In those days everything had to be exchanged. Octagonal canisters bearing six reels of the old film waited with rolled-up posters in the lobby to be swapped in the morning for an equal number of canisters containing the new feature. It was all for rent. Only hope, that dubious commodity, actually belonged to us.
At midnight, we turned off all but four lights — one in the box office, another in the lobby, an iron standing lamp center stage, and a final light high up in the projection booth, six stories above the orchestra. We closed the inside lobby doors and bolted the red and gold glass ones from the inside, then locked the deadbolt in the center door.
At sunrise, a bakery truck would arrive and lean two bags of small fresh-baked Italian breads against that door, hot dog rolls for the matinee. New features always started on Wednesday, and there was always a matinee.
Thirty-eight years later, it’s a Tuesday night. I can still taste the small sour spot in the pit of my stomach that wouldn’t quit while we had the theater, a wild kind of hope. Everyone who has ever tried to make it from scratch with a store-front business knows what this feels like.
And now, in the twenty-first century, in Texarkana, TX and L.A. and Franklin, IN, and Greensboro, NC, and Ambler, PA and hundreds of other places, the old theaters are coming back to life, this time mostly as not-for-profits. (Why didn’t we think of that?) There’s a quiet revolution going on, after the awful 1970‘s when so many theaters turned into supermarkets or bowling alleys or ended up as parking lots. I feel I’ve witnessed the rise and fall — and rise — of the American movie palace. The League of Historic Theatres ought to have a national tour, with a stop at each theater the night before the next big show — live act or movie, it doesn’t matter, it’s all the same. Boffo Socko? You open the door and people come in. The curtain rises.