Ghost Story Discovery!
Ghost Story Discovery! When George Finds gold in between the pages. Maybe gold is a little much. Finds zinc!
You may not have wanted this, but one of you asked me to write my recollections from my youth at the Movie Theater months ago. Specifically, it wasn't this story you were after, but providence struck. And you get what you get.
By providence, I noticed Stephen King's The Stand was on the wrong shelf. Quick note, I had a brief flirtation with Mr. King's writing and am a big fan of his short stories, but I liked this enough to read it twice back to back. I was always broke and had many schemes to increase my fortunes—few legal. Finding some drawings, notes, or dollar bills stuffed up behind the bindings or between the pages is not unheard of in my world. (Also, a few love letters I received are still in one or two books. I got all squirrely when I read them and promptly stuffed them back!) These drawings and bits of dialogue reported herein came from between the pages of The Stand.
Back in 1981, I wasn't a filmmaker. I wasn't a photographer. I was a painter. With dreams of being a great illustrator like N.C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish. The fact that that style of illustration had gone the way of the dodo was meaningless to me. (According to reports, science is close to bringing that fabled creature back, so there is still hope for my imagined career.) I fantasized about working in film, I dreamt about it, I saw several movies a week and often watched films in the theater I worked at over and over. But it seemed like a pipe dream. (I wanted to be Chaplin or Keaton, another delusion.) Eventually, I changed my major to film, and the job at the movie theater seemed like a good start.
Before we continue, I admit I have some quirks, the first being that I'm a compulsive reader, an incessant doodler, and not easily impressed by celebrities. (The other failings I will keep to myself for the time being) As a result of that last one, I got a lot of extra work supporting the stars with their movie-going excursions. Some people want to get treated like regular folks rather than get the fawning, and I can do that. (They even asked for me.) Our theater, Cinema 1 and 2, was the crown jewel of the fabled Cinema Five theater chain of New York City and Cambridge, Massachusets. Eventually, the chain would undergo massive changes and eventually morph into the Criterion Collection. (That's a hell of a story, but not here.)
About my books, I have a shit-ton of books. That's a lot. I develop an emotional attachment after I let someone prance through my brain cells for a few days and nights. I just don't want to say goodbye. Unlike people who begin to smell if you don't get rid of them after a while, all books need are some sturdy shelves, and I have plenty. (If I told you how many, you would call me a liar.)
On this rainy day in November, my Theater manager, Herb Milman, requested my attendance to attend some older movie stars for a screening. I was to meet the porter and projectionist at 8:00 am and help bring the print up the steps to the booth. (Way up the narrow staircase. The porter was 102. You know who humped the metal cans up.) That accomplished, I was to put on my monkey suit, open the candy stand and care for the celeb's needs when they arrived.
The movie was Ghost Story, set in a small New England town during the snowy winter of 1979. Four old pals, Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire), Sears James (John Houseman), Dr. John Jaffrey (Melvin Douglass), and Edward Charles Wanderley (who is also the Mayor), played by Douglass Fairbanks, Jr. Together they form the Chowder Society, get together each week to share tales of horror in the hopes to scare the bejesus out of each other over some chowdah!
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Needless to say, (but I'm going to say it anyway), things don't progress well. It becomes a real ghost story as the Chowdah heads get the vengeful spirit treatment. The film was directed by a British television director, John Irvin, who owned the 1980s. He made eight films, from 1980's Dogs of War to 1989's Eminent Doman. He also directed Patrick Swayze's masterpiece Next of Kin, the second of Ahnold Schwarzenegger's post-robotic career run of gold, Raw Deal. And one of those films that many cast members became famous for was Hamburger Hill - Don Cheadle, Dylan McDermott, and Courtney B. Vance.
That was good for John Irvin, but Ghost Story was not getting the reaction the studio expected. They needed to drag out the big guns. (Old guns.) We hosted the screening for several cast members because the press needed to get done, and none of the cast had seen the film. The PR department hoped that the press would be kinder with an aged movie star in front of them to interview. Sound logic. No sooner did I come up the steps from the locker room than I noticed an elegantly dressed pair of seniors standing at the locked front door. The entryway was glass in six panels from floor to ceiling, and they were under the marquee, chatting pleasantly despite the weather. "I guess my date has arrived."
I unlocked the door and asked, "May I help you?"
"Yes, old boy. We're here for the preview," said the dapper man with silver hair and a slight mustache like actors wore in the 1930s to look both suave and debonaire. He also possessed an actual twinkle in his eye. Truth be told, he pulled it all off. He was actually both suave and debonaire. This guy must have been trouble once. Hell, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. probably still was!
I opened the door wide and let them in.
"This way Lillian." He allowed the woman to enter first, "This is Miss Lillian Gish, The first lady of American cinema."
"Doug, stop, or you'll embarrass the boy."
I locked the door and led them to the escalator as Miss Lillian Gish told him "...that he was just plain awful."
As we rode the escalator, he turned to me and asked,
"Have you seen any of Miss Gish's films?"
I had. I said that I had seen Birth of a Nation, but I was very impressed by her later performances in both Duel in the Sun and Night of the Hunter.
"Ah, a film buff."
I led them to the cushioned leatherette benches in the waiting area. I pointed out the facilities on the opposite end of the waiting room. I then went behind the concession stand to open up.
In those days, we made our popcorn. No air popped for us at Cinema 1 and 2. I poured the soybean oil into the kettle, followed by two cups of corn kernels, and turned that sucker on.
"The concession stand will be open when everyone gets here. If there is anything you would like, just let me know."
I returned downstairs to spot a handsome, well-dressed woman standing with a casually dressed (much) older man. As I approached, I realized there wasn't any "casual" about it. He was art directed. He sported an ascot, a camel hair overcoat over a light blazer, slacks, and some very spiffy shoes on his feet! (I always notice shoes. It's not a fetish thing. Get your mind out of the gutter! I have spent thousands of hours standing throughout my career, from the theater to the studio to the set. Everybody needs a nice pair of stylish and comfortable shoes.) I noticed how perfectly he was put together, And despite his apparent frailty, he radiated ease and style.
"Mr. and Mrs. Astaire, welcome to the Cinemas. Right, this way." She smiled, and he said, "This is how it used to be." I brought them upstairs. Fairbanks hopped up and crossed the floor to shake Fred Astaire's hand and give a polite half hug and an air kiss to Mrs.
"I know you remember Lillian, Fred."
Astaire formally took her offered hand, I thought he was going to kiss it, but he just bowed over it and asked, "How have you been?"
"This one is torturing me, but otherwise, all is fine." She smiled and turned her gaze to Mrs. Astaire.
Fairbanks spoke, "Robyn, may I present Miss Lillian Gish the first la-"
"Don't." Lillian silenced him.
"Yes, this is Robyn, my, uh, wife," said Fred seizing the initiative.
"Pleased to meet you." Robyn leaned in and clasped Miss Gish's offered hand.
Fred smiled, "Yes, we're newlyweds." followed by a little embarrassed laugh.
Fairbanks gestured to me and said, "Do you know..."
"George," I supplied my name.
"Yes, exactly, George, our host."
"He says anything at the concession stand is free!"
Everyone muttered their polite thanks.
The manager, Mr. Herb Millman, entered the room at that moment. He was an imposing man. (He probably still is.) Well over six feet and not at fighting weight. (More on the stout side - sorry, Herb, but this is for history.)
"May I speak with you?"
All heads turned, and I quickly handled the introductions.
"This is Mr. Millman, the manager here." Herb stepped up.
"This is Miss Lillian Gish, the first lady of American Cinema."
Herb bowed while Miss Gish whispered to Fairbanks, "Look what you started."
"Mr. and Mrs. Astaire."
Herb bowed to them.
"And this is Mr. Douglass Fairbanks..." I eyeballed Fairbanks, "Junior!"
I got a few laughs as they shook hands.
I came like a puppy dog. Following Herb down the steps, he seemed a bit peeved. We stopped on the landing.
"I said nothing about free concessions." He towered over me. A little intimidating, but I suspected deep down he was a pussy cat. I was openly guilty of several fireable offenses and still had a job.
"If you give them anything and they don't pay, it's coming out of your salary!"
Back in 1981, the minimum wage was about $3.25 an hour. They took out all the taxes. I was lucky to clear two bucks, and even If they ate themselves sick with popcorn, the ten or twelve bucks they would spend would be meaningless to my already impoverished pocket but well worth it for my life.
I got upstairs, stirred the popcorn, shook that yellow powdered flavoring, and topped up the butter dispenser. (Movie theaters rarely use butter.) Set up another round of fresh corn to be popped. When I was the candy girl- that was the actual name of the job (it was a different time)- we used: partially hydrogenated soybean oil with artificial butter flavoring and yellow dye number two. I was soon open for business.
"Can I get you anything?"
Miss Gish, "No, Thank you."
Mrs. Astaire, "No, Thank you,"
Mr. Astaire, "No, not for me."
Douglass Fairbanks, Jr, "Well, let's see what's here?"
He looked down into the candy display case.
"Look, Lillian. They have Junior Mints!" He smiled that devil may-care smile of his. (Also known as the cat that got the canary)
"I'm not hungry."
"Lillian, one doesn't eat candy for nourishment. One eats it for pleasure."
Miss Gish waved him off.
Fred and Robyn Astaire
"So, Fred, how's married life?"
"Just fine." Smiling and nodding his head.
"Candy? Popcorn?" The Astaires both shook their heads.
"I'm just trying to drum up some business for you."
"You know, Robyn, I was at Santa Anita when you had that spill."
"Well, that sometimes happens when you race horses."
"I was so impressed by the way you got up." She smiled politely,
"It's a tough lot, the life of a Jockey."
"You know Fred, um..." Fairbanks gestured with his thumb over his shoulder. "Um..."
"George." That was me.
Miss Gish caught my eye and shook her head as if to say he is always like this.
(Let me break in for a couple of sentences. I realize that I'm perhaps making Douglas Fairbanks Jr. sound like a bit of a dick. But he wasn't. He was having fun and trying to lift the mood. More annoying kid brother than anything.)
"George is quite a film buff."
I smiled stupidly.
"Are you familiar with Fred's oeuvre?"
'What's your favorite?" He smiled devilishly.
"I love Swing Time. Band Wagon. Holiday Inn?" I barely got it out.
"The benefit of television is we'll never die."
"I try only to watch features in a theater." The room turned to me.
"And Mr. Astaire, you were great in On the Beach."
Astaire smiled and seemed simultaneously pleased and embarrassed.
Fairbanks turned on me, "So, have you ever seen any of my films?"
"Doug, leave the boy alone." My protector, Lillian Gish.
"I thought you were great in Prisoner of Zenda, such a rogue!"
"There, are you happy?" Protected.
That smile came out again.
"Gunga Din was fantastic! You were great." I thought for a second, "And that one with Betty Grable and Cesar Romero..."
"That Lady in Ermine."
"Yes, that was a lot of fun. Even when he's the Cisco Kid, Cesar Romero always gets these dance numbers."
"Well... Cesar is quite a dancer." He looked me in the eye like that was supposed to be more, but I didn't get it.
I guess I proved my film knowledge, and that was fun. But Fairbanks sat down with Lillian, and they chatted quietly. A few feet down, the Astaires did as well. There was plenty of bonhomie. I was just in standby mode. As such, I started doodling on the legal pad the concession was equipped with so we could figure out the money at the end of the shift.
In those days, cinema bookkeeping was arcane. At the start of your shift, you had a sheet that you marked after counting all your candies, soda, and popcorn cups. (For example, six boxes of milk duds, three almond joys bars, one pack of Mike and Ike, etc.) You recounted everything at the end of your shift, noting what sold and what you needed to restock. Then you totaled those amounts against the cash register. Somehow they felt that there couldn't be any fraud this way. Sooo wrong. I'm sure I was a suspect in some candy shenanigans, but sales were always up when I worked the stand. As a confession, I'll say that sometimes I couldn't afford to eat. I didn't have the money to eat. I lived on popcorn and soda. And FYI, Raisinets contain healthy vitamins and minerals. They are fat and cholesterol-free, high in antioxidants, and an excellent fiber source, which is probably why I didn't get rickets.
Tickets were much the same. Each ticket has a cut mark and a pair of holes. Each side of the ticket is a number and a hole. The cashier would record the number of the first ticket and the last. The Doorman, or Ticket-taker, would tear the ticket in half and place the ticket through the hole (What did I say about the gutter?) down a metal rod in the ticket box. At the end of the shift, the cashier would total out against the tickets sold. The torn tickets might be taken out of the box if there were a problem. The torn tickets would then be sorted numerically and balanced against the cash box. If you were over, it tended to go to the cashier, and the cashier would be penalized if there was a loss—another area where there could not be any fraud. No fraud ever! (Thank you, Mr. Spielberg, for Raiders of the Lost Ark, which allowed me to buy paint and eat without fraud regarding box office receipts.)
REAL movie theater tickets!
Herb returns to say they are just testing the reels, and the screening will start soon. The mood seems a little lighter at the news.
In the pre-digital age, movies arrived in heavy-duty metal shipping cans at the cinema. They got lugged up to the projection booth and set up using two projectors. There would be a scratch mark toward the end of the first half of a standard-length movie. One can find this mark in the upper right corner of the screen. In five seconds, there would be another. In between the two scratches, the projectionist would switch projectors seamlessly if they were good.
Meanwhile, I continue to draw. Then I realize I have a question. I slide over to the west candy display. (We had three snack display cases. East was popcorn, central was candy, Twizzlers (red vines), Raisinets, Milk Duds, etc. West was Junior Mints, Jordan Almonds, Mike and Ike, etc. West could be converted to popcorn for big shows by removing the insert and turning on the warmer - a 250-watt light bulb and a fan.) I lean over to Fairbanks and Gish and wait until Miss Gish notices. "Yes?"
(The drawings that illustrate this article are the actual drawings I made that day. They were my live models, like in drawing class. They aren't great, but I sketched them from life! Hopefully, they didn't notice.)
Mr. Milman and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
"You guys have been there from silent films to talking pictures, color film, Wide-screen Cinerama, 3D. Where do you think it is going?"
Miss Gish looked thoughtful and smiled at Fairbanks. He had an answer.
"I think that this grand building is a thing of the past. The cinema itself is dying. Slowly but it is."
Those words were shocking to me. "What?"
"You in your formal wear is going the way of the silents, a thing of the past. We all turn up for each other because we remember how special this is all meant to be." He gestures to encompass the theater "This is unsustainable."
"But what will happen?" said I incredulously.
"Humans are basically lazy animals. When I bought my first television, it was like looking through a keyhole. But now it's a significant piece of furniture. I can comfortably watch from my couch."
I must have looked dubious.
"One day, you can watch anything anytime on a television as big as your home allows." That smile. "What could be better than the big screen at home?"
I was still dubious. We never got to finish because John Houseman arrived.
"Lillian, Doug!" Greetings exchanged, he turned to clasp Fred Astaire's hand in both hands. "Fred. Robyn, you look lovely."
Herb arrived. It was time for the screening to start. He looked at me.
"Fine. Put away the cups and lock the cabinets."
He sighed as I locked up.
With a well-rehearsed look of disgust he told me to "Enjoy the film."
I did. Sitting in the auditorium with the stars watching their own film was very cool.
A quick review of Ghost Story: I only saw and enjoyed it once. I don't want to sully my memory, just in case it sucks. The New York Times hated it. Many of my filmy friends liked the cast but felt the movie was blah. They rated it a grade of C at best. My memory requires it rates a grade of B. At least. Like in real life. The reviews all pointed out that the cast seemed very comfortable with each other. Like the old friends, they played in the film. The film was shot mainly in the northeast, which was novel. Today, you can barely walk down New York City Streets without bumping into a crew. Not just movies, but on my block in the last few months, we had Blue Bloods, Law and Order SVU, regular Law and Order, FBI, and three weeks of re-shoots for John Wick. Try to find a parking spot. I dare you!
The younger cast of Ghost Story was pretty good too. I expected Craig Wasson to become a big star, but that didn't happen. He's the male lead in one of my guilty pleasures, Body Double, against Melanie Griffith! (Can we all agree that all of DePalma's films are guilty pleasures?) Alice Krige was great (Spoiler) as the title character. Where did she go? Only Michael O'Neal, in a tiny part, is working with any regularity. He plays generals, bank presidents, CIA agents, Senators, and anything requiring a big white guy of a certain age.
I stood at attention as they left the auditorium, extending my hand to indicate they should use the escalator they came up that was now going down. I liked having those escalator keys. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. turned and smartly saluted me while the leading lady of American theater just shook her head. They both disappeared to the lower lobby, and I reopened the candy stand.
If you can answer any of these questions for me, please do.
John Houseman and Lillian Gish, the First Lady of American Cinema.
Follow George Seminara, his adventures in the film trade, his memories with the stars and the movies he likes in the pages of It Came From Hollywood!