Right now I’d like to shift my carbon arc spotlight for a few paragraphs to the Tower Theatre in L.A., which, like the St. George, underwent major ground floor renovations in the service of space rental, with unfortunate and lasting results.
Designed by S. Charles Lee, who would go on to have a lively career designing West Coast theaters, the French/Spanish/Moorish Tower was, in addition to being his first, wired for sound (Vitaphone) before any other palace in L.A. — and the site of the first-ever showing of The Jazz Singer, which ushered in the age of sound in movies. Known at times in its cinema career as The Newsreel, and The Music Hall, It returned to life as The Tower only to cease operation as a movie theater in the nineteen eighties and lose its main-floor seats in preparation for a new career as a swap-meet. (Like that flea market I recall at the St. George! Deja-vu all over again, to quote Yogi Berra). In most locales, the theater might simply have been torn down, but L.A. is a “company town:” location shooting can keep a house alive, for a while, at any rate. In 1992, Warner’s Mambo Kings, needed a floating wooden dance floor, and so it goes, they constructed one. Other movies, including: The Omega Man, Fight Club, Mulholland Drive, Coyote Ugly, Last Action Hero, The Prestige, Last Action Heroes, and Transformers have rented The Tower for location shooting, between 1971 and the present.
But even in L.A. where location rentals are more than just occasional, a gorgeous movie palace with a polished floor where seating ought to be is a tragic flaw. It’s always odd to see a soaring ornate dome over a floor (think the Brooklyn Paramount, until recently home of the Brooklyn Kings basketball team, where the goals at either end always made me think I was having a hoop dream.) Or in Detroit at the once-4000-seat Michigan Theatre, these days a parking garage with a dome so magnificent and heart-breaking it seems like a sacred Paleolithic cave. But returning to the Tower, it seems to be out of time and luck — and currently out of action, slated, I’m told, to become retail space soon. If so, the floor killed it.
“We’re saved! We’re saved! There’s some people here who want to shoot a movie!” I appeared, breathless, from the auditorium of our 2672-seat movie palace, the St. George Theatre, which I’d been showing to three women who had walked in off the street. Dean, my impresario husband, whose noble enterprise running the theater largely was, perked up immediately. Fantasies of Brian de Palma or Martin Scorsese briefly interrupted his usual despair.
Business was in a nose-dive. It was winter, 1977, and we were involved in a heat war with the landlord. We needed a miracle — perhaps this was it. “Could be thousands of dollars!” I chirped on, enthusiastically. The women appeared from the auditorium. One of them smiled and gave Dean a card. “Are you the manager? We’d like to rent your theater for an afternoon.” Dean sighed then tried to disguise his disappointment. “You’re shooting a spot, right?”
They were — for an upholstery company, it turned out. We settled on around $850. On the appointed day, bin after bin of lighting equipment rolled in. “This is going to cost at least two hundred in electricity,” I mused, glumly. But the inside of the theater had never seemed so luminous; despite myself, I rejoiced.
“Is it always this quiet?”, the production coordinator wondered. “Any interior sounds? Banging heat pipes, that kind of thing?”
I chuckled — “Well that won’t be a problem! ” — then I explained about the landlord and the heat.
The shoot was a wrap by 4 PM, and we returned to our role as a failing movie palace. By 11 PM we’d raked in around $127 in concession and ticket sales. Concession was the greater part of this haul, on account of the hot coffee and fresh warm popcorn that made it possible to watch a movie in an unheated palace. The day’s take was, even in those days, peanuts, but when I added in the $850 (forgetting the probable bump in next month’s electric bill), I could pretend we’d made a grand.
The following day, Dean got two phone calls. The first was from Local 306, the projectionists’ union, demanding we add another 6-hour shift, at $13.75 cents an hour, because we had used the booth--even though the projectionist (had he been around) would have been useless. The second call was from Local 1. How many stagehands had we employed? We hadn’t, of course, but they had a right. Answering the phone, “You've reached the St. George Theatre, located in beautiful downtown St. George...” Dean pretended to be a kid working the box office. He’d pass the message on — he promised — to the manager. Day in the life.
BTW, the St. George Theatre has been featured in movies and commercials over the years, among them School of Rock and the TV series SMASH in which it played a role as a theater in Boston.
In her first comment, she recalled the projection booth, as it was in 1977, with phenomenal accuracy. In her second, she went on to describe said commercial! You can look it up in its entirety, but here’s the better part of what she had to say:
I remember the St. George well! We used it as a location for a commercial shoot. And what a projection angle! The booth was scary — if I recall correctly, Century SA's on top of RCA 9030 sound heads, with big Ashcraft rotating positive carbon arc lamps... on five-point bases with railroad ties under the back end to get enough tilt-down! Good thing earthquakes don't happen much in New York!!
Now for her comments on the long-ago commercial, and a little more besides:
...It was for a chain of fabric stores. We had this wonderful actress who could do a bang-on Judy Holliday impression (we had previously used her in a commercial for a Broadway musical). We start tight on her face, as she says: "My boss said I could re-cover all the chairs in here," and goes on to say that the fabric shop had so many great patterns and colors she couldn't choose just one- "...So, I did one of each!" Then we zoom out, and we see it's a huge theatre, with every seat covered differently.
Helen, our prop lady, had a ball making all the slip covers!
As director of photography, I was usually able to get a print of the spots I did, but unfortunately this was one I couldn't (it may have been finished by an out-of-town editing service). If I had it, I would have been delighted to send you a video copy. At any rate, it was an honor to shoot in your beautiful theatre!
Sadly, this was around the time your fine upstanding landlord put the vicious dog in the furnace room so you couldn't turn the heat on.... So unspeakably sad.