If you’re a food smuggler and think that’s a rare thing, just Google “sneaking food into movie theaters.” You’ll discover seven entries under that topic on the first search page alone, three of which are how-tos. In 1976 at the 2672-seat palace (the St. George Theatre) I helped run for a year, we didn’t actually inspect people’s backpacks and purses, but we did have the occasional run-in with one or another patron carrying a Bohack’s grocery bag with a loaf of bread sticking out the top or a sackful of Big Macs, clearly branded as such. One of our bouncers (aka “floor managers”) found a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam beneath a balcony seat one night. He was pleased to take it home and add it to his well-stocked bar; I always wondered if he boiled it first, or at least sterilized the bottle.
On a Saturday night in that same year my husband and original partner recalls, that the concession stand intercom rang insistently. Dean grabbed it, between orders for popcorn and soda.
“Get over here,” Brenda barked into the phone from the box office.
“What is it?”
“Just get over here.”
Leaving the candy stand to Paulie, he crossed the swirled thread-bare carpet in four strides, entering the ticket booth from the side door.
“What’s so important?”
Brenda got right to the point, “This guy, this one here, is tryin’ to take two full-size bottles of Nikolai...you know, cheap Vodka — hands ‘em to his girlfriend right there. She puts ‘em into her purse. Now they want to come in. I say no way Jose... ‘ My name is Rodney,’ the guy says. Okay, No way Rodney. “ The ticket line was backing up. Dean moved quickly out of the booth and into the lobby, separating Rodney and his girlfriend from the crowd.
“Yo yo yo,” said Rodney, a tall guy probably in his mid-twenties. “I do have two bottles, Nikolai, good stuff. Got it for the weekend, passed it on to my girlfriend here for safe keeping, gonna take it home.”
He gestured to his date, not a minute over fifteen. She shrugged, opened her giant shaggy purse, revealing two fifths.
Before Dean could speak, Brenda, just seventeen but wise in many ways, interjected, “Don’t let him bring that stuff in here!”
“You can leave the Vodka with me or in the box office where it’s safe, and pick it up on your way out,” Dean declared.
“But what if I wanna leave early?” complained Rodney, fumbling for excuses.
“Then see me early! It’ll be safe, I promise.”
“But it’s Nikolai, nearly eight dollars a bottle!” Rodney was taking another tack, when a man even taller and older, apparently his friend, appeared from the inner lobby.
“Yo Rod,” he said, “think it over. Dey won’t even sell me a cuppa ice widout I buy some soda!”
“A cup of ice?” Dean asked? “Why?” (not one of his more brilliant moments)
“Oh never mind,” Rodney spat out over his retreating shoulder, “Wanted to see the movie down at the Paramount anyway,” and they were gone.
By law Rodney and company couldn’t come in with their purchases, though our rivals at the Paramount may have been inclined to look the other way. Most things people smuggle into theaters are legal, if messy: Blimpies, fish balls, fried chicken, hard-boiled eggs. There is no end to the list of items people want to eat in the dark. “We’re saving money,” they tell themselves.
In truth, there are some good economic reasons why you should feel just a tad guilty about that General Tso’s Chicken you brought into the local plex last month. At the St. George, we lost money on every film we showed with the exception of The Exorcist, The Omen, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon, about seven percent of the films we showed over the course of a year. But in a poor neighborhood, at the trough of the seventies recession, local families dined out on our all-beef franks with dijon mustard on homemade Italian bread buns, and our fresh-pop in real butter. As I’ve boasted in previous posts, the St. George in 1976 had the highest per capita concession sales of any theater in the five boroughs of New York City. The often grimy nickels, dimes, quarters and dollars that found their way across our glass candy case were paying off a huge loan we’d taken to stay in business. This made us a tad more desperate than the average theater operator, who typically counts on the profits from the stand to come somewhere close to breaking even.
Why food in theaters? Even the Metropolitan Opera sells smoked salmon sandwiches, plastic flutes of champagne, and Toblerone these days, but it all started at the movies. The palaces didn’t have concession stands for a long, long time. Then popcorn, a snack food with a strange history, changed all that. What is it that’s so satisfying about munching in the dark, while watching the shadow-play of a movie? It’s intimate, almost erotic, your hand delivering small quantities to your mouth as the narrative progresses grain by grain.
One of the first variations of maize cultivated in Central America, popcorn didn’t burst forth in public until a certain Charles Cretors, a concessionaire from Decatur, Illinois, bought a steam machine to roast peanuts and thought about introducing that most volatile of grains to steam pressure. In 1893, he took his highly mobile popcorn wagon to the Chicago Columbian Exposition, and an industry was born.
In the years leading up to the Great Depression, these wagons became a presence in front of the new and prospering movie palaces. Initially, movie theaters sold no food or beverages. Proud of their shining halls, and longing to seem as refined as the Metropolitan Opera, cinema owners not only didn’t sell food, they cringed at the thought of anybody exposing pristine interiors to food and drink (BTW, they were right, as anyone who has tried to get Coke syrup out of theater carpeting will tell you).
But the popcorn vendors continued to park outside just beyond the marquee, and movie patrons were smuggling popcorn — and more — in anyhow. So it came to pass: the steam wagons were invited into the lobby, at first as renters (concessionaires). Eventually the stand grew up around a permanently situated popcorn popper, with candy, hot dogs, ice cream, coffee, you name it. The no-longer-wary owners had, by this time, figured out how much money was to be made from the sale of food. So what if the carpets had to be steam-cleaned?
The next time you smuggle food in, just remember two things: first, the only profit for the theater owner is usually in the food, and second, smuggling started the whole damn thing!
P.S. If you haven’t checkout Metrograph and its equivalents nationwide, food and theaters have come a long way together.
P.P.S For previous concession stand posts, check out:
"How much is a 35 cent Coke?"
"The Concession Stand"
FLASHBACK FORTY YEARS:
Wednesday, June 2, 1976
A Bruce Lee double feature, Super Dragon and The Dragon Dies Hard, hit the screen at The St. George Theatre.
"All Seats, All Times, $1.50, children 90 cents."
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Check out our Dinner Movie Special,
Dinner at Casa Barone, Movie at The St. George, both for only $4.79!