Richard Schickel, the late movie critic, viewed the experience of moviegoing as carefully as he did movies themselves. He’d begun at age five, with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and went on to see — or so he boasted — 22,590 movies. I have no clue how many movies I’ve seen in my long lifetime. I know that, in the year I ran a movie palace, the 2,672-seat St. George Theatre in Staten Island, I saw 71 features.
Well, not exactly saw, because, as a theater operator and would–be entrepreneur, I didn’t spend all that much time sitting down in the dark, staring at the screen. I took them in, sometimes standing transfixed behind the mahogany–framed glass in the lobby, other times glimpsing a giant spider or naked torso, on the way to my office or the concession stand. Other people were inside, in the dark, forgetting the meager balance in their checking account or a toothache or a lost love, what Schickel calls “...consolations...for some temporary trouble.”
Before I signed on to run a dream palace, I’d had twenty-six years of sitting in the dark as a patron, starting aged two with Tea for Two, which my sister dragged me to at the Twentieth Century in Cincinnati, my natal digs. Growing up in the fifties and sixties, I galloped through an eclectic mix: Three Coins in a Fountain, Ben Hur, Earth Versus the Flying Saucers, Alfie, Two for the Road, Zefirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, to name a few features I remember. Never saw Psycho: my mother believed sex in movies was okay for a young teen to watch, but not violence (oh how right she was). Accordingly, she let me attend steamy Tom Jones when it came out in 1963 (Albert Finney), and, that same year, Cleopatra, complete with Taylor and Burton, hardly able take their hands off each other. I came of age at Cincinnati’s downtown palaces, the Albee, the International 70, in the company of equally horny girlfriends, some of whom didn’t have their mothers’ permissions. There was freedom in the dark, in the words of Richard Schickel, “...at a public event for private reasons.”
It seems plausible that I saw at least seven hundred movies in early–to–mid childhood, the 1950’s, judging from titles that spring from lists I’ve read. There were 199 American films released in 1955, and I saw at least half of those. Once the curtain had risen, and you’d settled in with Good n’ Plenties and the all–important popcorn, your afternoon was covered. You could see two features or just stay and watch the whole thing over again, including — in the early days — MovieTone News, the wascally wabbit (Bugs Bunny), Coming Attractions and Selected Short Subjects.
My (and everyone’s) theater attendance went down in the sixties, or did it just become more selective? Only 130 American films were released in1963, way down from the yearly two-hundred-plus release lists of the mid-fifties. By 1963, I’d become the ad hoc TV Guide in my parents’ household, the person who knew every second of prime time, what was showing. Theater operators had to compete with the likes of Ben Casey, Mr. Ed and The Lucy Show; but they also lost out to their own product in different settings. In 1961 TWA began showing in-flight movies in first-class, via a Bell and Howell projector aimed at a tiny screen (By Love Possessed, Lana Turner). I didn’t know anybody who flew first class, but in September of that same year, Saturday Night at the Movies premiered on NBC, with How to Marry a Millionaire (Monroe, Grable and Bacall), and you could say the single–screen movie exhibition dam had pretty much burst.
By the time 1976 came around, a movie palace like ours had to compete not just with the “vast wasteland” of television but with consumers’ willingness to wait for movies to come to TV. The Fox Plaza Twin on Hylan (eventually to morph into the UA 15 on Forest) didn’t have to fill 2,672 seats and could offer a choice of screenings.
It was my birthday a week ago Tuesday, and what did I choose to do? In Manhattan, The Ziegfeld is closed, but there’s still the Paris, on 58th Street, just below the park, and it happened to be showing The Lion, a movie I was keen to see. Single screen, hardly a palace, but the Paris has stadium seating and, delight–of–all–delights, an actual curtain, which rises at showtime! To my friends in L.A. who can drop into Grauman’s Egyptian anytime they want, the Paris, in grey velvet, may seem a bit dull, but, hey, I’ll take what I can get.
As Richard Schickel reminds us, “It is the occasion, the atmosphere, that we crave.”