Second-hand, second-run. In 1976 I arrived as one of a number of smitten young entrepreneurs in the lobby of a 2672-seat Spanish Baroque movie palace, the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, which we struggled to run for just that year. By the time we got to it, the St. George was a second-run house, having slid from its prestigious perch as premier — the Staten Island "flagship” of the Fabian chain, hitting rock bottom at last as a “buck fifty” house. In a year when the average price of a movie ticket (nationwide) was $2.15 ( $3.00 in New York City), we were a bargain, a Second-Hand Rose of moviedom, replete with giant stained-but-still-luminous movie screen and lots of broken seat-backs.
When a movie came to us, it had been around. But in an era of used cars and such that was still alright. You (the movie patron) had another chance to see something you’d missed. The Wizard of Oz aired annually on TV, but anything reasonably current, say Dog Day Afternoon (1975) or The Exorcist (1973) could only be viewed in a theater. Hollywood kept a tight fist on its product: it took a decade or more for major pictures to find their way to the Sony Trinitrons and Zeniths that illuminated people’s living rooms. In 1976 at the St. George, we showed not only the previously-mentioned Dog Day and Exorcist, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Man Who Would be King (1975), and Blazing Saddles (1974), to name a few. Third-run though it actually was, Exorcist sold to a packed house both days of one weekend (all 2672 seats full), something we would never witness again, an anomaly probably having something to do with the spookiness of our interior.
Second-run now? Several years ago, I remember watching Twelve Years a Slave — just released to television — on Oscar eve. Imagine filling all the seats in a single-screen theater with people eager to see a movie that’s three or four years old already — done the rounds of Netflix, etc. Thinking of theaters still showing old product, I’m excluding “rep” (repertory) and art houses — rare enough these days — and oddities like Rocky Horror Picture Show, continuously on-screen in theaters across the U.S. since spring, 1976 — the longest run in movie theater history.
Speaking of that one-of-a-kind theatrical/cinematic phenomenon, I was jealous of Rocky Horror. It started its eternal run at the same moment as our entrepreneurial adventure. While people were lining up in costume at midnight in Manhattan, waiting to talk back to that iconic movie, we struggled to fill just a few hundred of our several thousand seats. How I longed to be over there, on the other side of the water, an audience member for once — not that oddest of ducks, a motion picture operator.
Note: For an interesting read on what’s becoming of movie distribution/exhibition in 2016, catch this article in the Tuesday January 26 New York Times on who bids on what flix at Sundance.