“Huh?” Dean exclaimed, examining the invoice, labeled "Marquee Tax," “Waddaya mean you don’t need a marquee? It's attached to your building!”
“Yeah, kid, my building don’t need that marquee, but your theater does!” The man, owner of the St. George Theatre, a 2672-seat movie palace we had foolishly rented, clearly had no intention of paying for the prominent (leaking) structure that overhung thirty feet of NYC sidewalk.
This was a minor dispute, one of many, in a relationship that would not end well. The City of New York, we were to learn, charges fees for the “use” of its sidewalks, and some of them are specialized. Restaurants pay a tax for setting out tables and chairs. Theaters pay for “marquee use.” The sum of this particular bill was $550, a lot of money in 1976, but the marquee in question was indeed vital to “our” theater, so we paid it and waded a little more deeply into the muddy river of debt.
I owe the prompt for this blog post to Clifford Browder, a fellow writer and citizen of NYC, and a blogger of some note, who called my attention to Michael Pollak’s “F.Y.I.” column in the Sunday, July 3 New York Times (Metropolitan page).
The first questioner in F.Y.I. observes, “Old movie houses don’t die; they’re repurposed as drugstores, clinics, even houses of worship. Yet the marquees remain, although these canopies no longer serve their original purpose...”
Right you are, questioner, on both points. Old movie houses have a habit of sticking around and are repurposed in myriad ways, as illustrated in a series of blogs I wrote last winter on what became of various old theaters in Staten Island where I live (warehouse, church, lumberyard etc.). In an even earlier blog post, I examined the metamorphosis of famous theaters, such as the Brooklyn Paramount — currently a basketball court — and Detroit’s Michigan Theatre, which is these days, sadly, a parking garage. The theater I helped to manage in 1976, the St. George, still stands and is actually a working theater, thanks to a local family which has more or less dedicated lives, fortunes, and sacred honors to the cause. But before it was reborn as a live house, the St. George enjoyed various careers as a dinner theater and a flea market, all the time bearing up its old, still leaking marquee.
In our brief tenancy, the marquee, lit from within and sporting typical letter tracks, advertised movies we were showing, Smile, Jaws, Taxi Driver, and such. We struggled each week to come up with the right combo of fragile aluminum letters, many of them broken over the years and always in short supply. After we left the marquee was a dark hanging shape, its neon script “St. George Theatre” broken in several places. A mid-1990’s owner, attempting to refurbish the place for concerts and not knowing what to do about the marquee, took the disastrous step of plastering the whole thing in stucco, with a puny neon "St. George" lit in a little box at the front.
As Michael Pollak points out in his column, pharmacies, community centers, churches, whoever else takes over an old theater, usually keeps the marquee up and running. He quotes Scott Bringuet, the project coordinator for Ace Sign Company of Springfield, Illinois on the subject of marquees as retro and nostalgia inducing. Ironically, the St. George, is actually in business as a theater, its marquee hardly evocative of its former glory.
And what’s the use of a marquee you can’t put announcements on? To date, the St. George Theatre's marquee is still plaster-covered, resembling a badly-iced cake. But wait, there’s more (as Ron Popeil of television advertising fame used to say). The current owners, I understand, have for several years planned to replace it. However, a new marquee apparently has to meet with the approval of a city famous for its molasses-in-January slowness.
This blog awaits the day when the current management can advertise Sophia Loren, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, or whoever else happens to be coming soon — to that wonderfully intimate stage in a six-story fantasy palace with perfect acoustics. Until then, as I walk under the badly-frosted overhang, I think about the check I wrote for five hundred and fifty bucks to the City of New York. It was probably part of the usurious bundle of property taxes current owners of cinemas still have to pay in a city that is fast losing movie screens.
I hate to give any credit to a cheesy landlord, but the city put him up to it.
FLASHBACK FORTY YEARS:
Wednesday, June 23, 1976
The classic The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with
the Sea filled the screen at The St. George Theatre. "All Seats,
All Times, $1.50, Children 90 cents."
Clip this ad and receive FREE popcorn! Check out our Dinner
Movie Special — Dinner at Casa Barone, Movie at The St. George,
both for only $4.79!