Little kid: “One adult.”
Brenda (hoop earrings flashing): “How old are you?”
Kid (stretching himself to appear taller): “How old you gotta be to see the movie?”
Brenda: “Answer the question...how old?
Kid (studying his feet) “uh, fifteen...”
Brenda (leaning back): “Funny, last week you told me you were twelve.”
Kid: “No! No I wasn’t, I didn’t...”
Brenda: “I remember. You said you were twelve — we did the math, I asked you what year you were born, and you were thirteen. Suddenly you’re fifteen?"
Big kid, his buddy (stepping forward): “So how old you gotta be to see this movie?”
Brenda: “Seventeen or accompanied by an adult.”
Big kid: “So I’m seventeen, am I an adult? Can he come in with me?”
Brenda (knowing when to quit): “Two tickets then. That’ll be three dollars.”
Little kid: “Wait a minute, if I’m not an adult, I only gotta pay ninety cents!”
Brenda: “No way. Read the sign; kids are under twelve. Right now, near as I can figure, you’re somewhere between thirteen and fifteen. Soooooo.... that’ll be three bucks, ‘joy the show!”
By 1976, when we ran the St. George, a 2672-seat movie palace in Staten Island, the Hays Code, which dictated movie content, had faded into history, replaced by an early version of the ratings system now in place. Taxi Driver, like so much of the “action” fare we showed, was R rated, Under seventeen not admitted unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. Obviously, the elder of the two kids who stood at the box office window barely qualified as the “adult” to accompany a child of dubious age. Brenda was, technically wrong to let this duo pass, (the seventeen-year-old was clearly not the younger kid’s parent, and likely not his guardian); but we needed the three bucks.
Such dodging and weaving had been unheard of in my own childhood and the childhoods of many of my friends, who grew up under Hays, which forbade so many things, such as “lustful kissing,” and pledged that no movie should “lower the moral standards of those who see it...”or that, ”The sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin." Obviously, Taxi Driver (and Deliverance, not to mention Dog Day Afternoon, and almost every movie we showed except for In Search of Noah’s Ark and The Man Who Would Be King) would have failed the Hays test.
Things had been different before Bonnie and Clyde (1967) -- talk about the “sympathy of the audience” thrown to the side of crime! -- and The Graduate (1967) and Midnight Cowboy (1969) hove into view on giant screens in the late sixties, breaking every rule in several books.
For most of the people I know, the movies of childhood are a kind of amber their memories are preserved in. A friend who grew up in the 1930’s, when the Code was firmly in place, writes:
When little, I went with my mother (no baby sitter) and asked too many questions, because I really didn't understand all that was happening onscreen... In time of course I went on my own, alone or with a friend. Boys, of course; we didn't go with girls — not yet. I remember one film with Dorothy Lamour (in a sarong, of course). The villain was about to be eaten by crocodiles, and as their mouths gaped voraciously, we couldn't take any more and ducked down on the floor till the scene was over. We loved action films — the Wild West or British empire stuff (Alexander Korda), not mature enough to ask if the native peoples had some rights, after all. No, we were with the Brits against the natives, but all we really wanted was a good battle with the (presumed) good guys winning, which they always did.
I love Dorothy Lamour in a sarong.
But let’s pause for a minute to reflect on ducking under the seat so as not to see the crocodiles. In my own childhood, twenty years later, I ducked (or put my hand over my face) for Earth Versus the Flying Saucers (would the aliens vaporize everybody, even me?) and Horrors of the Black Museum, which actually featured eyeballs being punctured. The segregation of the sexes which my friend recalls from the thirties was absolutely in force: I went to the Drive-In or a local stadium-style theater like the 20th Century, and I went with girlfriends (or alone, during the period when my sister worked in the glamorous chrome ticket booth of the Mt. Lookout Theatre, and got me in for free). British Empire adventure films were, by that time, passe, but The Blob was another hide-under-the-seat flick; it beat any man-eating crocodile, tails down.
Forward to the St. George, where, in 1976, neighborhood boys like my friend Clifford Browder — whose reminiscence I quoted above — had come in droves to see “action,” but the action by the seventies, was all about underdogs (like Cochese and Preach in Cooley High) and anti-heroes like Scorcese’s Travis Bickle. We showed The Man Who Would Be King, a perfect rear-view mirror of the British Empire movies Clifford remembers. But, brilliant as Huston’s epic was, it didn’t sell very many tickets. Who wanted white men or Alexander the Great’s lost kingdom? We had our own home-grown mean streets. Hence the two kids at the box office, one clearly under age, the other hardly mature.
Afterthought 1: A fuller glimpse of the Hays Code shows its filthy underside. Buried in the list of things it prohibited ("excessive and lustful kissing,” "sex perversion,” “profanity” and "indecent or undue exposure”) is, no kidding, “miscegenation,” a word I sincerely hope you’ve either forgotten the meaning of or never knew.
Afterthought 2: Clifford Browder, mentioned in this post, is also a terrific blogger, whose beat is all things NYC. Check it out!