Seven years after that, in 1976, we actually took a hand at running the St. George. As a theater exhibitor, I quickly discovered two things about summer and the movies: 1.) It was friggin expensive to air condition a 2,672-seat hall (Con Ed bills ran in the thousands even then) and 2.) People don’t want to think very hard in the dark on a hot summer day, the requisite popcorn, icy soda and maybe a frozen Snickers for company.
When was the summer movie invented? Had it been around my whole life?
There’s no hard and fast rule, but summer movies seem to have hit their stride in the 1950’s. Think Picnic, Gidget, A Summer Place (both of the last two include Sandra Dee in a prominent role), Suddenly Last Summer, Summertime (a David Lean confection starring Kate Hepburn). By the 1960’s summer movies were a staple of movie palace fare: The Endless Summer (even if you’d never seen a surfboard in your life, who could resist those curls?), Beach Party and the other beach movies it spawned, including Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, The Parent Trap, and that pre-Jaws thriller,The Horror of Party Beach.
Now I’ve done it, gone and mentioned Jaws, which, a decade later, I painted the St. George Theatre’s street-side pillar red and aqua in anticipation of showing. The mechanical shark was a year old by then--the previous summer’s thriller — but that didn’t seem to matter; and we showed it a month too early, the week of May 12, but wasn’t summer just around the corner? Jaws is, of course, much more than a summer movie. As The Guardian notes, “To this day, many consider the template of contemporary blockbuster releases to have been laid down in the summer of 1975 by a movie that redefined the parameters of a “hit” — artistically, demographically, financially.” (Was it really about Watergate?)
By the seventies, horror was fully acceptable as summer fare, so, as our St. George summer progressed, we could get away with Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Torso in mid-June and The Exorcist on July 28. (Exorcism and popcorn? Why not?) And by the way, how did the innocence of fifties romantic comedies in summer, followed by beach flirtations in the sixties, give way to chainsaws and possessed little girls by the seventies?
According to The L.A. Times what qualifies as a popcorn movie is ”Any film whose primary mission is to entertain (...thinking, crying or reflecting is just an add-on)... Do they open only in the summer? No, they can land in theaters from January to December, but they must have popcorn soul.” So the genre (romantic comedy, adolescent adventures, gory thriller, sci-fi or super hero) doesn’t matter, so long as it entertains. Pithier fare fares better when seasons change. Case in point: I seldom drink red wine in summer. Counter argument: on August 4 Al Gore will release An Inconvenient Sequel (soak up the conditioned air while ignoring its consequences), and Kathryn Bigelow will revisit the Detroit riots in Detroit.
But the big question, at least the one I care about, is: Does anybody go out to the movies anymore? Will you? Will I? It’s interesting to return for a moment to The Sterile Cuckoo, that Liza Minelli flick I found so depressing over forty years ago on a hot summer afternoon in the deep shadows of the St. George Theatre, which was frosty-cold when I needed it to be. In the dark, under that fulsome scarlet dome, the leaded-glass chandelier at its core barely visible through a steep-descending beam of light that transformed itself into people and things on the giant screen, it didn’t matter what I was watching. Even now it could be anything: the latest Pirates of the Caribbean, or Alien: Covenant or, when we ran the St. George, it could have been a 1973 Bruce Lee film with its reels out of order (yes, we did that once). Speaking of that error, nobody in the audience noticed that the reels were in the wrong sequence. Kung Fu is all action! — and besides, they were too busy soaking in the theater’s lovely cavernous dark while getting cool, which is my point.