Back then I was convinced I remembered all of the movies we ran in our theater year, from April, 1976 through March,1977. But I was wrong. Memory is only a variation on fiction: it has taken me the better part of this last year to learn why eyewitnesses routinely identify the wrong person. Here’s to research, especially to researching your own early and misguided life — a humbling experience.
We’d opened with Blazing Saddles and Take the Money and Run, I was sure of those two titles. The third week, we ran Smile (a great little indie of the time, which I recommend) but what was the second feature? I couldn’t quite remember. I could clearly recall painting the outside pillars of the theater red and blue for Jaws, which I was sure we’d run on Memorial Day weekend. None of these factoids did I get right. It was Bananas — another Woody Allen comedy, not Take the Money and Run — that we ran with Blazing Saddles; Smile — a glimpse at the inner turmoil of beauty pageants — had been partnered with The Sunshine Boys, a comedy about two washed-up Vaudevillians. Good pairing, but they both bombed: all the neighborhood really wanted, we would learn as the year went on, was action and violence. As for Jaws, we (tragically) booked this summer classic for May 12, weeks before the summer really started. Obviously I hadn’t cared to remember what Smile was paired with, or that Jaws was in the wrong time-slot. As for the Woody Allen mix-up, my fondest — unconscious? — hope may have been that some big money would come along, we’d take it and run.
My solace and source of ultimate truth has been, these last few years, the movie page in back issues of The Staten Island Advance, our local paper. The New York Times may be available on-line as far back as its founding date in 1851, but the Advance (pronounced AD-vance if you live on the island) is accessible only via an arcane and frequently maddening research tool called microfilm. At the local public library, the microfilm-viewing equipment is, metaphorically speaking, horse-drawn. Fortunately the Staten Island Museum’s research department has computerized equipment that actually works, not to mention a kindly and helpful archivist. I dedicate this blog post to the museum in its glamorous new location at Snug Harbor Cultural Center.
Should you venture to ride the Staten Island Ferry some fine day as a tourist, it is worth your while to stroll the grounds of Snug Harbor, where indigent sailors of the 19th century (aka “Snugs”) spent their declining days in magnificent neo-classical buildings facing the water. While there, tour the museum and find out what “Staaten” means, learn the name for our island in Lenape, and find out why the hills of the north shore may be the best place in all of New York City to be when the polar caps have completely melted. Forgive me for all of this local pride; digression is the soul of the poet!
At the museum, my researches into my own past go something like this:
- Load the microfilm (looks like an old-fashioned black and white home movie) onto the spool on the left-hand side of the machine, through a pair of glass plates and onto the take-up reel at the opposite side. The process is reminiscent oddly — and ironically — of loading a film projector.
- On the desktop computer, which is synced to the microfilm apparatus, scroll to FF. It takes about thirty seconds to arrive at the first black and white images of a 1976 front page. I keep fast-forwarding, through ads for long-gone stores like W.T. Grants, through pages and pages of bell-bottoms, cowl-necked sweaters, puff-sleeved peasant blouses and leisure suits, sirloin steaks for $2.29, the comics, the obits. Day-in-the-life stuff once, but these days remote as the folkways of our Pleistocene ancestors. Then there it is, the movie page, enticing as an unwrapped gift: what were we showing?
Often enough there’s more than one surprise. Did Rock Hudson really star in something called Embryo? Why did we switch font styles — again — from "St George" in script to that dorky block lettering? The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea bombed the first week — boy do I remember that — so why did we hold it over? Second-guessing the past.
My first ventures into what is, in essence, the public record of our failure at the theater, have been fun and a little scary. But in this fortieth anniversary of that difficult year, I find myself oddly vulnerable to what I might find next in the microfilms, given my often sketchy memory — especially now that we’re well into fall, that most aptly named of seasons. I find myself holding back from completing the file on my desktop called “St. George Movie Chron,” because I know it will end. It did end.
But writing, mysteriously, goes on.