In the 1930’s and 40‘s, before there were sitcoms, movie going had not been seasonal. The lobby of the St. George and other movie houses--palaces, small cinemas, stadium theaters — were filled each week, rain or shine, blistering heat or searing cold, with people who got their news, entertainment, and social experience — the whole package — sitting in the dark watching a single screen a couple of days every week. All that changed in the early 1950‘s, when televisions started showing up in storefronts. At first, people stood together and watched them from the sidewalk. Then a single family would get a TV, and the rest of the block would follow suit. Mad Man Muntz, the TV/appliance king, made a killing from what some people had thought was a passing craze.
Some craze. With a tiny screen in every house, moviegoing became something people chose to do — not a twice-a-week requirement; in other words, it became seasonal. Major films were released between Thanksgiving and Christmas, minor titles in spring, with summer movies to balance the whole thing out. September and October were dead months.
But for an old movie palace entrepreneur, there are consolations in the cycle of techno births and deaths: each fresh wonder kills the previous one. Film in its heyday crushed Vaudeville. The live dog and pony shows, singers and dancers, which our beloved theater and thousands of theaters nationwide had been built to house, had disappeared long before, in the early thirties. All those empty dressing rooms at the St. George, six floors of them, had been built for a stage that was dominated in our time by a giant grape soda-stained screen.
Then TV eroded the movie-going habit, something we’re still experiencing. Nobody showed up in our movie palace lobby after Labor Day, not only because Hollywood was withholding product, but because the new season on the three then-dominant networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, was timed to soften the blow of back-to-school. How could we compete with Farah Fawcett in the newly-launched Charlie’s Angels? or M.A.S.H. in its fifth season, or Chico and the Man? Roots, the television miniseries with its Nielsen record-breaking numbers, would be an even crueler blow to moviegoing in the winter of ’77.
What’s next? It’s only fitting that two generations after a group of us went broke running a movie palace, the Internet, which has introduced binge-watching and instant gratification, has forced television to change its thinking in turn.
Back when, you’d never see a new show launched in July, like Vice Principals, or in August like Better Late Than Never. Is it time for TV as we have known it to take a deep theatrical bow and disappear from the stage?
I’ll close with the following exchange, cribbed from my husband who claims he remembers everything ever said to him and can repeat it verbatim. (Either that’s true or he just really rocks when it comes to writing dialogue). This exchange took place at the concession stand, the week after Labor Day, forty years ago.
Me: Maybe we should have booked some other title... (said while polishing the candy case, rubbing it with a terrible ferocity).
Dean: Dunno....even if we could have had that boxing movie [he was referring to Rocky], the one that’s gonna come out soon, and offered everybody free popcorn and valet parking, I think we’d still outnumber the audience.
At that, a man in a vintage Brooklyn Dodgers cap trudged up to the door with the ticket he’d just paid for. Dean tore it and studied the man, as he bought a small popcorn, pivoted on his heel and entered the auditorium. The number of people watching the screen in our 2672-seat movie palace now outnumbered the staff — by one.
Wednesday, September 8, 1976
The Giant Spider Invasion
The Legend of Bigfoot
"All Seats, All Times, $1.50,
Children 90 cents."