Author Seeks Info RE: 1977 theater operation

posted by Trisha Slay on August 3, 2007 at 10:50 am

I am currently working on a young adult novel set in the summer of 1977. The book is not under contract, but an editor at a major publishing house has asked me to submit the manuscript directly to her upon completion. Problem is I’m having trouble finishing the project due to my complete ignorance of movie theater management in 1977. I bought the book Cinema Treasures (which I enjoyed), but it didn’t really provide the kind of information I need. Help?!?!

My teenage protagonist is part of a group of misfits working at a beautiful but decaying historic theater located in a small town in Ohio. I’m trying to capture the magical “lost era” ambiance of one of these theaters….especially in 1977 when everything was….well, so 70’s! The theater is not just a setting for my story. It’s really one of my characters. As such, the daily operations, maintenance nightmares, financial troubles and the protagonist’s efforts to save the theater from being “twinned” (or, worse, sold to a sleazy investor with plans to show porno movies) are all central to my plot (as is the only movie they show for most of the summer – Star Wars).

I know my Star Wars history & I’ve researched 1977 extensively, but I’ve never worked in a theater – cinematic or otherwise.

Both the small town & the “Cinema Treasure” in my story are fictional, but my theater is loosely based on the Midland Theatre in Newark, Ohio. Their website is here.

If you worked at the Midland or in a similar theater in 1977 (or within a few years of that year), I’d greatly appreciate your help.

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I cannot offer payment, but I will certainly include my gratitude (with mention of your historic theater) in my author’s notes once the book is published.

Thank you in advance!

Theaters in this post

Comments (15)

itswagon on August 3, 2007 at 2:02 pm

I was a chief projectionist for years and actually managed a theatre. I read about the motion picture theatre management ideas of Samuel Rothafel, or Roxy and have developed some very practical ideas on motion picture theatre operations. I have evaluated the motion picture operation of a restored movie palace and offered detailed recommendations.

I am retired but would love to answer any questions you may have about such things. Motion Picture presentation is still in my heart. My email address is:


TheaterBuff1 on August 6, 2007 at 4:00 am

My memory of 1977 was that it was a time when the prevaling presumption, at least among American consumers if not theater operators, was that all movie theaters in existence at that time would always be around. Sure, many of them might’ve been looking quite saggy by then, but that really didn’t change this perception. If they looked saggy it’s because we took them for granted. And if we took them for granted it’s because we presumed they’d always be around. Who knew in 1977 that a day was coming when they’d be vanishing from all over the American landscape?

And though I could be wrong, as I think back it seems the theater operators themselves took for granted their always being around moreso than anybody. For they ran them as if that was the case, or that’s how it all looked from the consumer viewpoint.

Today we think of movie theaters as being very special, or at least if they’re run really well we do. But shameful to admit now, but unless it was really a movie palace of movie palaces, in 1977 we didn’t think of movie theaters being special anymore than everyday things at that time such as phone booths, newsstands, motels, bus stations or whatever. We didn’t think we had to…since they’d “always be around.” As Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

And just to give a good illustration of how movie theaters typically looked by the 1970s, this photo — — is so typical of what I remember so many theaters looking like by then. And seriously, does that look like a theater that the operator is pouring his heart and soul into? Or that he’s just taking for granted, as if, no matter what, it would always be around? For I look at that photo, and I think back to how that era was like, and all that registers with me is the latter.

…Just like that car you see parked in front of it, which no doubt would turn heads today, was totally taken for granted back then.

aarundell on August 6, 2007 at 5:06 pm

Great commentary, Wes…but I remember a little more gloss than the photo of the (Ambien) shows. Location was an important factor in movie theater attendance, I think…at least for me. I was a snob about it and preferred the lush theater approach to the 2nd run approach. We had two movie theaters in Redding, CA…one was the art deco Cascade Theater, a landmark on the main drag through town (now restored and beautiful again); and the 2nd run and B house, the Redding Theater, on a secondary street. The Cascade picture is available to see at

TheaterBuff1 on August 7, 2007 at 2:14 am

I did a considerable amount of travel in California in precisely that year — 1977 — and to be sure it was not the best era for movie theaters in general wherever you went in the U.S. Even Grauman’s, which I visited that year, was showing a bit of age for wear. (Or is it wear for age?)

Remember, to really judge if a theater is being run well, you have to look at it strictly from the consumer viewpoint. You can’t say, “Well, I managed a theater that year and did all the right things, and if it seemed bland it was the consumer who was off base, not me.” For no, that’s not how it works. A great theater operator has to step outside of the theater and see how it looks from the outside. They have to get to know what the consumer is going through to know how to make the most appealing. Otherwise, who are theaters for?

If you go back to the Golden Age of cinema you’ll see where theater planners did just that. There was much more — MUCH MORE — of a connectedness and respect for the clientele. There was nothing like the generation gap that was so intense all throughout the 1970s.

My love of theaters was born in the 1950s and early ‘60s when all theaters I can recall were being run very well. I cannot think of a single one that wasn’t. And they did so well because they were run so well. But in the '70s, as I recall, most if not all theaters stopped being run well. And not because the market for well-run theaters had disappeared. The whole thing about how they couldn’t compete with TV was just a lot of crap. For I remember in the '70s really wanting to see movies in well-run theaters and having the money to pay for such. But to those in my age group such well-run theaters seemed to be prohibited due to a type of prejudice that now, as I look back, probably should’ve been illegal. Had we been more attuned to, the theaters of that era would’ve been run much better I feel.

theatrelvr on August 9, 2007 at 1:06 am

Please tell us when this book comes out. It sounds great.

RHarmon on August 9, 2007 at 9:49 am

Interesting concept for a novel. I’m sure you’ll do well with it. I worked at the Gem Theatre in Kannapolis, NC (still open, still operating, still running first run movies.. built in the mid-1940’s) from 1973 until 1976. It was the best job anyone could have in high school. The 70’s culture was definitely prevalent as were the “interesting” adventures that took place. If you’d like to email me, I’ll be glad to answer any questions and share some stories.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on August 9, 2007 at 11:35 am

In the mid seventies, if you were working for a theatre chain it was all about cutting costs and not reinvesting in theatres. The industry seemed doomed due to a move to alternative entertainment by the core audience and the over 30’s had been lost along with the hippie product of the late sixties, early seventies. With the exception of the occasional Woody Allen or Barbra Streisand hit, most audiences were young, reckless and rude. It was mostly about managing an unstable audience and staff in a crumbling building.

Here are some memories of my mid-seventies period as a manager around 1977 that may spark your imagination:

No cleaning between shows as there was only one usher budgeted at a time.

The cleaners quit every time we showed THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW at midnight.

An x-rated musical version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND stunned the crowd.

A seriously misinformed local cop threatens to close the theatre for letting kids in alone to watch PG films.

Due to the way movies were booked, Streisand’s A STAR IS BORN continues to plays forever even after holding-over was unwarranted. Staff sings along to the empty seats.

The head office threatens to fire any manager seen tearing tickets at the door and therefore violating the checks and balances that keep everyone honest.

Although it had been a critical and audience hit in New York for months, locals thought they had discovered ROCKY themselves.

The midnight show of THE LOLLIPOP GIRLS IN HARD CANDY in 3D turned out to be hard core porn in 3D! With the little red and blue glasses to boot. The local college students pack the place.

At this beautiful theatre that once showed SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, a double feature of TORSO and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

Food coloring makes the popcorn green for St. Patrick’s Day

The odor of pot smoke permeates the auditorium so strongly at the midnight show that the senior citizen matinee audience the following day comes out stoned.

A pipe break in the men’s room floods the lobby on a Saturday night.

In spite all the movies above, the locals get upset at the dirty language in SLAP SHOT and the posters for NASTY HABITS .

A rat has moved in under the popcorn machine and runs out to fetch whenever popcorn is dropped on the floor behind the stand. The staff have named him BEN.

The new pizza slices have cheese that sticks to the plastic wrapper we cook them in but they sell anyway.

BLACK SUNDAY is coming!
BLACK SUNDAY is coming!
BLACK SUNDAY is coming!
BLACK SUNDAY is coming!
Two weeks later- BLACK SUNDAY is gone!

The promiscuous stoner girl working behind the stand has been forced to quit by her mother. It turns out she is only 14 years old and working with false I.D.

ANNIE HALL opens and the audience watches quietly but buys no popcorn.

Two doctors patrons get into a fist fight when they disagree on what first aid should be administered to a customer having a some sort of attack.

Our film buyer refuses too book Bob Marley’s reggae film THE HARDER THEY COME as a midnight show because she insists it is gay porn.

The midnight show of MIDNIGHT COWBOY comes in labeled wrong and the reels play in the wrong order with opening credits in the middle of the film. No one complains.

An usher finds a heart, a liver and part of a lung on the auditorium floor after the movie. Police are called and discover they are plastic replicas left behind by a local medical student.

A stoned-out midnight crowd fall asleep during Monty Python’s JABBERWOCKY. We have to go around waking them up after the film and sending them home.

The drive-in will get THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, A BRIDGE TOO FAR and THE DEEP this summer and we’re stuck with THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT and some kiddie sci-fi flick called STAR WARS.

New “Light in the dark footballs” (a flashlight shaped like a football) on sale at the concession stand. You can now play football at night!

A new ending for EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC on week two upsets a couple who actually came back to see it again. Tumbleweeds practically roll by during the second week.

A customer’s car has been swallowed by a sink hole in the parking lot.

SENSURROUND installed for ROLLERCOASTER makes STAR WARS unwatchable in the other screen. Head office couldn’t care less.

The dumb jock at the door who trips over his own feet when you call him has won a scholarship to Harvard.

The first five rows are closed in twin one due to a ceiling leak that dates back to the sixties.

A midnight showing of a film about VOLUNTEER JAM featuring the Charlie Daniels Band goes wrong when the good ole’ boys find themselves waiting in the lobby with men in high heels and fishnet stockings. Future showings are segregated with ROCKY HORROR people in the lobby and redneck rockers outside until the movie starts.

The Jolly Rancher candy bags on display do not have sell by dates but I can trace them on the inventory to 1972 without a new delivery.

The thin walls from the bad twinning effort make it possible to relive the light sabre battle during boring parts of NEW YORK, NEW YORK.


A man is caught masturbating during a showing HERBIE GOES TO MONTE CARLO.

During a showing of ROCKY HORROR a girl almost gets her eye put out when her boyfriend flung open their umbrella during the rain scene.

Police start monitoring the theatre roof with binoculars looking for drug dealing in the parking lot.

Head office orders budget cuts that require managers to tear all tickets the door during weekdays as there will only be doormen on duty during the weekend.

Negotiations go badly when the projection union demands a large increase per hour. The resulting contract forces the closing of weekday matinees and the resignation of the chief projectionists who no longer has a full-time job as a result.

Food coloring makes the popcorn orange for Halloween weekend. TORSO, CHAINSAW and ROCKY HORROR are all back.

A three way fight breaks out in the lobby when three men in drag all insist on playing the main FRANKENFURTER role in front at ROCKY HORROR. I am summoned to make the all-important decision.

A seventeen year old usher finds a bag full of “fat naked girls” porn magazines in the auditorium. He delays turning them in for hours. A gentleman in a suit comes in to claim them in the evening.

GREASED LIGHTNING with Richard Pryor gets re-released to “new” theatres so white people can see it too.

The first showing in twin one has sound problems. Someone stole the speakers from behind the screen.

The projectionist puts on reel of soft core midnight movie GUMS instead of Walt Disney’s THE RESCUERS for the first matinee of the day.

Six staff members fail to show up Saturday night, some calling in sick. Peter Frampton was live in concert that night.

The local Fire Departments visits ROCKY HORROR due to complaints that torch lighters are being lit up during the “Light at the Frankenstein place” number. Lighters are banned from all future showings.

Rattling in the seats of screen two during the movie turns out to be crab from the nearby swamp that somehow got inside.

What on earth could a KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE really be about?

A man has a tantrum in the lobby when an undercover policeman takes his quaaludes away and flushes them down the toilet. Back-up cops are stunned by the now lacking evidence.

An upset woman starts screaming when her toddler came up from between the rows with a used condom in his hand.

STAR WARS is back and people are starting to bring their own light sabres into the screen and we have to start confiscating them until after the movie due to complaints.

The midnight show fill up prematurely when someone removed the exit door hinges and let the crowd in for free.

The Jewish Defense League threatens to bomb the theatre for showing Vanessa Redgrave in JULIA. We ignore them.

The Jujy Fruits stick to the box and need to be slammed against the counter daily to loosen them up so people refrain from doing so during the film.

I start letting a motorcycle gang into the midnight show for free in order to “keep the peace”. The local cops stay away.

LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR appears to be a seminal film that will become a classic with a timeless disco soundtrack and a social commentary on unfocused lives and promiscuity. SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER appears to be kid stuff that will soon be forgotten.

VALENTINO is coming!
VALENTINO is coming!
VALENTINO is coming!
VALENTINO is gone! STAR WARS is back.

TheaterBuff1 on August 10, 2007 at 12:19 am

That is an excellent rundown from a managerial view, AlAlvarez, and I hope Slayzak makes good use of it!

The only commentary I could offer for that same time period was that of a young consumer, which I hope factors into the book — and the equation — somewhere. My having been spoiled by supurbly run local neighborhood single-screen theaters such as — View link — and the grand movie palaces downtown when I was growing up in Philadelphia, PA in the 1950s and ‘60s, in my late teen and early adult years (the 1970s disco era) I was sadly wanting for what once had been a major mainstay of my life. My reasoning back then was, I’m a civilized human being who knows how to behave properly in a well-run theater setting, I have the money in my wallet to pay for the experience, but what the heck became of all the great neighborhood theaters and downtown palaces? And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in my age group who saw the situation the same way. But in my coming up against those who ran the theaters by that point it was like people such as me “didn’t exist.” I guess you could say it was the whole “Teenage Wasteland” thing. We all were “trash” whether it was true or not. And all the theaters started being run as though that was the “reality.” Which was why I didn’t go to theaters much in the '70s. But I certainly was keenly attuned to how they were being run at that time. Which was exactly WHY I DIDN’T go to them. As I say, I was too spoiled by how they had been run in the 1950s and '60s.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on August 10, 2007 at 9:47 am

TheatreBuff, I think it was a matter of loss of faith in the business that lead to the fall in standards. Hollywood was marketing to adults only at awards time (that still happens), there was product shortage, and audiences were not buying what they were expected to buy.

Large theatres chains such as ABC and General Cinemas treated the theatres as loss leader cash cows for their other investments. Since film rentals was always paid late, the money came in handy in between and no one really found out just how bad the losses were for months. One blockbuster and all was forgiven. I don’t think anyone expected the theatre end to ever recover but multiplexes, better marketing studies (and ironically VHS) saved the day.

I don’t think audiences were any worse than in the sixties, there were just less of them and even less of the mainstream folk as well.

Trisha Slay
Trisha Slay on August 10, 2007 at 1:11 pm

All I can say is WOW!

I am just boggled by everyone’s generosity…..truly. I was a little shy about posting here, but I’m so happy I did. You’ve not only filled in some blanks, you’ve solved plot problems I didn’t even know existed until now. Not only will I mention this website in my author’s notes and add a pitch for historic theaters, I will most definitely post a notice here when the book is coming out. (Notice I say WHEN. As a Star Wars geek, I live by the motto “Do or do not. There is no try.”)

As a side note, I love the discourse regarding the difference between management’s view of the “teenage wasteland” and a teenage consumer’s opinion of the theater experience. It’s part of my main character’s story arc……

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on August 10, 2007 at 1:43 pm

Slayak, I should mention that the midnight movie was social ritual with a very large regular weekly crowd who, although stoned, were rarely trouble. They often came to see the same films over and over again and always left WOODSTOCK after Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner. It was better attended on Friday & Saturday than most mainstream films were all week.

The STAR WARS groupies were younger and already a new generation. Although we did not have any special sound system the movie was still a huge hit. DOLBY did NOT make STAR WARS a hit.

The merchandising was trickling out in stores and not on sale at the theatre itself. By 1978 when JAWS 2 opened we had shark teeth keychains, earrings, bracelets and whole shark jaw sets on sale at the stand.

RHarmon on August 10, 2007 at 3:10 pm

I must admit, Alvarez DEFINITELY caught much of the atmosphere of the mid 70’s. There were still throwbacks to the older days such as when Roy Rogers came to town to promote his last film in 1975 much as he would’ve done in the 40’s. The theatre (which seated nearly 1000) was packed. Also, the Gem had the old dressing rooms downstairs was always a good place for getting into various kinds of mischief. The balcony, though rarely opened, also provided a good location for a little privacy for those privilged few. The Gem (as stated in an earlier post) is still open and is actually doing better than it did during the early 70’s when at times it was relegated to running the Kung Fu poorly transated films. They are showing first run features, and is as beautiful as it ever was. (Check out the description on the roster page -Gem Theatre, Kannapolis, NC- . This theatre is one of a dying breed.)
Again, great job Al, you brought back a lot of memories to this old popcorn jockey.

TheaterBuff1 on August 11, 2007 at 3:21 am

One thing I would like to interject, and it’s where the plot really gets intense, the 1970s era differed dramatically from that of the ‘60s due to what all was going on in the American backdrop politically. It helps to understand that the idealistic '60s ended with two major assassinations — that of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. And the whole first half of the 1970s era was overshadowed by the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration. Finally, by the 1970s there was the tremendous disillusionment over the Vietnam War and the not-too-clear way it finally ended up, only bittersweet relief that it finally did.

In terms of the youth coming of age during those years, which, of course, I was very much a part of, the ‘60s had been our formulative years. We were still children strictly in learning mode during that period, and that was the most that was expected of us. But when the '70s rolled around and we entered into adulthood, we were suddenly thrust into positions of having to be fully responsible for ourselves, yet with still so very much we had yet to learn. Due to the late '60s assassinations plus the corruption of the Nixon administration that overwhelmed the early '70s (“Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming, we’re finally on our own” — Neil Young), we couldn’t go back to the certainty and sureness of the 1960s, while no one had a clue what the 1970s was supposed to be all about, yet there we were in the midst of it nevertheless, having it upon us to know. And, as adults who are supposed to know what to do, rather than as children still in learning mode. And in the '70s, unlike how it was in the '60s, we had no good leaders we could look to. Zilch. In fact, I find the transition from the 1960s to the '70s comparable to how Rome must’ve become like following Julius Caesar’s assassination. Suddenly in place of great leaders there were only those interested in exploiting our naivete in whatever way they could, and with not a single one of us knowing enough to navigate through it all in the best possible way.

For me, just as it had been for many others of my age group, the movie theaters of the 1950s and ‘60s solidified how we should believe. Major motion pictures such as BEN HUR exhibited in no less than movie palaces that were run impeccably, for instance. So the movie theaters throughout those years were our oracles, and we trusted them wholeheartedly. And it helped considerably the fact that they went all out to honor that trust we placed in them.

But following the two key late-60s assassinations and the rising up of Nixon as the ‘70s got underway all that changed. And almost as if with the snap of the fingers at that. For some, such as those who really went in for the STAR WARS hype, movie theaters continued to be oracles, what with the substanceless message of “Let the force be with you,” and all that, which so many of those in my age group so naively and gullibly embraced. For seriously, what was this “force”? There were no leaders by then. Only a chaotic, roughshod world where suddenly it was every man for himself, the catchphrase among the “winners” being “Looking out for number one.” The “force” was whatever you could pull off getting away with. For example, following Nixon’s forced resignation many said his “only mistake” was getting caught. Which then in many ways defined the second half of the '70s: “Let the force be with you, but don’t caught while you’re doing it.”

In 1979, in my hopelessly trying to recapture the moviegoing experience I had known all throughout my childhood and that I wanted so badly to experience again, that I needed to re-experience, I went to see SUPERMAN at Philadelphia, PA’s Fox Theatre, designed by Thomas Lamb no less and ranked as a bona fide movie palace still in full operation. But it was very old and time-worn by that point. Huge inside, but also greatly discolored and faded by age, all in preliminary to its being demolished not long afterward — all in making way for a new Philadelphia where movie theaters would be irrelevant. And SUPERMAN, as much as it was a good effort, was hardly BEN HUR, which I had seen the premiere of at the Boyd — another major Philadelphia movie palace — back in 1959. For seriously, how much can you do with just a comic book hero? That is, when I went to see SUPERMAN at Philadelphia’s Fox in 1979, talk about a last minute desparation converging from all angles: Mine, the theater operator’s, the rising new star of the film, etc.

But in my looking back at how theaters were in the ‘70s from a 2007 viewpoint, I don’t deny for a second that I’m essentially Monday-morning quarterbacking. For the '70s were chaotic. Nobody knew what the heck was going on back then, only that it was all sink or swim. Whatever worked for the moment. That was all anyone could look to, or do, while hoping it was the right thing. And most times it wasn’t. Rarely was it. But in all fairness there were no great leaders to guide us, to step in and let us know where we were screwing up. And none of us ourselves knew enough to be that. The greatness of Martin Luther King and what he envisioned was shrunk down to blackploitation and SUPERFLY. The great Kennedy legacy was reduced to Chappaquidick. And while many Americans lined up behind Nixon, Nixon was over shaking hands with Chinese mass-murderer Chairman Mao. And we all thought it was such a “good thing” at the time, so totally clueless were we. On occasion we heard the right answers coming at us. But we lacked the wise leaders to confirm it. And we ourselves didn’t know. So the right answers just got pushed aside more often than not. Anyway, that’s my take on how it was.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on July 31, 2010 at 7:25 am

I think you guys pretty much nailed it on the head.there was of course quite a bit of sex,and I ain’t talking about what was on the screen.I will leave it at that.

Trisha Slay
Trisha Slay on February 7, 2013 at 3:32 pm

This is a message for AlAlvarez & TheaterBuff1 (itswagon, I have your contact information). Good news! My novel has finally found a publisher! I definitely used your stories as inspiration and I would like to add your names to the acknowledgements. I’d also like to get you free copies of the actual book. Unfortunately this website doesn’t support direct contacts and the Help email never responded to my request to forward an email to the two of you. possibly send you a complimentary copy (once I have them). Will you please email me so I can thank you properly? Slayzak [at] aol [dot] com. Thanks!!!

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