theaters. Meanwhile it’s April, that time again. I never pass through this month without thinking about a certain Grand Opening, though it’s been almost half a century.
The 9th fell on Thursday last week — maybe nobody pays attention to days of the week right now – but forty-four years ago, in 1976, we did. We were counting: six days, five days, four, three, two, one, and then...blast off. It was, in fact, a Friday that year, April 9th, the day we opened our movie palace.
The 2672-seat St. George Theatre was ours, we’d rented it, a gilded slice of “Spanish Baroque” extravagance within sight and sound of New York Harbor in Staten Island. Blazing Saddles — only two years old — was the main feature, doubled with Woody Allen’s Bananas, an already ancient comedy. Every other movie we would show from that point on would open on a Wednesday — matinee day — that’s how the movie week typically began. But Friday was the best we could do for our first show: it had taken us so long just to get the cobwebs out, the wall sconces bulbed, the carpets more or less scrubbed clean of the last proprietor’s soda syrup, to stock the booth with carbons for our (even then) antique carbon-arc projectors.
What did it take to get a theater, especially that kind of theater, operational in under ten days? Every moment after we handed our first check to the landlord had a dollar sign attached to it, and showing movies was the only immediate way to recoup our considerable investment. The six of us who styled ourselves managers practically slept at the theater that week.The coffee machine hadn’t been installed yet, but it didn’t matter, we were running on adrenaline, hope, and pizza.
The previous tenant had left in the dead of night, taking with him everything you’d need to start up a theater: tickets to fit the AutomaTicket machine in the box office, cleaning supplies, carbons, even light bulbs. It goes without saying that there were no food supplies, with the exception of some dirty popcorn cups we’d found in the closet of the concession stand. Much later, I learned that our predecessor had been re-using the cups after collecting them from the auditorium; the concession company kept a record of how many popcorns had been sold by counting fresh cups used, so re-using cups was a way of grabbing some unrecorded sales. Too bad the health department didn’t know...
Ever clean a movie palace? It took a small crew of us all Tuesday night to relieve the burgeoning mouse population of the spilled popcorn and other edibles the previous tenant had left behind. As luck would have it — or maybe it was no coincidence at all — a traveling light-bulb salesman you may have read about in a recent post showed up on Wednesday afternoon to dazzle us with his display case full of incandescents. SATCO. I remember the name clearly: I wrote the installment-plan checks for some time.
That same day three of us loaded a Volvo wagon to the roof with $181 worth of popcorn, oil, butter sauce, Good n Plenties, Reese Cups, Charleston Chews, Snickers, and the like. Then we stopped off at International Meat Market where Joe, our friend and local butcher, sold us, at no mark up, a case of Sabrett’s ball-park hotdogs and gave us the name and number of a small Italian bakery. Thereafter, every morning, whoever opened the theater’s red and gold doors would find inside a tall grocery bag filled with mini-Italian breads, each one slit down the side, ready to receive its hotdog.
A proper concession stand ought to have its own soda-head, and a friend had a friend who knew a restaurant plumber. On Thursday he ran a line from the drinking fountain to the candy stand, no charge, as long as we bought the requisite canisters of Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, and Orange syrup from his brother-in-law for the rest of the year.
Gabe, the projectionist local 306 had assigned to the St. George, showed up on Thursday afternoon expecting two days back pay. The contract specified 7 days, including a Wednesday matinee, whether we were dark or on screen. Matinees would always lose money, but we’d always run them, since we had to pay a projection shift anyhow. Gabe was more or less a permanent fixture in the booth, having worked the St. George almost as long as I had been alive.
By Friday, opening day, the tickets we’d ordered still hadn’t arrived, but in a room off the mezzanine, we found a few old rolls and loaded the steel-plate ticket machine with them, red for ADULT, green for CHILD.
I was worried about money: just ten days before we’d had $15,000 in the bank, and now we were down to $2000, enough to buy a car, but not enough to run a movie palace for much longer than a week.
5:45 PM, almost time to open. Our first customer, a tall woman in an Indian print skirt showed up, paid a buck fifty and presented her ticket to the usher, who tore it and handed her back the other half. At the concession stand she asked for a box of Good n’ Plenties and a small popcorn. It came to $1.15, and she laid two one dollar bills on the counter. side by side. I gave her back the eighty-five cents, and she disappeared into the darkness beyond the glass and mahogany that separated the lobby from the inner sanctum of the theater itself. I smoothed out her two bills in the wooden tray. Should we frame these? I wondered. We’d been open for a minute and a half, and taken in two dollars and sixty-five cents, including her ticket and edibles. It was a lemonade-stand moment.
Five minutes passed. Dean, my partner and husband, asked me to hand him the newly-installed concession-stand phone. “Are we on time?” he asked Gabe in the booth.
“Rollin’ at six, kid.”
Dean had intended to make a speech from the stage to the small group of people who’d, by this time, settled into their seats, but it was too late, it was almost showtime. The lights went down, and a scratchy "Coming Soon" bloomed on screen, followed by a couple of trailers. A speech might have puzzled the audience, or even annoyed them: it was a bigger moment for us than it was for them, who only wanted to see Blazing Saddles and eat whatever they’d bought, sitting together in our extravagant dark.
Paulie, one of the St. George’s original staffers, recalls the week before we opened, watching a trial Projection run, from the balcony:
“I had no idea what a carbon-arc projector was...A few of us heard they were going to test the projectors. We took a short break and settled in the balcony. The silver screen lit up, a huge adrenalin rush, our efforts coming to fruition, a couple minutes of pure excitement, and then the scene turned into molten Swiss cheese and settled to the bottom of the screen. Lights went dim. Wow!!!”
What Paulie’s describing is, of course, the film burning through. Carbon Arc is, after all, fire...