Descending on a pipe from the fly loft, the theater’s current screen is a relative postage stamp, compared to its predecessor, a classic of the 1950’s, mounted on a giant curved stretcher. Consisting of a huge piece of heavy white perforated material, the old screen had tiny pin-sized holes to let sound from the speakers travel more naturally from backstage to the audience. It wasn’t silver at all, as early motion picture screens apparently had been, with actual metals embedded in their surfaces. Designed to accept Cinemascope, our screen had a good “gain” — or reflectivity — and was “pearlescent.” Black tones came across as very dark gray, and the overall image was bright — if you ignored the grape soda stains in the lower left-hand corner, from some impulsive long-gone patron.
The screen curved slightly outward at the left and right edges. I always thought the curve had something to do with wrapping the audience in light, and I was partially right. A flat screen makes light travel farther to its corners, encouraging a slightly distorted image, the so-called “pincushion effect.” Godzilla battled Megalon on our screen with no distortion, the grape stain hardly evident, once the battle was underway.
Everything I know about the screen and screens in general, I have learned in retrospect. In 1976, we were just trying to stay alive, relieved if more than a few hundred people paid money to sit in the dark and watch, and grateful that we had a screen at all. Although we could hardly afford a new one, our buddy, Robert Endres, then the head projectionist at Radio City Music Hall conspired briefly to get us a “used” screen at no charge. Radio City, then primarily a movie theater, traditionally replaced its pristine screen annually (no soda stains for them). Theirs was better than twice the size of ours; so half of a discarded Radio City screen would have been plenty. Alas, our stint at the St. George was over before we could take advantage of this bargain.
Certain ushers liked to go backstage behind the screen when the movie was running. You could do this and actually look at the audience looking at the movie! — while the audience couldn’t see you. Little did our audience know that, while they were watching, all sorts of antics were going on behind the screen. Each night an usher went into the shadows back stage to engage two switches: one to bring up the red and blue footlights and another to light the house sconces, as the film ended. Leroy — scrawny, barely 5’5” and 130 pounds — was always reluctant to go into the dark, even if only a comedy was showing.
One night during the last reel of The Exorcist it fell to a reluctant Leroy to do this duty. One priest was already dead and another would soon hurl himself from a window, possessed by the Devil. Add all of this to the soundtrack of tubular bells — indeed creepy. Unbeknownst to Leroy, Cheri, a bit of the devil already in her, lurked in the shadows, stage right. As he approached, she pushed a flashlight beneath her chin and rasped out, “I willlllllll possess you!”
The blood-curdling scream and pounding footsteps that came easily through the perforated screen, probably seemed just one more chilling movie sound effect to folks still seated in the house. Who knows if some long-ago patron of ours hasn’t downloaded the movie recently and wondered as the credits rolled, Wasn’t there a last scream?
Afterthought: In last week’s post, I recounted an evening spent at the first movie to show at the St. George in decades, Working Girl, on the new small screen I mentioned. Heading for the balcony, I felt a bit like a returned working girl myself, glimpsing, as I passed, my former office under the stairs in the lobby: a pang mixed with a thrill.