More than forty years ago, when I was involved in helping to run the St. George Theatre, a 2,672-seat movie palace in its declining years, we joked about “just closing down the auditorium and putting everything into the candy stand.” Late at night as we gathered around that very stand — our unofficial hearth — we imagined setting out tables in the lobby, putting velvet drapes over the glass that separated that lobby from the movie screen, and upping the menu to include salads, burgers, grilled cheese, what have you. Maybe a liquor license some day, when we could afford to bribe the necessary officials.
Reasons for these fantasies included such thrills as getting rid of the projectionist’s salary, a whopping $13.75/hour ($60.84 in current dollars), never having to worry about filling all those seats again, and saying fini to Warner Bros. and Fox and the other film distributors, with their percentages that made it impossible to turn a profit.
Besides, people kept coming in during the last show, passing up the box office and asking if they could just buy dinner. Our seat-of-the-pants operation in a destitute neighborhood happened to have better comestibles than most of the local restaurants: Sabrett’s all-beef hot dogs on freshly-baked Italian rolls, fresh popped corn with Odell’s real clarified butter, Haagen Dazs when nobody else had the stuff, and, of course, as many ways to stoke a sugar high as you could hope for (until I came to NYC, this Midwesterner had never seen a Jordan Almond or a Charleston Chew, and didn’t know from frozen Snickers).
We had it all, including, at the time, the highest per capita concession sales in the five boroughs of New York City. Our patrons consumed, per capita, roughly $1.38, a little higher than Times Square. By today’s standards, that would be $6.07, which is relatively off-the-charts today, excluding theaters with wine and beer offerings.
Though we hardly knew it at the time, we’d stumbled onto a basic truth that is now revolutionizing the business of movie exhibition: the concession tail was already beginning to wag the exhibition dog. It hadn’t always been that way.
Once upon a time, movie theaters had no concession stands at all; but there is some essential connection between movie-watching and munching. The storefront Nickelodeons of the teens and early nineteen twenties were often flanked at street level by candy shops and outside popcorn vendors; folks snuck these goodies in under their coats — verboten these days — though people still do it.
In the twenties, when big palaces rose like elegant domed mushrooms all across the continent, their very opulence made theater owners reluctant to sell food. Then came the Depression. If I’m a theater manager in 1932, I’m wondering why, since people sneak food in anyhow, I’m not the one selling it to them? Popcorn happens to be an extremely cheap product, and the price, even with obscene mark-up, was affordable (10 cents a bag) even then. Candy came along for the ride, and suddenly a theater was more than a place to see a show. It was where you indulged the guilty pleasure of food in the dark.
I’m thinking right now about a lot of people who loved our hot dogs way back when, even when they weren’t all that interested in a Bruce Lee triple feature or Gable and Lombard.
There was the jazzman, who showed up in a spangled suit and ordered a “yellow dog” (with mustard) once a week, but never went in to see the movie.
Certain neighborhood families, who preferred our concession stand to Burger King.
And tiny old Dr. Oppenheimer (probably in her early nineties at that point) who liked to stand outside the box office (she barely came up to the sill) and talk with me about the Law of Entropy, and other heady stuff, all the time munching on a Sabrett’s with extra mustard.
That was Dijon mustard, BTW.
We’ll all get through this, folks; meanwhile, pop yourself some corn, if you have it, with or without the butter.