Cable....hmmmm. HBO was still a novelty in 1976. As a child I’d seen signs in the lobby of the Ambassador, a neighborhood theater, warning patrons that PAY TV WILL BE THE DEATH OF THE MOVIES! with clipboard petitions to sign, in hopes of keeping cable out of Cincinnati. Theater operators were certainly vulnerable, but, in reality, it was network television which pressured the FCC to regulate “distant television signals,” a freeze-effect that ended in 1972. Four years later, Brontosauruses like the St. George and other theaters on the “buck fifty” circuit, still offered second-, third- or fourth-run movies at reduced rates, though the whole antiquated system would be wiped out soon enough. All the President’s Men, as Madworld suggests, might have gone directly to cable in some other year. This year, as a matter of fact, The Post, a similar movie, could easily have opened on cable. But in 1976, the movies were still the movies, with first-run houses, drive-ins, and buck-fifties to service, and more screens than ever, thanks to burgeoning multiplexes. Every week, six or more film canisters arrived in our lobby, about a tenth of which contained movies that had actually premiered somewhat recently.
I am proud, if puzzled, to announce that arguably the worst movie we showed in 1976, badder even than Gable and Lombard or The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, is nonetheless listed as one of the ten top-grossing films of that year: In Search of Noah’s Ark. Its release date is variously listed as December, 1976 and January 1977. but I can settle that dispute. It played on our screen from December 22, 1976 to January 5, 1977, thanks to a “four-wall” deal we brokered. In a four-wall, the exhibitor is paid in advance, an excellent thing in our case, because, by that time, we had no heat to offer our long-suffering patrons. The landlord had shut it off. We just sold hot popcorn and lots of coffee and apologized for the fact that you could see your breath in the auditorium.
Better than forty years later, I pity whoever was sitting in our frozen cave, watching a fake documentary purporting to argue that parts of Noah’s Ark had been found on Mt. Ararat. To quote “Unconvincing” from a review on IMDB, “I do not understand how so many people could have climbed the mountain with the sole purpose of finding the ark, and yet not one photograph or piece of video of the ark, exists...” You were supposed to take it on faith, I guess. As a result of clever marketing, the Noah’s Ark movie grossed $55,730,000 nationwide that year, a respectable haul for Sunn-Schick Pictures out of Utah.
It’s interesting to observe that, from IMDB’s list of top-grossing movies from 1976, we actually ran four of the first ten, including the Noah’s Ark frolic (number 5 at the previously-mentioned $55.73 million), All the President’s Men (number four at $70.60 million), The Bad News Bears (number eight, a doggie for us but obviously a money-pot nationwide at $42.35 million), and Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie (number nine, $36.15 million), another disappointing source of revenue for us, but a wonderful movie. The silence was awesome in our cavernous auditorium, much of it, alas, the fact that there were hardly any bodies in the seats. Number eleven, Carrie ($33.80 million), almost filled the first floor (our tough urban audience loved blood). Taxi Driver, one of my favorite movies of all time, did well for us, coming in thirteenth on IMDB’s list, at $28.26 million.
If you think 1976 wasn’t a pivot year for movies, think again. At the 49th Academy Awards, Rocky, a film we never showed, dominated a field of, in my opinion, much better movies. It duked it out for and won “Best Picture,” against Taxi Driver, Network, All the President’s Men and Bound for Glory. With the exception of Bound for Glory, all were later chosen for preservation in the United States National Film Registry (Library of Congress) as “Culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
I’m happy to report that I watched All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver under the sheltering dome of my very own (then) movie palace, the St. George Theatre. The taxi driver himself, Travis Bickle, lives in there for me, an honored ghost, among ghosts.