I never saw the original Frankenstein, in a theater, but in June 1976, I came close to experiencing what it might have been like to be in that movie, to witness Dr. Frankenstein’s gigantic machine — the one that brings the monster, Boris Karloff, to life — first-hand. That was the day we started up the St. George Theatre’s ancient fifteen-foot tall air conditioner, after paying a small ransom to some refrigeration experts, to get it fixed. If the doctor’s machine gave life to a monster, we gave life — or at least air that was breathable — to our own monstrous movie palace, and just in time for the matinee.
You pulled the handle of a switch on the wall. Like everything electrical in the theater, it crackled and shot out sparks, completing a circuit that involved ten or twelve giant (Buss) fuses — each about the size of a cigar. Something in the belly of the beast began to crank, and a noise not unlike that of a jet engine commenced. The whole thing rumbled — the cement room actually shook — then there were two more slaps, and a bang. The compressor was finally engaged. More wheezing, rumbling, churning, then a constant thrum. Whew! We had all somehow lived and the theater would be cool by showtime. Amazingly, no one in the auditorium or anywhere outside the little room with the mighty machine, ever heard the unit itself.
We knew how important cool air was. Only seven years earlier, I had been, not an operator, but a patron of the very same theater, and my motivation to go to summer movies had everything to do with staying cool. In 1970, fewer than 36% of all American households had air conditioning. Arriving in Staten Island in 1969 with one fan — which broke after a single torrid week — we kept cool by riding the ferry, but then what was there to do?
From the marquee of the St. George Theater — then run by our predecessors, the Fabian chain — hung a delightful banner, with fake white icicles for tassels, and the frosted words AIR CONDITIONED in blue on a white ground. You could stand outside and feel the blasts of cool air coming from the lobby. That first time, we bought tickets to The Sterile Cuckoo, not the best movie I’ve ever seen, but did it matter? We were cool and in the dark, better than our basement apartment, where a piece of paper dropped and not picked up immediately adhered itself to the floor in a permanent way.
When we took over the theater, we found the blue and white banner I’d seen hanging from the marquee seven years before, as well as an older one, from the 1930’s that read REFRIGERATED. With Depression-era audiences, many of whom had never been in an air-cooled room, theater operators had to get right to the point.
Who, in any of the audiences that attended the St. George, from its opening in 1929 through our brief year of 1976, knew that the cool air came from something as terrifying as Dr. Frankenstein’s machine? Or — and this is the other thing the system reminded me of — the machine rooms in Fritz Lang’s early sci-fi film, Metropolis. Those machines exploded: our air conditioner, thankfully never did.