That small feature was showing in my living room, but down the street, in our real 2,672-seat movie palace, the St. George Theatre, a forgettable Biblical “documentary,” In Search of Noah’s Ark, was playing to scant audiences, purporting to demonstrate that fragments of Noah’s Ark had been found on Mt. Ararat. We should have been happy — we’d gotten a “four-wall” deal — a religiously-affiliated entity had rented the theater for a flat fee for ten days, giving us, beyond brief visits to the theater to sell popcorn and decorate the candy stand with pine boughs, an opportunity to rest from our theater labors of the spring, summer and fall.
But there is no rest for young entrepreneurs. The flat fee was way too flat: we needed a Christmas miracle to make the rent and pay the big distributors, Warner, Columbia and the gang. While I quaffed eggnog — delivered by a milkman we didn’t owe that much money too — yet — and cookies — paid for with cadged money from the theater’s candy stand — I wondered how we were going to survive at all.
There’s nothing like being broke for the first time — you think your life is over. We were drifting along on money borrowed or cadged, and we couldn’t imagine what was next. What was next, as it turned out, was 1977, the trough of a huge recession in the movie business, and the tail-end of a national recession that had nearly seen New York City itself go bankrupt.
1977 plays a prominent part in a book I’m just starting to read, City on Fire, by Garth Risk Hallberg. I haven’t gotten very far, but already I recognize in its pages the desperation that permeated every aspect of our young lives. Anyone who lived through 1976 and 1977 in NYC knows what that desperation meant. The Upper West Side — regardless of who you were, rich or poor, black or white — was risky to walk in alone after dark; whole blocks of brownstones were boarded up, and parts of the Village weren’t much better. Times Square? Don’t ask. Almost everybody I knew had been mugged at least once. Large chunks of Manhattan’s northerly, formerly middle-class neighbor, the Bronx, were on fire or already rubble. In Brooklyn, beyond Park Slope and the Heights, it was tough going. The city didn’t have the money to light all those streets, and shops in a lot of places were boarded up.
Commerce helps streets to be safe — the light of the delicatessen can be a haven. This was true in my own neighborhood, where a single deli glowed, sometimes, like the manger at Bethlehem, to those of us walking up Fort Place in the dark. Of course, because everybody but the rich had fallen on hard times, a lot of people were desperate enough to try to steal what they couldn’t get otherwise.
There was a reason--beyond the demise of movie palaces and the economic woes of the movie business — why we had a hard time selling tickets at the theater. Our streets were deserted too. As I ate cookies and tried to forget the business we strove to bring out of its nose-dive, starting up again in the very bleak new year of 1977, I played with my little tin Marx “Movie Palace,” virtually the only gift I’d had to open on Christmas morning. No tree — couldn’t afford it.