All summer that year, kids shuffled into our cool marble lobby, some of them barely able to see over the lip of the box office sill, and shoved 90 cents under the bars in exchange for a ticket. 90 cents was twice what I’d paid in 1956, but then the price of eggs had jumped from 45 cents to around 85 cents by that time.
The obedient Midwestern middle-class child and teenager I had been would never have tried to pull a fast one in the lobby of any local theater; but the kids of St. George were street-smart New Yorkers, many of them from struggling families. Probably didn’t have allowances or piggy banks, come to think of it — or a sister who worked in a theater. It was hot, so they came. They wanted to see The Omen or Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Exorcist — or they just wanted to get lost in the dark.
The line between CHILD and ADULT had been firmly established at the St George Theatre as 12, but rules are made to be tested and broken if possible.
Slouching towards the box office window, a tallish thirteen-year-old shoves a dollar bill under the bars, muttering sotto voce, “one child...”
“Quick!” Brenda intones, her hoop earrings flashing, “What year were you born?”
“...uh, uh, 1963?” the hustler stammers.
“One adult then,” Brenda concludes, pausing for the interviewee to produce two extra quarters and shove them over the sill, before she hits the button to eject a single red (adult) ticket.
Sometimes a customer would simply shrug and slide off towards the street, but most times he (it was hardly ever a she) actually had the change. No popcorn then, unless he could find a friend inside to glom off of.
There were other subterfuges. One clever guy actually walked backwards into the theater when patrons from the previous showing were walking out, but we nailed him. In a previous blog post, an old theater colleague recalls some kids who performed in the lobby hoping for a free pass. And then there were the kids who tried the exit doors upstairs, which, by law, had to be left unlocked. They had no handles on the outside, but if you were clever.... Let’s not forget the gang approach: five or six boys pooled their cash to buy one 90-cent ticket. The young ticket purchaser would then sneak up to the balcony and open the exit doors, letting in the co-conspirators. It almost never worked: the light from outside or the noisy door gave them away.
It’s a crime to sneak into a movie theater. Technically, the kid described in the first example, who lied about his age, was committing larceny (theft of services), at least in certain states. And the exit-door pryers can be charged as burglars.
The kids in our lobby were just plain poor; we would never have considered calling the cops or pressing charges. We needed all the customers we could get, honest or otherwise. Besides, at least a tenth of them knew Leroy, our youngest usher, who, I suspected, helped more than a few pass for free. “Yo Leroy, lemme slide” — I’d hear. Never caught him, but one summer Saturday, we opened the door at 11:45 for the noon double feature. I found another manager counting a group of people gathered around the concession stand. “Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen...”
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“We’re doin’ great concession,” he observed, “but so far, we’ve only sold eight tickets!“