed out gravy boats after the dinner plates failed to arrive on schedule.
He encouraged the ladies to return next week, bringing their gravy boats to exchange for the sought-after plates. After four weeks of the same story, however, the women could bear it no longer. As Doppler got up on stage during the intermission to explain yet another mix up in the shipment,' Shepherd writes, 'Then it happened. A dark shadow sliced through the hot beam of the spotlight, turning over and over and casting upon the screen an enormous magnified outline of a great Gravy Boat. Spinning over and over, it crashed with a startling suddenness on the stage at Doppler's feet.’ ”
I’ll leave your imagination to fill in the the rest, a china avalanche, of sorts. The story is part of In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, by Jean Shepherd; I just ordered it and hope you will too.