We still have improvised cinema... Just Google “pop-up movie theater,” and see what you get: everything from a glorified cubicle in the middle of terminal 4 at Kennedy Airport, where you can kill a few hours, to the charming and endless European summer outdoor theaters, that proliferate in the warm months. Many fill historic plazas such as the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna or Sala Montjuic in Barcelona, a festival held each year within the walls of the Montjuic castle. No wonder Europeans (except the Brits) don’t bother with drive-ins! Who needs ‘em! Or, for that matter, who needs a movie palace, when you’ve got a real castle to snuggle up next to!
There are, of course, roof-top cinemas and hot-tub cinemas from London to L..A. You can even check out Pop-Up Magazine’s goings on at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel in L.A., which is multi-media.
Then there’s the ultimate pop-up, my husband’s first theater. If you’ve been following this blog, you know about his second theater, the aforementioned St. George, which I had a hand in running with him for a year, but you may not have heard about the one he invented from scratch.
So here’s the story of the St. John’s Terrace Cinema, in Dean’s own words:
"Well, it was a drive-in of sorts. The vehicles that were admitted for five cents each per rider (no carload rate) were bicycles, tricycles, Radio Flyer wagons and, of course, walk-up fare. And true to your mother’s story, there were benches, but also folding chairs, blankets, and the occasional crate. The screen was, indeed, a bed sheet, clipped to a clothesline at the far end of Lester Lloyd’s backyard (Deer Park Ohio). Unbeknownst to me, I was in violation of the 1948 law which banned any entity from owning a studio, a film distributorship and a theater. With the exception of an 8 mm cartoon short, which we’d signed out of the public library, feature films were the product of my hastily-organized company, Big T Productions. They included such stellar titles as Bombing Attack Over Berlin, Bombing Attack Over Japanese Fleet, and The Attack of the Giant Invader. All three films were ten-minute silents, featuring plastic models of the planes and ships our fathers maneuvered throughout WWII, which, at that point lay just ten years in the past.
On the third film, which, as I recall was supposed to have been a re-enactment of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the cinematographer, me, behind a hand-held Brownie 8 spring-powered movie camera (see photo above), caught most of Phil Tabaco’s wrist and all of his hand as he held the wing of a model Japanese Zero, dipping through our basement studio on its way to bomb a plastic model of the USS Arizona, tethered to a cardboard dock.
We stopped production immediately. None of us understood the concept of film editing. At ten, we simply assumed films were shot scene-by-scene in order, same as we saw them in real theaters. We had promised the crowd at our recently-contrived St. John’s Terrace Cinema a brand-new feature for August, 1956, and so we had to figure out how Phil’s hand and wrist might enter into a Japanese attack. No problem--just change the genre from a war film to a war/horror film! Phil became the giant monster who rose from the Pacific to somehow defend the American fleet from all comers.
Our crowd of just under twenty kids from the block loved it. We re-wound and showed the film three times, no additional cost.
And there was music! Just as your mother recalled a lady at a piano in that lot in Toledo, we had musical accompaniment. Lester sat at the upright in his parents’ dining room his back to the window that opened on the backyard. We had moved the mirror from his dresser and placed it on the piano, so Lester could watch the film and play appropriately along with the action.
As I recall, the theme from the black-and-white TV series, Superman (dump de dum, dadada dump de dum) was repurposed often. Phil tore tickets at the gate; and yes, the producer / director / cinematographer / projectionist (me) also ran concession. Popcorn, prepared by Mrs. Lloyd in the “theater kitchen” adjacent to the “music studio” went for two cents a bag, and drinks were various flavors of Kool-Aid, sold in sterilized soda bottles for four cents each.
On one Saturday night in August, Lester, Phil and I divided the combined gate and concession: nearly two dollars three equal ways. What did we do with all the money? What else? we went to the Deer Park Theatre two nights later! Twenty-five cents admission left us plenty of money to gorge on candy and popcorn."
Afterthought: Lester Lloyd spent most of his life as a professional musician; Phil Tabaco became a writer and lecturer on Sci Fi, and Dean (Thompson), as you know, went on to run a movie palace and then produce and direct television.