St. George is actually in Staten Island, near the ferry docks, about six miles south of Manhattan; but humor can be a balm when you’re going broke running a 2,672-seat movie palace, the St. George Theatre — and who knew? Maybe someone, anyone, would venture out on the ferry, discover us and want to book a few live acts on our empty stage, or at least buy a ticket.
Long before voicemail, our outgoing recorded message resided in a fifteen-pound box with a narrow slot that took an eight-track tape. 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. 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.
“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, years before Fandango and decades before the Internet.
People called, often with no intention of coming to a movie, just to listen. My husband, Dean, a natural entertainer, kept this invisible audience listening, with his own mini podcast.
He often enlisted another member of the staff to play foil; lowering his voice to a guttural version of Linda Blair’s character in The Exorcist, he began with his usual patter, after which the foil asked, “Who the devil are you?”
“I am The Devil, this week on screen starring in The Exorcist, though I’m miffed that I have no on-screen credit whatsoever...” Dean replied.
“Well,” the foil asked “when can I catch your act?”
Showtimes for the day followed, including, “our low, low prices,” and a tip that the Devil would be haunting our snack stand throughout the film.
Our bored staff often spent hours huddled over the machine’s mic when Dean wasn’t around, performing vignettes. A discussion of where the Devil slept in the theater, or some other piece of trivia, might ensue.
When it came to movie promotion, it was hard to get the word out. Our only regular vehicle for advertising, The Staten Island Advance, frequently got show 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 at the local rag loved us.
The New York Times was no help at all — they required a listing two weeks in advance to make “The Movie Time Clock,” but we seldom knew, till the last minute what (if any) flicks Warner, UA and their cronies might grant us.
“The ad says you’re showing The Exorcist, but the Time Clock, says it’s The Omen,” a caller complained one Saturday. We were lucky if we knew, by Wednesday morning, what the film canisters would contain when they rolled in.
Sometimes I try 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, along with land-lines and perhaps newspapers, let alone movie time clocks. The New York Times, whose actual pages I still occasionally smudge my hands reading, retired the Time Clock some time ago, but the paper still runs a much-reduced column of theater strip ads for perhaps three theaters, all that’s left of what once was a full page. Theaters themselves struggle to occupy space, in a fast-disappearing world.
As for the Devil, as far as I know, he’s still sleeping dead center, in the fifteenth row...