People called our answering machine, often with no intention of coming to a movie, just to listen. St. George is and always will be in Staten Island (six miles south of Manhattan), but humor is a balm when you’re going broke running a movie palace.--and who knew? Maybe someone, anyone, would venture out on the ferry, discover us and want to book a few live acts, or at least buy a ticket.
It was unusual enough to have an answering machine in 1976. Jim Rockford, the fictional TV detective had one. The fancy new Fox Plaza Twin, a rival theater, had one too, possibly the only other answering machine in all of Staten Island. Long before voicemail, our outgoing recorded message resided in a fifteen-pound box with a narrow slot that took an eight-track tape. The lease on this technological marvel cost nine hundred dollars--a small fortune--and it was entirely necessary. We had to get the word out any way we could.
“What’s showing?” It was possible for a patron to walk under a lighted marquee into a lobby filled with posters and ask that question.
It was also possible for a patron to call our cutting-edge message system just for fun. Our often-bored staff spent hours huddled over the mic in the grey box, performing vignettes, which happened also to include movie titles and showtimes.
“Playing all this week,” one voice would announce, “is the director’s cut of The Exorcist.”
Another voice, affecting a baritone, would interrupt, “Yup, come see me, the Devil: noon, two-thirty, five, seven-thirty...”
After show and times were established, a conversation about where the Devil slept in the theater at night might ensue.
One Friday afternoon, on a slow shift at the box office, one staffer counted over 280 incoming calls, and we expected a great night. We sold only 119 tickets.
Our only regular vehicle for advertising, the local paper, frequently got movie times wrong, if not the feature itself. The previous tenant at the St. George had gone out of business owing the paper more than a thousand dollars, so nobody there loved us.
“The ad says you’re showing The Exorcist, but the Time Clock, says it’s The Omen, “ a caller complained one Saturday. The New York Times was no help at all--they needed the listing two weeks in advance. We were happy if we knew two days ahead what the film canisters would contain when they arrived Wednesday morning.
Putting flyers under windshield wipers at the Staten Island Mall for a live concert — Sly Stone — is how I spent one day of my twenty-eighth year. A lot of them blew away.
I’m trying to imagine how the me of now would tell that young woman — me then — about a world where everything happens in the palm of your hand and the nine-hundred-dollar answering machine is history, because land-lines are too. Need movie times? Get an app!