Far as I can figure, I invented this institution, which died when I stopped seeing my therapist, Leonora. I was learning a lot about my mother and boundaries, and what the weak points were in my marriage; but I was also learning it’s alright to go to the movies alone.
I’d been brought up, you see, to think of movies as something social: a date, double or otherwise; lunch and a movie with a friend in downtown Cincinnati, perhaps at the Albee, to see Cleopatra; a carload of folks at the Oakley Drive-In to witness The Day the Earth Stood Still. With the exception of when your sister, who worked the concession stand at the Mt. Lookout, got you in for free, with unlimited refills on popcorn, in the Midwest of my childhood, you just didn’t go to the movies alone.
This impression had been reinforced the year we ran the St. George. Mostly our patrons were roving gangs of kids, hoping to pass for adults so they could see Taxi Driver, or, the other ruse, longing to pass as children and pay just ninety cents. Dates came of course — and it didn’t matter that our balcony generally wasn’t open, sometimes they snuck up there anyhow — and if they didn’t, there were two thousand seats on the ground floor, so if you wanted to blow some weed and get it on, you could guarantee several unoccupied rows between you and the rest of the crowd.
There were some solitary exceptions, people who came in and bought that one lonely ticket, but they were generally eccentric. Old Doctor Oppenheim, a real MD, retired, lived in the apartments just up the hill. Using her market cart as a walker, on Wednesday afternoon she made her way downhill and under the marquee, regardless of what we were showing. All she really wanted to do was buy one of our exquisite premium hotdogs (all beef, Kosher, with dijon mustard on a real hand-made Italian bread). Usually, she just bought the dog and chatted with me on the other side of the box office cage; sometimes, rarely, she’d go in past the mahogany pillars and sit in the dark alone. Then there was the jazzman; I’ve described him before, a retired (sax player? bassist?) who dressed each Wednesday in some or another spangled suit (gold lame, shimmery scarlet, sparkly green, silver) then bought a ticket to the movie, and of course, a hot dog. He’d watch the movie through the glass that divided the theater from the lobby, all the time mumbling the names of women we presumed to have been his lovers.
Desperate for revenue, we ran a soft-porn triple feature once (Love under 17, The Sensuous Teenager, and Love times Three), and suddenly the whole auditorium was filled with solitary men of a ragged sort. Clean up afterwards wasn’t cheap or pretty, though it wasn’t anything like what the Variety in Manhattan must have been putting up with, or certain of the Times Square houses we occasionally borrowed projection supplies from.
It wasn’t until the mid-eighties that I discovered that other kind of solitary movie-goer, more common on the Manhattan side of New York Harbor, the discerning movie buff, reading The New York Review of Books, a coffee in hand. I don’t suppose any of these Wednesday afternoon folks were refugees from psychotherapy like me, but I’ll never know for sure. Like our St. George in the seventies, the Gramercy was a third-run house, which had somehow recovered by the mid-eighties, having been bought by City Cinemas and turned into a very successful art theater. So those people I suspected of being reviewers might just have been Vincent Canby or some other rare bird.
The best movie I ever saw after therapy, and one of the best movies I ever saw period (wow am I glad it entered my psyche from a large pristine movie screen) was Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman. I cried all the way through, in part because, in therapy, I had just revisited my own childhood, and because Bergman was a contemporary of my then-newly-deceased mother, whose memories of growing up in the early part of the twentieth century included such things as magic lanterns, those precursors of cinema, one of which is featured movingly in the film.
I am grateful to the movies all through my life, for having given me the strength to go on when things were terrifying and for catapulting me out of unendurable reality. Other people have had their churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, shrines, sweat lodges; but I have had movie theaters, many of them more sumptuous than the holiest of houses.
It’s hard now that the experience of moving pictures, cinema, what-have-you, is relegated, more often than not, to a stack of multiplex shoe-boxes, or to the big screen in your den or a laptop, or, worse, an iphone.
"Whither has fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” Wordsworth gets the last say.
Speaking of churches and the like, “High Church” is what we used to call Radio City Music Hall, back when we were theater operators. We visited periodically, privileged to use the employees’ entrance, where we met our friend, Robert Endres, then the head projectionist of the place. You could have put several St. George theaters in the music hall...
Speaking of the still-much-discussed taboo concerning going to movies alone, get a load of numbers 5,7,8 and especially 12, in Buzzfeed’s list of reasons to overcome that taboo.