Paul Plonski, these days an aeronautical engineer, but then a teenage usher (when he wasn’t selling candy), recalls,
“...I remember picking up those hexagonal cans in the lobby...in front of the ticket booth on the main entrance. There were probably four or more cans on a given day. Grabbing on to two of them, I found, to my surprise, they were much heavier than eye might perceive. My memories take me into the main lobby, the palms of my hands burning from the narrow metal grips of the handles, taking a short break and proceeding up to the mezzanine level. Once there, another short break, then up to the balcony...[where] there was a magnificent view of the theater ...totally amazing to be looking down on the theater below and its magnificent beauty, the orchestra pit, the historical stage, the chandelier above, how powerful it felt to be looking down from above on...such a rich entertainment history. The journey continued, upwards, ascending through the balcony, until I was at the very last seat, again looking down at the stage floor below, how small everything looked. Turning about, a narrow door, very narrow, so narrow most patrons would not realize its existence. I squeaked through the narrow door, with two film cans, one in each hand, a set of stairs, steeper and narrower than the stairs leading to the semi-nonexistent door itself. The film cans would bounce off the sides of the walls as I ascended to the projectionist’s booth above. At last, arriving at the technical perch of the theater, it seemed as though I were atop the world. There were little openings looking down upon the theater below, once again making everything below look so small. It never lost its magnificence ...”
After the usher-on-duty trudged back down the stairs, the projectionist loaded the main feature’s first two reels onto our ancient Century “carbon arc” projectors. “Carbon arc” projection was not exactly high tech anymore, but it was what we had. The St. George was a dollar-fifty movie house (second or third-run) — no fancy xenon bulb projectors for us. The light from our projectors, that shone through the film as it passed the gate, came from an arc similar to the equipment welders use, an actual fire sparked between two carbon metal rods, that lit the film.
And the show began.
Blazing Saddles, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, Taxi Driver, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Carrie, The Man Who Would Be King, The Omen: the films we booked had one thing in common. They’d all been around at least a year, in most cases two. Even if we’d had the advance money to put down on a first-run feature, we’d have lost out in a bidding war to the new strip-mall theaters, offering a choice of two or even three screens. There was precious little new film to be had in 1976 and ’77, and nobody could imagine filling all of our 2,672 seats.
Still every Wednesday was a new chance at success, our movie booking fantasies reinforced by the heady notion that if we could just sell out a live show once or twice, we’d break even for the whole year. Breathless and in our twenties, with the kind of energy that dared the odds, we never managed to achieve such a boffo socko live show, even once. Yet we were, as Paulie recalls, “atop the world,” in what I still think of as a magic cave.
1. Although I said we couldn’t imagine selling out all the seats for a movie, we did manage that twice, later in the year, when we showed the director’s cut of The Exorcist, a film ideally matched to our shadowy palace.
2. I just came across this interesting 1989 tidbit about carbon arc and its technological successor, the xenon bulb — itself now obsolete. Check it out!
3. Bob Endres, a friend who sat in as a projectionist from time to time at the St. George, adds, "The lamps you had when I was there were made by Ashcraft. I’m reasonably sure the projector “mech heads” (the actual projector itself) were made by Century. In this photo the big unit on the projector base is the Ashcraft lamphouse, and the unit directly in front of it is a Century “mech” or picture head. Below it is the Century sound head, although at the St. George you had an RCA sound system so the sound heads were probably RCA. If Abbott Theatre Supply in Manhattan was your equipment and booth supplier, that would make sense since they sold Ashcraft and Century and RCA exclusively in the area.
4. Speaking of Ashcraft lamphouses and Century heads, here’s a story worth checking out.