SEE YOU SOON
WE ARE ALL IN THIS
As it turns out, I had a palace once, or rather, I (we) rented one, the 2,672-seat red and gold St. George Theatre in Staten Island, New York. It was a single screen movie house in 1976, and, though our dream didn’t last, it has managed somehow to generate almost as many tales as A Thousand and One Arabian Nights did. Closed or open, movie houses are all about tales and escape. We all need a little of that these days, so I offer the story of the light salesman, a genii, not unlike the one in the story of Aladdin. This guy could almost have come out of a lamp; he was that full of magic...
The St. George Theater under our command, had only been open about a week. Grosses for Blazing Saddles and Take the Money and Run, our first double feature, had depressed our booking agent, and still we thought we were doing pretty well. Some cash, any cash, seems good to newbie entrepreneurs.
Into the lobby strode a man wearing a hopeful smile and lugging a large sales case.
“I’d like to show you some light bulbs...” he began, extending his hand to Dean.
“We can’t buy that kind of thing door to door,” Dean countered, but somehow, the man had already made his way past the usher’s station to the candy stand. There, he quickly unlatched the heavy four-sided sales case, covering the counter with every imaginable size, color and shape of lightbulb — flame-shaped, pencil-thin, clear with a glass rosebud in the center — each screwed into its own special socket. With a Robert Preston flourish, he pulled a cord from the side of the case, and gestured for someone to unplug the butter warmer.
Row by row the case came alive as he hit the switches; it was like watching E. Power Biggs play the pipe organ at the Fillmore East.
“These are for accents — and these... are long-lasting! These two lines are utility.” He paused a moment, not wanting to rush things. “Now these... are for your chandeliers and sconces!” He gestured approvingly at the three dark shapes looming above the lobby.
It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that, before selling light-bulbs, he’d apprenticed with a hypnotist.
A group of us gathered, and someone came up with a notebook:
• 15 stained-glass exit signs, 1 bulb each
• 4 fire hose door signs, 2 bulbs
• chandelier in the outer lobby, 24 candles
• chandeliers in main lobby? (we didn’t know what they contained, having never cranked them down)
• footlights, 24
• backstage lights, 7
• aisle lights (too numerous to count)
• 22 sconces
• statuary illumination?
• bulbs in dome?
The list ended with the biggest question mark of all, the main chandelier, which, we imagined had at least 80 empty sockets, although we couldn’t figure out how — or if it was safe — to crank the thing down. There were niches and indentations with outlets we’d never dreamed of, which we found from time to time, crawling around the catwalk and in other out-of-the-way places, some with bulbs dating, perhaps to the second world war, rusted into their sockets.
Back at the candy stand the euphoric salesman slid his hand into the a crevice of the sales case and, with another flourish, withdrew a hand-held calculator, one of the first I’d ever seen. I wanted that too!
“It all comes to just $917.60!” he told us, beaming.
A full fifteen seconds passed. “We don’t have that much money,” Dean said.
“Oh...that’s okay, you can put it on time!”
So we did. Time was something we didn’t have much of either, but we didn’t know it yet.
How could we refuse him? — so earnest! — and his bulbs did make the theater a little less dusty and cave-like. By the following spring, the first of them had begun to burn out, but meanwhile, thanks to the genii/salesman, we had light.
As for the theater named Aladdin that got me started on this reminiscence, there are two such listed in Cinema Treasures, one in Colorado, and the other, which is the one whose marquee picture matches the image I saw. It’s at 3017 Milwaukee Avenue in Portland, Oregon, and I applaud their message of solidarity.