Although smoking at the St. George in our time was relegated to the last seven rows on the left, the crisp funk of recent cigarette smoke, layered over decades of accumulated tar that had already coated the plaster angels, resulted in a kind of of dry rub. Hey, we all smoked back then, even if we didn’t actually light up.
How is it then, that I’m nostalgic about smoking? But for one brief puff of a Marlboro on the playground (followed by a gritty spate of coughing), I never smoked a cigarette in my life. But with the exception of primary and secondary school classrooms and cafeterias, there was virtually no place in 1950’s America where smoking didn’t happen. It seemed, ironically, as natural as breathing itself! It prevailed in the armed forces (cigarettes were part of C rations from WWII to Vietnam), at home (Mom and Pop and all their friends), on buses, in lobbies, at restaurants, in (yes!) hospitals, on airplanes (cigarettes were passed out for free) and certainly beneath the copious dome of the local movie palace, its chandelier dimly visible through the haze. The presence of a dome made movie palaces particularly smoke-friendly.
By the time (April, 1976), we took over the St. George, the U.S. Surgeon General’s warning that cigarette smoking is hazardous to health was twelve years old, and new research in the early seventies was pointing a finger at second-hand smoke. Some people were choosing not to be smokers, and those people didn’t want to sit next to people who were, hence our struggles to limit smoking to the last seven rows on the left. (And the airlines’ struggles, which lasted decades).
According to Quora, (Michael J. McFadden), “Smoking in movie theaters was VERY commonly allowed up into the 70s (often in a balcony or "loge" area, though sometimes throughout) and even in a fair number of theaters through the 80s and into the 90s. Without the media fanfare and the creation of fear of ‘secondhand smoke’ most people didn't care about it enough to complain...” to which Walt Cody was moved to reminisce, “In New York City, I believe [the ban was not in place] ...until the very late 1980s, say, 1988. I do recall that the first movie I went to following the ban was a subtitled French film in which all the characters smoked. LOL. Made you want to light up every time THEY did.”
Of course we never sold cigarettes, but you can be assured a "ciggie" machine had graced our theater’s lobby only a few years before. There’s something else to be nostalgic for: putting a quarter into the cigarette machine for your daddy, then pushing the button under “Parliament” and hearing the thunk as a pack of cigarettes (and often matches) slid down into the tray. But getting back to the St. George in 1976, a lesson about the all-pervasiveness of cigarette smoking over time was waiting in the lobby for us to discover.
By the time we took over, the lobby chandeliers hung like dark armored shapes above the corridor, each ringed by a set of (burned out) electric candles. Late in our first month, a hard-working member of our team figured out how to crank the chandeliers down for bulbing. Voila! What I’d assumed all along were plates of copper sheeting at the center of each chandelier were actually panes of colored glass, revealing more electric candles inside. Over the period of a very long night, this comrade scrubbed patiently, dipping the glass panels in a solution of ammonia and soap, and, by daybreak, transforming them from opaque seemingly faux-copper to fully-transparent glass. What had hidden their beauty? Forty-plus years of cigarette smoke! Standing beneath their now blinding light, I wondered what the insides of the lungs of all those smokers looked like.
Since, due to scant audiences, the balcony was generally not open, we chose the left-hand side of the orchestra as our smoking section, then struggled to keep smokers corralled there. A number strayed into the general audience when nobody was looking, especially if the smoking section was full, but most stayed put, their smoke trailing upwards beyond the lip of the mezzanine.
Now here’s the core of my nostalgia: before the smoke reached those exulted heights, it passed through the beam of the projector in rich eddies, morphing into a kind of transparent marble. It had always been that way, as far back as I could remember, the smoke, the light.
How could anything so lethal be so beautiful? I remember my daddy’s cigarette smoke the same way: he knew just how to blow smoke-rings. Seated on his lap, I could poke my finger through them! Daddy, he was so Bogie...
Speaking of Bogart, the movies themselves were one reason almost every adult smoked in the nineteen fifties. Before I wax rhapsodic on the glamor of filmic smoking, let’s cut the nostalgia by reminding ourselves that style frequently boils down to economics. “The link between Hollywood and tobacco goes back to the beginning of talking pictures,” Stanton Glantz (Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, the University of California, San Francisco) reminds us. “It was a way to thoroughly embed tobacco use in the social fabric.”
Bogie in To Have and Have Not smoked Chesterfields. What could be sexier? Clark Gable, Lauren Bacall, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Spencer Tracey all smoked “Luckies” (Lucky Strikes) when they smoked on screen, openly promoting them in print media and on radio.
Product placement was still invisible then; the stars were gods. Even to those of us who never lit up, smoking was sexy. There they were, inhabiting their universe of the giant screen, enveloped in movie smoke, and just below, mere mortals (my parents, other adults, rebellious teens) knocked an ash off a genuine cigarette, sending the smoke of their peculiar incense up to the theater’s dome, by way of the film’s radiant beam.
Afterthought 1 Weed. Of course, there was no designated smoking section at the St. George Theatre for the cigarette of my generation. We all smoked it — me only occasionally, because, despite the payoff, holding smoke in my throat just hurt too much. But, especially for midnight shows, grass was ever-present, making its benign path through the bright beam of Woodstock or a Ken Russell extravaganza, all the while spreading good cheer, smelling vaguely like oregano, and blessedly lighting a fire under candy and popcorn sales. I’m sure there’s a little essence of “Maryjane” in the drapes and carpeting of the St. George, even now.
Afterthought 2 Well, in a way I did smoke, if you count candy cigarettes! My brand was Lucky Stripes, which, alas, left no nasal impressions.