There’s been much said recently about the total demise of the movie exhibition business, but maybe the reverse is true. Look what’s happening at drive-in theaters, almost defunct, now thriving! So you think streaming has taken over? The Mahoning Drive-In in Lehighton, Pa., an “...old-fashioned 1948 single-screen outdoor theater showcasing vintage films in a nostalgic setting,” keeps selling out. In advance. Wow! People are crazy to go somewhere, see something.
Memories die hard: here’s a glimpse of a time (1976) at the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, a 2,672-seat palace. People not only sat together in our cavernous movie palace without any social distance, but sometimes even conceived children in the remotest parts of its balcony or just plain hid, hoping we’d close the place and leave them alone, under a widening dome. It was the end of summer, traditional high time for theater attendance.
Labor Day at the St. George Theater: 1976, a Monday, the sixth of September. The Omen was on-screen, a banner day preceded by a banner weekend, great numbers, almost boffo socko (big box office) we talked about opening the balcony. At concession, Paulie was barely keeping up with orders for popcorn, Coke, Charleston Chews, kosher hotdogs on homemade Italian rolls, and Haagan-Dazs ice-cream (new that year in Staten Island). Great crowds of people strode into the lobby, ten and twenty at a stretch, family groupings, filling the gap between lunch and a picnic to mark the end of summer. I was on box office, happy to deal with a continual rush a patrons.
Occult or horror films always did well. The Exorcist, then three years old, had played to a packed house for us in July, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre had pulled good numbers. "Boffo Socko," the term our booking agent was fond of using to describe a box office hit (see also “boff,” “boffola,” “whammo” and “socko” by itself) is “slanguage” invented by or at least swirling around the showbiz mag, Variety. We spoke this dialect with pride, even going so far as to name two puppies we’d adopted “Boffo” and “Socko.”
By Labor Day, we’d been theater operators for exactly five months. Even though we’d lost money hand over fist the first two months, we’d begun to break even, so we thought we knew what we were doing. It seemed we always would be standing in the lobby tearing tickets, looking forward to another week, and that’s how I’d like to think of us.
In retrospect, it had been cheeky to show The Omen, an occult film featuring a malevolent child — ”the antichrist” — whose sign is 666 — on, of all things, the 6th of September. More than a few numerologists might be tempted to blame the sudden and precipitous decline in our box office sales that followed the day after Labor Day, on our choice of product. But that most ironically named American holiday, the day that ends the summer, had been the real culprit: the beginning of every new business and school year, the end of the movie theater operator’s season, a fact we had yet to learn.
As we round the bend into August of this malignant year, theater operators with empty auditoriums instinctively fear September, always till now the turn of the year, when vacations end, and business and school begin. But this is a year like no other... and here’s my theory.
While we’re all waiting for a vaccine, Hollywood has been holding back the summer block busters, no fools they. People aren’t ready to come out yet. Tenet, the new Nolan movie, awaits, and an awful lot of folks are either working from home or living on unemployment, so September doesn’t mean the beginning or end of anything, really. Let the drive-ins have their day, and niche theaters, happy to show “classics” like Jaws or Jurassic Park or even The Omen. Just as, in the 1930’s, movie houses, especially palaces, gave people escape from the Depression, the Nitehawk at any time of year, will find its grateful audience once again. What’s that line from Field of Dreams? “If you build it, they will come...”
1. Get aholda this.
2. In some localities, such as Chester County, Pa., home of The Colonial Theater, which I featured a few weeks ago they premiered their re-opening with BlobFest. The Colonial has kept on going, apparently, since early July, clean, socially-distanced, all that good stuff, and people are showing up for movies.