“Staycations” may not have been a word in the (Urban) Dictionary yet, but many people took them just the same, ending up often enough on a hot August Saturday, in some or another movie theater. That might have been a stadium-style theater, if it was in the neighborhood, or a full-blown movie palace with a cantilevered balcony, if it was “downtown.”
The summer movie was a substitute for being “away.” Two decades later, in 1976, my husband and I and a group of friends found ourselves running a 2,672-seat palace in St. George, Staten Island. Yes, we did show Jaws, that summer-est of all movies, released the previous year, in June. Why is it I remember the trailer and not the movie? Probably because I never sat down and watched the whole thing, start to finish, but did watch that evocative scene where the young woman is swimming in the moonlight and, well, you know the rest. The St. George was — and is — a proper movie palace, with a fully cantilevered balcony. Families had, since its opening as a mixed Vaudeville/movie house, enjoyed summer fare of some kind or another.
In that first summer, Romance, a movie starring the simmering Greta Garbo, Raffles, a Ronald Colman to-catch-a-thief sort of flick, and the irrepressible Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers, were all released, all of them premiering at the St. George. As early as 1930, Hollywood had a handle on the notion that people wanted to go into the dark, get cool (movie theaters were among the first public places to receive the blessing of air conditioning) — and watch lighter fare. No surfing movies back then, no block-buster thrillers, but comedy, thievery and romance, easily metabolized by an audience who had nothing but electric fans awaiting them at home.
A decade later, in 1940, Errol Flynn swashbuckled his way across better than forty-thousand summer screens in The Seahawk. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney gave the teen popcorn crowd something to moon over, with Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (why not a debutante?), and Gable, Tracey, Colbert and Lamarr in Boom Town helped people who weren’t on vacation get lost in a fantasy of oil speculations and romance. Notice what wasn’t released in summer that year: The Philadelphia Story, Rebecca, Northwest Passage, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator (heavy duty, academy-award-winning in many cases, and not-for-summer-primetime viewing).
Summer movies by 1950 included such fare as Annie Get Your Gun (Busby Berkeley, George Sidney, music by Berlin), Broken Arrow, starring James Stewart in a Technicolor western, and Father of the Bride, in which Spencer Tracey gets the honor of walking a nubile Liz Taylor down the aisle (released in June, of course!).
1960 gives us a sea-change. There’s The Apartment, a frothy racy drama about New York executives sharing a “pad,” (Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred McMurray), and Oceans Eleven, the rat-pack involved in robbing casinos, but what’s new in the summer of 1960? Psycho! — the movie my mother wouldn’t let me see, because of that shower scene. Well, there is the spooky motel...but, for 1960 especially, it’s pretty heavy duty.
This is where I’m going: froth endures as summer fare — always will — but terror, like the cheap thrill of rollercoasters enters the summer psyche in the sixties. Sometimes it’s mixed with sea-water, as in Jaws (1975) the movie that changed forever the way Hollywood thinks about summer, or it takes place in outer space, where you can’t scream because nobody will hear you (The Alien, 1979, directed by Ridley Scott, with a young Sigourney Weaver on board), but edge-of-the-seat thrills, especially after Jaws, are the summer thing, the stuff that keeps you from freezing to death in an over-air-conditioned theater. Jaws stole a piece of America’s summer heart, perhaps forever.
The summer of our theater year, 1976, as I mentioned we ran Jaws, then only a year old. We subsequently ran: Don’t Open the Window, aka Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Superdragon and The Dragon Dies Hard (starring the deceased Bruce Lee), Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Torso (a double feature), Death Machines, Godzilla vs. Megalon, The Exorcist, The Food of the Gods (H.G. Wells), and The Omen. These comprised our own hand-picked festival of mostly second-hand movies for summer watching, with only a few incidental comedies and the occasional midnight stoner movie (Yellow Submarine, Woodstock) mixed in for contrast. The Omen was the only official 1976 summer release on the whole list. The remaining accumulation of sci-fi monsters, chainsaw-wielding terrorist, mechanical shark, unhinged fleet driver, possessed little girl, and so on, were enough to keep whoever wandered into the St. George slightly on the edge of one of our ragged velvet seats, gnawing happily on popcorn.
This summer headlined, as recently as last week in Variety as “the summer from hell” for Hollywood and for American movie theater operators — movie-biz folks’ own private horror extravaganza. Game of Thrones, the threat of digital streaming, an over-reliance on sequels, Chinese investors, all have been blamed for disastrously-low box office. Read about it, if you can stand to. Movie palaces, some of them, are surviving, even doing well, as live venues. But what will become of the movies?