You have reached the St. George Theatre at 25 Hyatt Street, located in beautiful downtown St. George, a block and a half from the ferries, in lower, lower Manhattan. Notice we chose not to mention that we were actually located in Staten Island, the fifth borough, or perhaps the sixth — after New Jersey — in a very big city. (We really were so close to the ferries, we felt we could claim the city that famously never sleeps, Manhattan, as our locale).
Such a novelty was this answering machine, people with no intention of going to a movie any time in the future would call it anyhow, just to listen to what it had to say. Trained initially as a DJ, my husband had (still has) a golden voice and a gift for comedy, which built him a kind of podcast audience of theater and non-theater goers.
The only reliable way to reach local moviegoers was The Staten Island Advance, which was fully capable of forgetting to run our daily ad, either through negligence or (we sometimes suspected) scorn. If indeed the ad was somehow dropped, you were sunk. Ah, the world before Google, Fandango, apps.
Once a patron was, somehow, against all odds, standing in our lobby waiting to buy an actual ticket, that chunked cheerily out of the AutomaTicket machine, she/he was subject to more controlled forms of advertising. Posters, rented from National Screen Service, came in two sizes: two sheets (41” x 54”) and the smaller one sheets (27” x 41”). The two sheets fit exactly our filigreed glass poster cases, and, with the assistance of a small “Coming Soon” or “Starts Wednesday,” gave the movie-goer an idea of the immediate future on our big screen. Trailers or coming attractions before the main feature, also came from NSS, who delivered them, scratched though they inevitably were, for a fee. In a fit of extravagance, we continued to rent the trailer for Gone With the Wind, with no intention whatsoever of showing the movie; we just longed to see it on our giant stained screen, if only because its gaudy grandeur seemed to match ours; and the trailer was as close as we could come.
An experiment of ours to boost popcorn sales involved giant fans installed in the heat/AC room, and a popcorn warmer, which wafted the scent of fresh-pop directly into the auditorium. This was, perhaps, our most successful advertising scheme, nearly doubling concession sales, and proof positive that subliminal advertising works. Pity there wasn’t a ticket-selling equivalent...
We weren’t the only theater operators to toy with renegade advertising techniques. Comments after theater entries on the Cinema Treasures site can often be really entertaining. In a recent visit, I happened on the following comment, dating to 2012 (the ellipses “...” indicate excerptions):
Hi, my name is Jerry Littenberg…
From the late 50s throughout the 60s I managed the then-called Teaneck Theatre...operated by the Skouros Theatre Corporation of W. 48th St. in NYC.
This was my first theater as a manager. I was the assistant manager at the Fox theater in Hackensack when the Teaneck manager died suddenly, and my district manager, Curtis Mees appointed me the new manager to this cute theater with 1000 seats, and great air conditioning...
I had the opportunity to change policy at the Teaneck, from second run double feature after Hackensack to single feature...when the opportunity arose for us to pick a French film to play at the Teaneck... So And God Created Woman with the French kitten Brigitte Bardot ended up at the Teaneck, with lines around the corner, coughing up $2.50 each to see the sexy Bardot in her early years.
...this one was a huge hit: My grosses were so high that my bosses had to telephone me to confirm them. Its success was due, in part, to the Catholic church’s dislike of the movie, which the Vatican openly condemned. To advertise the movie, I made two banners that said “Condemned by the Catholic Church — Theater manager gives it FOUR STARS!”, and hung them from the marquee. The Diocese of Teaneck called me to assure me how displeased they were at my advertising methods, so I altered the sign so it would read : “condemned by you know who”… The phones lit up the next day!...
Jerry was onto something back in 1956, when the Bardot movie came out; call it reverse advertising if you like. In that year, the (Catholic) National Legion of Decency condemned fifteen films, with the Bardot movie at the top of the list. Reverse advertising wouldn’t have worked for us twenty years later. In 1976, the Legion condemned only five movies: Carrie, J.D.’s Revenge, The Omen, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Taxi Driver. The only one of these we didn’t show was The Outlaw Josey Wales. Sex, nudity, what you will, had by that time become the norm.
1. The National Legion of Decency dropped its “C” rating (“condemned”) in 1978, trading it in for the big “O” (“morally offensive”). In recent history, Turner Classic Movies, seeming to take a feather from the aforementioned theater manager’s cap, initiated a festival of "Movies Condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency."
2. Speaking of advertising, Doris Day — from my hometown, Cincinnati — died last week. She never liked the last name “Day,” but she stuck with it; at 17, she changed to that surname to boost her singing career — also because DORIS KAPPELHOFF wouldn’t fit on a local theater marquee.
3. How TV continues to mortally wound film-going with product advertisement is a depressing subject I’ve decided to sideline here. Suffice to say, at $25 a screen per week (15 second ad), it’s a bargain for advertisers, but the magic, for us, is gone. Arrive late if you can!