You’re the top!
You’re the Steppes of Russia!
You’re the pants on a Roxy usher!
— Cole Porter,
You’re the Top! 1934
Being an usher at the Roxy, or Radio City Music Hall or Loew’s Kings, or really any of the grand movie houses in their heyday had been glamorous, America’s version of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. At the Roxy, there really had been a changing of the guard, replete with bugle, as described in The Best Remaining Seats, by Ben M. Hall:
“The buttons on their uniforms all bore the same ‘R’-monogrammed microphone motif as the oval rug they marched upon; their shoes...glistened like limousine fenders, and their faces shone with goodness. When the Changing of the Ushers was over, patrons, who had thronged the Grand Staircase to witness the ceremony, could go to their seats, secure in the knowledge that the Roxy’s ramparts were being watched by the brave and the true.”
The St. George Theater on the north shore of Staten Island may or may not have had a drill, but like every self-respecting movie palace, its ushers had once worn immaculate uniforms, blue with brass buttons, apparently, and a small square hat, very much like the “Philip Morris” boy who advertised tobacco. James Pelliccio (The Staten Island Advance, January 29, 1995), recalled “...they directed you around artfully, only adding to the ambiance....”
“Welcome to the St. George Theater! The George is the joint!”
Dafan, our youngest usher, dressed in the uniform all our ushers wore — blue short-sleeved shirt, black pants, black shoes and a flashlight, with a spare battery in the back left pocket — stood proudly at the door, tearing tickets and putting them in the slot of a the rickety maple box. It was June, 1976, two months after we re-opened the 2672-seat St. George Theatre.
Was Dafan sixteen? He said he was. At any rate, he needed the job. His older cousin, Tony, who looked every bit of his nineteen years, had vouched for Dafan — good enough for us.
“The George is the joint?” queried Dean, standing closer than Dafan realized. He twitched. “Yeah!...um Yes! We all think that, well, we need a slogan, you know, something catchy!”
Unlike the Roxy, the St. George had no ex-Marine sergeant to march the ushers in a column of twos, but there was a spirit within the staff of our theater, nonetheless. We “managers” were so busy trying to cobble a living from the 2672-seat behemoth, that it had never occurred to us to think about some kind of uniform. The ushers “designed” the outfit themselves. They met together, then came to us, pointing out that everybody had to look alike.
“You know,” said Tony, “So we stands out, so people know we’re in charge, we the ones they come to...”
Ushers in the golden era mostly complemented the elegance of the surroundings, guiding older women to their seats, tidying up, but things had changed. Our ushers were more like members of a posse in the old west. To keep order, they all had to dress alike, and they knew it. Problem was, they couldn’t all afford the blue shirt and black pants: all were on limited incomes and some came from the projects. Accordingly, one of our “managers” broke into the cash box at the candy stand and “appropriated” the hundred dollars necessary to make everyone look more or less the same. They bought their own flashlights, and we provided the batteries.
If S.L. “Roxy” Rothafel took pride in his “Dragoons,” we loved our ushers, box office and concession staff, all local kids from a variety of backgrounds, who were as loyal to each other as they were to us.
Dean wondered, that night, hangin’ with Dafan next to the ticket box, what Rothafel would have thought if an usher had referred to his Roxy as “the joint.”
The George is the joint. It had a nice ring to it. Staff pride! It was our only collateral.