--A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Once upon a time, we all went to the movies. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor or in between. Whatever your religion or political opinions, you went. It did matter if you were white or black, but even segregation couldn’t keep people with African ancestry away from “the pictures,” and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning segregation in public places, changed that.
A little over ten years later, in 1976, a group of well-intended twenty-somethings, of which I was one, briefly ran a 2,672-seat movie palace in Staten Island (New York), the St. George Theatre. At that point in time, before VCRs, the American habit of buying a ticket and sitting in the dark facing a screen of some kind, on which flickered an image on Safety Film illuminated by light, was something we all had in common.
The St. George was a “buck fifty” house, second-run in most cases, if not third- or fourth-. Back then you couldn’t wait for it to come to a screen you had at home (in those days your TV), unless you wanted to wait maybe twenty years. Case in point: The Wizard of Oz, produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was first released in theaters on August 25, 1939, then re-released nationwide in 1949 and again in 1955. It was first broadcast on television on Saturday, November 3, 1956.
Well, almost twenty years. Million Dollar Movie, originating in NYC, made the RKO vaults from the thirties and forties available on TV for free, too.
People came to the red and gold lobby of our slightly derelict palace to see a young DeNiro in Taxi Driver or Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon or Sissy Spacek in Carrie. A few even came for the 68-year-old Katherine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn, a movie based on Charles Portis’ novel, True Grit (Hepburn, despite her age and gender, was still a star). If there was a movie you wanted to see that had come out any time in the early to mid-seventies, you had to see it in a theater.
The habit of movie-going took a couple of hits not many years after we left the St. George. The VCR, by 1979, was affordable for most folks, despite a format war between VHS and Betamax.
By the 1980’s, most households had a means of recording whatever had come on TV, and a lot had come. Quick! When was HBO born? 1972, actually, as “The Green Channel!” Didn’t have many subscribers then, but, as you know, by the eighties, it was hot. Movie-going eroded slowly, with the advent of technologies that offer immediate access and total convenience.
It’s a good thing we have plenty of technologies now; shut in as we are, what would we do without them? But in a week that has seen Regal Cinemas, the second-largest movie theater chain in the U.S., close all 500 of its venues, it’s not surprising that The New York Times’ A.O. Scott, “The Flickering Fortunes of Movie Theaters,” seems so gloomy on future prospects for sitting down together again in the dark, any time soon. It isn’t just about the pandemic; it’s about Netflix and more. It’s about TikToc and Instagram and the three billion people forecast to be using social media of some kind by 2021.
But here’s the thing...
Bless habits that die hard. Our millennial neighbors just over the hill have two Dual turntables (one in the kitchen!) and they listen to vintage Jazz. Bless anachronisms! Bless, for that matter, the romantic turn of mind!.
Bless you, if you’re thinking, “When this is all over, I’m getting me a giant buttered popcorn to hunker down in the dark with.” It may not be a palace, your nearest cinema, but it’s time to get nostalgic for it.
When we come out on the other side of this terrible time, we’ll need to remember how to do a lot of things: ride trains and buses, walk down the street without judging each other, sit together inside restaurants that are at capacity, sing--together. What better training for civic-mindedness is there than going out to a movie?
Meanwhile, speaking of civic-mindedness, may I remind you it’s time to vote? Then you can say, quoting Dickens once again in A Tale of Two Cities, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done...” And you won’t be speaking from the scaffold!
1. Wade past the ad, and here’s Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, (1935), at his journey’s end.
2. Here’s a link to a fascinating blog which details the gradual erosion of the experience of movie-going via technology, from the sixties to the eighties.