Robert McFarlane, author of a book I want to read, Underland, has walked and crawled his way into and around a lot of dark enclosed places. Writer, teacher, mountain climber, spelunker, informal folklorist, and general burrower, he knows a thing about the dark insides of things. That flute: is it evidence, like painted moving gazelles and bison, of early theater?
How exactly are theaters like caves? Well, both Lascaux — which has been called a paleolithic cathedral — and the St. George Theatre, a movie palace I helped run in 1976, lack windows, allowing for instant surrender to the darkness.
You can get lost in a 2,678-seat movie palace: we knew it, and the younger patrons who didn’t want to go home after the movie was over, knew it too. The balcony and loge were off limits — we hardly ever sold enough tickets to populate even the orchestra. But kids of a certain age — boys who are thirteen, fourteen — like to test limits. Exit doors in the balcony led to fire escapes. Although we weren’t using the balcony, the FDNY had forbidden us to chain these doors shut. So one kid would buy a ticket and sneak upstairs to let his friends, who had climbed the fire escape, in for free. For the most part, they’d hang in the upper part of the house 'til closing time, even bringing their own concession: beer and KFC. Pot-smoke drifted to the dome. On Friday and Saturday nights after the midnight show, you could hear them breathing up there, waiting for us to close and go home.
Addressing them directly was the best way to flush them out. Sam, the floor manager, who knew all the kids’ families, would stand center stage and call them by name, “You up there Randall? Won’t be pretty if I hafta come getcha...” “Obi, hear me now. Don’t make me tell yo mama...”
Exit doors on unoiled hinges groaned, followed by the rapid slap of sneakers flying down the fire escape.
What did they want? How many Snickers bars can one adolescent boy consume? Or was it a night in the shadows back stage they were after?
The theater is a magic — even a sacred — space. It was for all of us, our Luray Caverns, our Altamira, the screen, a cave-wall waiting for the splash of pigmented light. Tired as I was at the end of a theater day, it was hard to go home, so who could fault a boy?
- Last week I went searching for a movie palace that was open, and, somewhat miraculously, I found one, in Phoenixville, Pa., the Colonial, which also happens to be the Blob’s home theater; yes, that blob! Hope BlobFest went well, in its virtual incarnation...
- The larger older small-town theaters, like the Colonial, have lots of room to offer, when the pandemic finally wanes: palaces and stadium theaters can easily afford a six-foot separation between patrons. Just a thought.