“Tell me when this is gone!” he commands.
On screen behind him, dimly visible through the glass that separates the lobby from the auditorium, Reefer Madness, that antique polemic on the evils of Marijuana, flickers through a haze of smoke.
Ten dollars at a candy stand in 1976 was a considerable investment in junk food, requiring a heroic effort at consumption, but this guy was up to it, even if he did need help carrying four large popcorns, three frozen Snickers, six double packs of Reese Cups, three or four Charlston Chews and God-knows-what-else back into the dark. The usher who’d helped carry his groceries, retreated once more to his perch in the empty balcony, where if you were lucky you could sometimes catch a contact high from rising plumes of smoke.
If you’re new to this blog, you might not know that I was, at the age of 28, a movie theater operator, along with my husband and several partners, in a grand old Staten Island movie palace, the St. George Theatre. We were perpetually desperate, undercapitalized and, admittedly, a total anachronism, with our single large screen and 2,672 seats. We only lasted a year, but we learned so much.
The whole point of the midnight show was what exactly? It drove concession sales through the roof, but we owed so much to the concession company — for loans we’d taken out against the stand’s profitability — that we were losing money staying open after midnight. The last showing of the regular feature finished around 11:40. Abe, the union projectionist, was pleased to clock in for another six-hours (at double time). Why not? Reefer Madness only lasted sixty-six minutes. He knew he’d be home in bed by three.
Meanwhile, across the water in Manhattan at the Waverly, folks who’d lined up in costumes were already talking back to Rocky Horror Picture Show, the ultimate midnight fare. All we wanted was a crack at Rocky Horror, but the Waverly and one other theater in Manhattan had had a lock on the cult extravaganza since April Fool’s Day when it opened.
As a flea-bag suburban house, we had to content ourselves with Woodstock (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972 — “Filth is my politics, filth is my life!”), Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), Ken Russell’s controversial 1969 film, The Devils (which though censored, still involved orgiastic nuns), The Who’s Tommy, and other played-out stuff.
Twenty minutes before midnight, we did a clean sweep, and when we were reasonably sure those who’d come for the regular feature had gone home, we re-opened to sometimes as few as forty or as many as four hundred kids who paid a dollar fifty for solitude, sex, if they could sneak up to the balcony, or just a place to smoke weed and eat candy.
One Saturday just after midnight, Dean got into a shouting match in the lobby with three patrons who’d entered at eight o’clock for the last showing of The Omen, our regular feature that week. He insisted the midnight show was a separate admission. “It says so in the paper!”
“We’ve already bought a ticket, man...” a tall guy in a feathered robe insisted,
“...besides, movies belong to the people, they should be free.”
(Power-to-the-people pronouncements were common in the sixties and seventies).
Well the show might as well have been free; we weren’t making any money. Dean sighed and studied the lobby's chandelier, two of its bulbs already burned out.
“Go on and enjoy yourselves,” he told them.
Here’s The New York Times, circa 1995 on the subject of midnight movies (campy, etc.), as opposed to regular features shown at midnight (boring). “...the first midnight movie is generally agreed to have taken place in late 1969 at the Elgin Theater (now defunct) in Chelsea. The movie was El Topo, a cryptic, hallucinatory and extremely violent western by the Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky.”