I've mentioned cartoons, Mickey and Donald and Bugs and their kin, but an important preparation for movie-watching was newsreels, Pathe and Movietone and their British counterparts. There was no nightly news waiting on a screen at home. Though you could listen to nightly radio, and the president’s special fireside chats, or New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia reading the funny papers on Sunday morning, most of the information you got for the week, at least the imagery — soldiers taking Guadalcanal or the blimp Hindenburg blowing up in Lakehurst, NJ — was contained in Newsreels, America’s (and Britain’s) first ever documentaries.
A friend I mentioned in a recent post, grew up in the theater I later had a hand in running, the St. George, a 2,672-seat palace in Staten Island, New York. Last month, the New York Philharmonic played a free concert there, and she recalled, while we sat in the balcony, everything she could, from the perspective of her eighties, about growing up at the St. George Theatre. For her and others born in the thirties, the St. George, and its smaller Deco sister down the street, the Paramount, were full-service institutions, almost womb-to-tomb.
Womb-to-tomb, really? I did find a bad video of a woman in the act of giving birth at a multiplex, but you wouldn’t want to see it. People do begin bringing children to movie theaters very early in their lives (check out Fandango’s Stars to Strollers program). I myself was introduced awfully early (aged two) to rom coms, thanks to an adolescent sister.
Conversely, since there were movie theaters, people have died while watching in the dark, and are still doing it. Fuller details on this interesting if morbid movie theater occurrence can be had in the “Afterthoughts,” at the end of this post, but I will stop long enough here to note that, from 1933, when the movie Freaks caused a miscarriage, through, over the years, a series of heart attacks, strokes, and alcohol poisoning, at least 11 people have been taken out of one or another theater feet first, mostly after viewing horror movies. One interesting exception is the death of Ole Bentson, a Belgian, who died laughing at A Fish Called Wanda in 1989, the year of its release. But I digress.
It was not uncommon in my 1950’s childhood to walk in on a movie fifteen minutes late, planning to sit through the end and, after the cartoons and previews (yes, and MovieTone News) watch the beginning of the movie, until you recognized the part where you’d come in. That was because we weren’t so much going to a movie as going to “the movies;” the film or double feature was simply a phenomenon that capped the experience of visiting the movie palace itself, with its various diversions.
While we were running the St. George, in 1976, certain neighborhood kids, enamored of the stained velvet seats and craving an endless supply of Snickers, tried really hard to live at the St. George all night long, sneaking upstairs and hiding under seats. No one ever achieved this fantasy, thanks to the vigilance of our ushers and “bouncers” who knew the kids by name, but the dream persisted, testified to by the sound of sneakers retreating on the fire escape stairs outside the balcony. Good thing too: what if somebody had died? — perhaps of sugar poisoning?
As opposed to the figure cited in the beginning of this piece (patrons of the 1930s watched approximately three movies a week), current movie house patrons watch roughly three movies a month – quite a fall.
Apropos of people dying in movie theaters, here’s a list, cobbled largely from the very interesting blog, looper.com:
1933, Freaks, a movie about the real lives of what were then called “midgets” (now Little People), a movie so upsetting to so many that it was withdrawn from circulation. A woman at a preview is reputed to have had a miscarriage while watching it.
1955, at The Creeping Unknown a 9-year-old boy suffered a ruptured artery.
1973, during the Roman premiere of the famously haunted Exorcist, audiences had to fight their way through a torrential downpour, accompanied by thunder and lightning, in order to get in to the theater. Many inside claimed to hear a horrific, almost demonic cry, coming from outside once the film started rolling. At one showing, a woman was so frightened she passed out in the theater and broke her jaw when she fell. She later sued the filmmakers suggesting that subliminal messages caused the accident. Warner Brothers settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
1975, Jaws. On September 9 of that year, a forty-five-year-old man in Chicago had a heart attack, despite the efforts of two doctors attending the movie to revive him.
1986, Aliens. A man in India died of a heart attack.
1989, A Fish Called Wanda.The aforementioned Belgian died laughing while watching Kevin Kline shove french fries up Michael Palin’s nose (an admirable way to die, in my opinion!). That scene in the movie apparently resembled comic dining room antics familiar from his own family...
2004, The Passion of the Christ. In Wichita, Kansas, a woman died during the crucifixion scene; while in Brazil a pastor, who had rented the movie and theater for his congregation, slipped away peacefully.
2009,The Avatar.In Taiwan, a man died of high blood pressure.
2010, The Twilight Saga. In India, a 27-year-old man was found dead clutching an empty whiskey bottle. (This and the death of the nine-year-old boy are the saddest of all, I think.)
2015, Gari Gadi. A man died of a heart attack in Hyderabad.
2016, The Conjuring II. A man in India died, after being sent to a local hospital. His body was “remanded” to a second hospital, perhaps for an autopsy, and then it disappeared, having been sent in a cab! Weird! Sequel?
Recently in Thailand, a 77-year-old British man passed away quietly while watching a horror flick, Charlotte Comes Home.
Last but not least, beware of fancy recliners in theaters nowadays; a patron in a theater in Birmiingham, England, died after getting his head stuck between the footrest and the seat; he was trying to pull his cellphone out from between seats and suffered a heart attack. No movie was mentioned.
Not counting the thirteenth example (which was clearly a mechanical mis-hap) and the one that involved an empty whisky bottle, heart attacks, high blood pressure, miscarriages, compulsive laughing that dangerously raises the heart rate, and burst arteries all seem clear indicators of emotional response to what’s on screen. What is a movie, after all, if not a shared dream?