— Time, from Brief History: Air Conditioning, by Katy Steinmetz
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 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 before, we had been, not operators, but patrons of the very same theater, and our motivation to go to summer movies had had everything to do with staying cool. In 1970, fewer than 36% of all American households had air conditioning. Arriving in New York City in 1969 with one fan — which broke after a single torrid week — we kept cool by riding the Staten Island 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, starring what now seems like an impossibly young Liza Minelli; it was a dreadful movie, 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 often as not adhered itself to the floor in a permanent way.
Later in 1976, when we took over the St. George Theatre, we found the blue and white banner I’d seen hanging from the marquee, 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 device? Or — and this is the other thing the system reminded me of — the machine in Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi film, Metropolis It exploded: our air conditioner, thankfully never did.
1. Central AC is so ubiquitous today, it’s hard for most people to recall going places just to get cool. As a child I went to the drug store, stood in the magazine rack area and read comic books till they kicked me out. At home we had AC, but not in the upstairs bedrooms, except the Master BR. I don’t disapprove of my parents’ miserliness. The planet would be in better shape if central AC weren’t so ordinary...
2. Several readers responded to this post in 2015, when I originally offered it; here’s what Michael Carman had to say:
My mother, who was born in 1918, used to tell the story of how she was "saved" — almost literally — by such air conditioning. It was the summer of 1938, the day was a boiler, and she was sailboating with friends on a lake somewhere in the vicinity of New York City. She had always been subject to heat prostration, even blacking out in the sun before she realized what was happening. She'd have no memory of what happened during the blackout. (I know this is possible; I inherited this tendency, and it's happened to me too.) But she was always a trooper, as well, and hated to leave any job unfinished. So when she had helped her friends pull the sailboat up on the beach in the broiling sun, and hoist it onto the trailer hitch of the friends' truck, she waved goodbye, and then...? She didn't remember. Hours later, she "woke up" in a movie theater somewhere in Manhattan, miles away from the beach. Her own little car was parked on the street nearby. She was watching a Gene Autry movie — a theatrical choice she would never have made. She had no memory of her drive to the theatre — no idea how she got there. But her subconscious knew that some NYC theaters, unlike her own home, had air conditioning! Saved!
Imagine driving unconscious anywhere, but especially Manhattan!