How is it, for example, that I’m nostalgic about smoking? But for one brief puff of a Marlboro on the playground, (followed by a gritty spate of coughing), I barely smoked a cigarette in my life. Well I was a passive smoker; anybody who survived the fifties, sixties and seventies inhaled plenty of secondhand smoke. With the exception of primary and secondary school classrooms and cafeterias, there was virtually no place in 1950’s America where smoking didn’t happen. It prevailed at home (Mom and Pop and all their friends), on TV (think Ernie Kovacs on What’s My Line?), on buses, in lobbies, at restaurants, in (yes!) hospitals, on airplanes (cigarettes were passed out for free) and certainly beneath the copious dome of your favorite movie palace, its chandelier dimly visible through the haze. The presence of a dome made movie palaces particularly smoke-friendly.
By the time (April, 1976) a group of young entrepreneurs — of which I was one — took over the lease of the St. George Theatre, an aging 2,672-seat movie palace, the U.S. Surgeon General’s warning that cigarette smoking is hazardous to health was twelve years old, and new research in the early seventies was pointing a finger at second-hand smoke. Some people were choosing not to be smokers, and those people didn’t want to sit next to people who were.
We never sold cigarettes at the St. George, but you can be assured a ciggie machine had graced the theater’s lobby before we came along. There’s something else to be nostalgic for: putting a quarter into the cigarette machine for your daddy, then pushing the button under “Parliament” and hearing the thunk as a pack of cigarettes (and often as not matches) slid down into the tray. Talk about nostalgia; how about that thunk?
But getting back to the St. George in 1976, a lesson about the all-pervasiveness of cigarette smoking over time was waiting in the lobby for us to discover.
By the time we took over, the lobby chandeliers hung like dark armored shapes above the corridor, each ringed by a set of (burned out) electric candles. Late in our first month, a hard-working member of our team figured out how to crank the chandeliers down for bulbing. Voila! What I’d assumed all along were plates of copper sheeting at the center of each chandelier were actually panes of colored glass, revealing more electric candles inside. Over the period of a very long night, this comrade scrubbed patiently, dipping the glass panels in a solution of ammonia and soap, and, by daybreak, transforming them from opaque seemingly faux-copper to fully-transparent glass. What had hidden their beauty? Forty-plus years of cigarette smoke! Standing beneath their now blinding light, I wondered what the insides of the lungs of all those smokers looked like.
Smoking in theaters was still permitted, but most operators relegated that activity to one or another area. Since, due to scant audiences, the balcony was generally not open, we chose the left-hand side of the orchestra as our smoking section, then struggled to keep smokers corralled there. A number strayed into the general audience when nobody was looking, especially if the smoking section was full, but most stayed put, their smoke trailing upwards beyond the lip of the mezzanine.
Now here’s the core of my nostalgia: before the smoke reached those exulted heights, it passed through the beam of the projector in rich eddies, morphing into a kind of transparent marble.
How could anything so lethal be so beautiful? I remember my daddy’s cigarette smoke the same way: he knew just how to blow smoke-rings. Seated on his lap, I could poke my finger through them! Daddy! He was so Bogie...
Speaking of Bogart, the movies themselves were one reason almost every adult smoked in the nineteen fifties. Before I wax rhapsodic on the glamor of filmic smoking, let’s cut the nostalgia by reminding ourselves that style frequently boils down to economics. “The link between Hollywood and tobacco goes back to the beginning of talking pictures,” Stanton Glantz (Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, the University of California, San Francisco) reminds us. “It was a way to thoroughly embed tobacco use in the social fabric.”
Bogie in To Have and Have Not smoked Chesterfields. What could be sexier? Clark Gable, Lauren Bacall, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis and Spencer Tracey all smoked “Luckies” (Lucky Strikes) when they smoked on screen, openly promoting them in print media and on radio. Product placement was still invisible then; the stars were gods.
Even to those of us who never lit up, smoking was sexy. There they were, movie stars, inhabiting their universe of the giant screen, enveloped in movie smoke, and just below, mere mortals (my parents, other adults, rebellious teens) knocked an ash off a genuine cigarette, sending the smoke of their peculiar incense up to the theater’s dome, by way of the film’s radiant beam.
1. Weed. Of course, there was no designated smoking section at the St. George Theatre for the hand-rolled smokes of my generation. We all toked — me only occasionally, because, despite the mental payoff, holding smoke in my throat just hurt too much. But, especially for midnight shows, grass was ever-present, making its benign path through the bright beam of Woodstock or a Ken Russell extravaganza, all the while spreading good cheer, smelling vaguely like oregano, and blessedly lighting a fire under candy and popcorn sales.
2. Well, in a way I did smoke, way back in the fifties and early sixties, if you count candy cigarettes! My brand was Lucky Strikes.