Movie attendance had fallen off dramatically beginning in September, after school started, plummeting after the landlord cut off the heat. We’d closed outright for several weeks in December, then managed to book a “four-wall” movie, In Search of Noah’s Ark, which had taken us through December. How had we gotten to January? On the night of the 18th, film cans arrived, containing the oddly-paired double feature, Norman Is That You? (Redd Fox and Pearl Bailey discover their son is gay) and Logan’s Run (Michael York, Farah Fawcett, Peter Ustinov and others, in a sci-fi world-of-the-future, live under a dome, never work, fuck a lot, but have to be terminated at age 30. As compensation, they believe they will soon be reincarnated). I fervently wished I might be reincarnated, as something or somebody other than a failing theater manager.
On Inauguration morning, while Jimmy Carter was getting out of his limo to stroll hand-in-hand with Rosalynn down Pennsylvania Avenue, I was cleaning the popcorn machine (the warmest job I could think of to do in an unheated movie palace), while Dean, my husband of eight years, cradled the box office phone between shoulder and ear. He was chatting up a former friend and unofficial booking agent (offices in the Brill Building across the water in Manhattan). We’d been close to Les, until we began to fail.
Les was suggesting we actively pursue live stage presentations, a round about way of saying, you ain't cuttin' it in the movie business.
“What about a country and western festival? No. think about it, Dean! America is changing. There’s a new southern president!”
“I’ll get back to you,” Dean sighed and hung up the phone.
We were freezing. What else mattered? At that moment, country and western concerts, and presidents who hailed from Georgia seemed remote. Carter, as it turned out, would last only four years, and our tenure at the St. George would last a fraction of that time. As I sit today in a heated building, my feet warm enough not to be wearing socks, I can remember the cold, even thrill to it. That’s the way nostalgia works: we (mortals) survived, and we rejoice in it. No doubt a number of citizens alive today will survive to recall, from some future perspective, this weekend’s festivities (and demonstrations) in D.C. and elsewhere.
But back to 1977. By nightfall of that very cold day a few hardy souls, tattered stragglers willing to lose sensation in all twenty digits, dug deep into their popcorn and stared at the miracle of a giant screen under a frozen dome, all from the beloved sanctuary of our balcony. We’d reversed our normal policy, closed the orchestra and opened the upstairs. We rationalized that heat — whatever heat was in the house — would rise. It was true that if you sat on the ground floor, you could feel the earth’s penetrating cold through the soles of your feet, while also staring at a movie through the cloud of your own breath. At least in the balcony, you weren’t touching earth.
In Washington, Jimmy Carter would make himself unpopular, for the Arab Oil Embargo, the hostage crisis, and, early in his administration, certain conservation measures: wearing sweaters, and turning the White House thermostat down. In 1979, he installed 32 solar panels on the White House roof. But in terms of saving on heat, conservation-wise, that is, he had nothing on us.