The chant “going to the movies” for those of a certain age arouses nostalgic goose bumps.
Do you get goosebumps at the prospect of patronizing today’s local multiplex?
No? We thought not.
This may come as a surprise to our younger readers but local movie theaters right up into roughly the late 1950’s, did NOT operate like a dentist’s office — that is, customers showing up an an appointed time, paying a fee, and then leaving just as soon as the service purchased (watching the movie in this case) was over.
Before with the arrival of television in the 1950’s, “going to the movies” was THE dominant popular past time.
Those living in under heated homes or apartments sought refuge in winter by heading for the toasty local Bijou. People got out of sweltering houses in summer and enjoyed air cooled movie houses (sometimes movie palaces) where the offerings included a main feature accompanied by a second-billed movie plus coming attractions, perhaps a short subject movie or two, a newsreel and a cartoon.
PLEASE NOTE: Showing intrusive commercials before the movie started was simply unheard of.
“Going to the movies” sometimes wasn’t strictly about watching the picture. As is the case today, for young people going to the movies was a convenient form of socializing with friends of both sexes outside the gaze of censorious parents. No wonder the title of the late Pauline Kael’s first collection of film reviews is titled, I Lost It At The Movies.
From the Great Depression up to the 1950’s movies represented the most accessible and cheapest form of entertainment, a diversion that attracted toddlers to nonagenarians.
On top of that, it didn’t matter when you entered the theater: You could come in at the beginning, middle or end of the main feature or low-budget secondary attraction, and leave at at the point you entered.
The absence of scheduled show times meant that moviegoers could arrive and depart theaters as they pleased. Since the showing were continuous — think of one giant loop — a patron would nudge his or her companion and signal it was time to leave by announcing, THIS IS WHERE WE CAME IN!
Thus the heading for today’s blog.
Hollywood understood this, and orchestrated certain bits of plot recapitulation to be periodically spoken by cast members to clue in patrons arriving in the middle of the main feature.
This was done so blatantly that the movies even satirized the practice. In The Road to Morocco Bob Hope tells Bing Crosby what the duo has endured for the first 45 minutes. ” I know all that,” snaps Crosby. “Yes, ” says Hope breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience, “but the people who came in in the middle of the picture don’t.”
Moviegoers also had the option of remaining past the point of “this is where we came in,” and viewing the whole show over and over again until theater closing. And unlike today when theater owners are primarily in the real estate business, owners back then thought of themselves as “showmen.”
Our late friend, Hy Hollinger once told us that while attending college in New York, he landed a job as an usher at the Valentine Theater on Fordham Road in the Bronx. (The pay was 24 cents an hour.)
And part of your ushering duties included serving as a barker, frequently on freezing nights with hardly anyone on the street. Our barker uniform looked like a Russian army outfit. I still remember part of the spiel: “Go in in now. Seats without waiting.” Then, a rundown of the main picture’s title and cast.
Sounds inviting. Those were the days when “going to the movies” was going to the movies.