It stood just outside the box office, next to a heavy mahogany stand marked Western Electric, with slots for telephone books: Staten Island, Manhattan, Queens, The Bronx, Brooklyn. When we arrived, in April of our theater year, the phone in the booth still functioned. Hardly anyone ever used it. It sported a dial phone, though touch-tone technology had been around since 1963.
One day, a boy came to the box office window, complaining to Yvette — on shift behind the bars, “That phone don’t work!”
“What’s the problem?” she asked.
“I push the numbers ‘an nothing happens!”
Seems the kid was pushing on the numbers embedded in the rotary dial. 1963 was, by that time, thirteen years in the past, and — despite the fact that there were still rotary phones around — he hadn’t encountered any (after all, the mean age of our patrons was probably twelve or thirteen). Such frustration with outmoded technology may be the reason an angry unobserved customer tore the receiver off the phone one night in July, rendering it useless. I called New York Telephone (in those days, the service provider also installed and maintained the hard-wired equipment), only to learn that the utility didn’t think it was worthwhile replacing a phone that had only netted $6.50 in three months (we were supposed to get thirteen percent of that six fifty, or a fast eighty-five cents).
So the phone passed into obsolescence, and — with Superman nowhere in sight — the booth was largely a relic. Still, it served a few odd functions. At least once, a young patron — hoping to spend the night and raid the candy stand — hid out inside, scrunching down below seat level. The booth door was suspiciously closed — he was discovered and escorted out the door.
Wooden phone booths and church confessionals have something in common. I was reminded of this on several occasions, involving one member of the management staff, who also happened to be an investor in our failing enterprise. During the hard dark fall and winter which followed our disastrous cash-poor spring and summer seasons, he must have found solace in the booth, even if there was no priest to hear his story. Fall is traditionally a difficult time in a movie theater operator’s year, and in our case — overwhelmed as we were by debt — we pretty much knew it was all over. On more than one occasion, I came out of my office under the stairs and spied a pair of legs sticking out of the phone booth. They belonged to my comrade-in-arms, sitting in the booth, on the velvet seat, his hands in the pockets of his hoodie, for warmth.
The first time I saw him there it was a Tuesday, changeover night, the night before the day a new feature began. The octagonal canisters bearing the six reels of the old film were packed up and in the lobby, waiting to be exchanged for an equal number of canisters containing the new feature. Tuesdays had always been about hope — the only thing we actually owned. At sunrise, a bakery truck would arrive and lean two bags of small fresh-baked Italian breads against the middle outside door, hot dog rolls for Wednesday’s matinee.
Forty 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.
Even a fully-caped Clark Kent couldn’t save us, but I pretended not to know that. We’d open the red and gold doors the next day, and people — somebody, anybody — would come in.
Afterthought: Check out This American Life's episode about a very special telephone booth.