The 1977 California Trip: Seaworld, the Deep, and the San Diego Zoo

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Though I planned this post as part of the 1977 California Trip series, I put it aside. I just couldn’t remember the events well enough to write anything interesting about them.

But then in the process of combing through an old box of photos I came across some from that leg of our trip. They had been separated from the others I knew about.

They were all taken with a little Kodak 110 camera.

So I’ve put them into a slideshow, and will let them, for the most part, tell the story themselves.

We left Hollywood behind and pointed the Plymouth Arrow towards San Diego to take in its tourist hotspots.

Seaworld in Mission Park filled our first day. With no problems having manifested so far about our plexiglass window, I no longer had any anxiety leaving the car behind in parking lots. So I could enjoy exploring the park, its exhibits and shows.

We used the SkyRide to get the lay of the land to better plan our time in the park. We didn’t make it up into the Skytower but we didn’t need to.

The big attraction, of course was Shamu, the Killer Whale – (that detail I had to look up, for I wasn’t sure that it might not have been Namu). You can see him in one shot giving a damsel a smooch. He appeared in a little entertainment called ‘Shamu goes to College’ (as you will note from one of the sets, visible in the photo).

That evening we caught the opening of the film The Deep, based on the book by Peter Benchley – a hot property at the time because of his hit ‘Jaws’ of two years before.

The next day we spent at the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park. Lions, turtles and bears. Oh my! Galapagos turtles that is.

Then it was back to Renton and home and work at the Saffle Theater Service. The next time we were down in the Southern Cal area – we had kids – three of them – which I will cover at a later date, so stay tuned and Watch This Space.

Viewing Star Wars

Just wanted to reblog this post to mark the 40th Anniversary #StarWars40

Viewing Star Wars

Star Wars opened to the public on May 25th 1977 – the Wednesday before Memorial weekend. But I saw it before the public did, because that was my job.

At that time I worked for the Saffle Theater Service in Seattle, WA, and had been for a year. Part of my job was to attend the screenings of upcoming films and report back whether in my judgment the film would “play” or “not play” in the venues we negotiated for. If it were an art film or a documentary more than likely it was not for us, unless the boss deemed it a candidate for our theaters in the Moscow, ID/Pullman, WA area (homes respectively for the University of Idaho and Washington State University). If it were a saturation booking like “Sky Riders” from Fox, and if it was slated to have a massive TV advertising campaign, then, of course the answer was a resounding yes. We had quite a few drive ins and tank towns that wanted to get in on that action.

When the screening for a sci-fi fantasy film from Fox was announced in May of 1977 there was no buzz, no excitement going around among the denizens of Seattle’s film row. In fact, I don’t think there was any interest at all. I, however, was very interested.

Around Christmas of 1976, Fox had put out a brochure for their upcoming titles for 1977. I perused it as I did for similar offerings from the other distributors. Here Fox was touting the likes of The Other Side of Midnight, Julia, The Turning Point, and High Anxiety. What riveted my attention was the spread on a sci-fi title called Star Wars. The graphic didn’t mean a thing (of course it didn’t, no one had seen the picture yet – it showed Luke and Leia from the shaft scene on the Death Star). But the “written and directed by” credit did. And that was why I was excited – for it cited a name that I recognized as the director of American Grafitti, George Lucas.

So, it was with great anticipation that I sat with my wife in the UA Cinema 150 to see it unspool for the first time in Seattle. And we were not disappointed. The Cinema 150 sits (or rather did sit) under a dome and has (had) a gigantic screen. That screen filled an 120 degree field of view to your front. The opening scroll and the electrifying score racheted up the anticipation. And I swear that when that Star Destroyer loomed into the scene in pursuit of the other space ship, you felt that it was directly on top of you (I think it had something to do with the sense of space imparted by that dome).

From that moment I knew that this film was going to do fantastic, light years ahead of American Grafitti, but even so I did not know just how epic the grosses were going to be.

[Aside – I did have problem trying to convince one of our clients to play it at their theater. The Olympic theater in Forks, WA., did not want to take a chance on playing it until it was available for their normal two day schedule. They were only open four days a week – with two changes, one bill on Friday and Saturday and the other on Sunday and Monday. I finally convinced him to play it all four days, resulting in a record gross for him. Not surprisingly, he held it over another weekend].

Dinner at the Golden Lion or I eat snails

Dinner at the Golden Lion2

When I think of Christmas in the workplace, it always recalls to my mind A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (as I am sure it does many of you), and in particular, one of Dickens’ characters whom we meet in Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Past, Mr. Fezziwig. There is something very attractive and warm about this character, the first example to the young Scrooge as a man who knew how to “keep Christmas.”

And when I remember Bud Saffle, my old boss at the Saffle Theater Service, echoes of Fezziwig reverberate, at least for one occasion – the office Christmas party.

That one year, Bud and his wife Diane, took his employees – myself and Lori B. (with our significant others) to the Olympic Hotel and its renowned Golden Lion restaurant. It was situated up in the area nearby my old workplace, the Fifth Avenue Theater. Though I had been working within spitting distance of this destination for a couple of years, I had never seen it, much less been in it. (We were more familiar with establishments of the fast food variety).

The Golden Lion was a high-toned eatery with decor and a wait staff decked out in a style reminiscent of the British Raj. (Turbans adorned those flaming the special dishes). It was a mite intimidating for one who didn’t know a chafing dish from a salad bowl. But our host put us at ease, and told us to order whatever we wanted.

Appetizers were first on the menu. Our first major decision. My eye landed on the word “escargot.” Having been a French major in college, I knew what those were – snails. I was not an adventurous eater, a truth to which my wife can testify. So, she was surprised when I opted for this gastronomic oddity. I admit I was curious as to how they would taste. And I learned that anything tastes GREAT in garlic butter sauce. Warm bread was supplied to mop up the extra.

After one bite of her appetizer my wife wished she had opted for something else. Perhaps one of the soups. She had ordered smoked salmon, easily her favorite fish, but in this instance NOT. One second through the smoke before serving, one step above raw, made her stomach blanche – (no, neither of us like sushi). I slipped her some bread with the heavenly butter garlic sauce.

The main dish selection was a foregone conclusion. We decided the minute our scan down the menu fixed on Chateaubriand Bouquetiere, a dish which just happened to be our favorite. We didn’t have to chew the rest of the evening. (The escargot had been springy, so for that course I got in all my chewing for the evening).

And dessert if I remember right was Bud’s selection, Cherries Jubilee in all its flaming beauty.

It must have been a banner year for the company. It was certainly a memorable Christmas dinner for us.

Zefferelli at the Jewel Box

zefferrelli-at-the-jewel-box

It shouldn’t be surprising that I used to dream about my work. Probably every one does. But these dreams were the weirdest when it came to my job at Saffle’s Theater Service over on John Street in Seattle. In some respects they were like walking through an Ingmar Bergman movie.

In this particular recurring dream, the streets were empty, and I was wandering them alone. I moved in the silence, not a single person anywhere, and no vehicles either, just buildings and trees and other such landmarks. I would follow the familiar boulevard towards my workplace. But I stopped a block short, and took another street on a vector away from my goal. And then another turn brought me up a hill and over to Second Avenue. I felt awake and conscious – all was recognizable to me because it was the landscape across which I circulated for my job. And there was a deadline somehow involved in the logic of the dream, yet not binding, as time itself was slowed down.

My movements always came to an end over on a little section of Second Avenue between Bell and Wall Streets.  There all the film distributor offices were huddled together in one little section that was called “Film Row.” And there also was the focus of the “fun” part of the job, the screening rooms.

There were two main venues on film row, where the screenings for new films were scheduled. Fox was the only distributor to have their own in-house screening room. I have absolutely no recollection of this screening room (my boss must have covered the few offerings there). I have been told that it was tiny and uncomfortable, and every seat had a bad view of the screen.

The other venue was a different story. The Jewel Box was a gem. (The choice of name was a genuflection to that old favorite choice for a theater name. If you’ve seen those old theaters with the name Bijou above the marquee, you’re were looking at something akin to the same thing – ‘bijou’ is French for jewel). It was built in 1927 by B. F. Shearer as a showcase for his theater equipment company.

With only sixty seats one might say it was the size of a shoe box, (compared to the theaters of that day – not now), but it was comfortable. One center aisle divided two seating areas. At the front there were individual theater seats, but as you moved to the back there were a series of booths – bench seats with their own long tables upon which you could place your meals, ordered up from the Rendezvous restaurant next door (a side door of the theater led straight into it). One might call the arrangement with the booths an early example of stadium seating, for each pair of them had their own riser.

The summer of 1976, I spent a lot of time at the Jewel Box viewing films. Here are a few titles:

In May- Food of the Gods (AIP) Marjoe Gortner

             – Ode to Billy Joe (WB) Robby Benson

             – Eat My Dust! (Parnell) Ron Howard

              – Drive In (Col) a film made with Texas state tax incentives for the (what else) the drive in market

In June – The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday (AIP) Lee Marvin

              – Special Delivery (AIP) Bo Svenson and Cybill Shepherd

               – The Outlaw Josey Wales (WB) Clint Eastwood

               – Survive (Par) about the 1972 plane crash in the Andes Mtns and cannibalism

                – Obsession (Col) Brian de Palma pulls a Hitchcock with Cliff Robertson and Genvieve Bujold

In July  – St Ives (WB) Charles Bronson

              – Squirm (AIP) man-eating worms

              – Gumball Rally (WB) Michael Sarrazin

              – Futureworld (AIP) sequel to Westworld

In August  – Moving Violation (Fox) Stephen McHattie and Kay Lenz

                – The Shootist (Par) John Wayne

                – Car Wash (UN) Richard Pryor

                – Winds of Autumn (Film Brokers) Jack Elam

                – Drum (UA) Warren Oates, Ken Norton

[These movie “dreams” may have impacted somehow my “dreamlife.”]

One night we had the Jewel Box all to ourselves or rather all to our families, mine and my wife’s. And some few choice friends. I had arranged to rent it for my wife’s birthday party. (We all had dinner at the Spaghetti Factory before coming to the Jewel Box).

But what would renting a theater be without a movie? So I arranged for that too. I contacted Joe Vigil, my Paramount rep (and friend) down in San Francisco and ordered up a film title by one of my wife’s favorite directors, Franco Zefferelli. You may be familiar with his Shakespeare films “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Along with our snacks and cake we sat down to watch “Brother Sun Sister Moon.” The film tells the story of the life of St Francis of Assisi.

I believe for a time this director’s films may have eclipsed Gone with the Wind as her favorite.

Moving on Up to Booking Films

image

The Seeley Theater in Pomeroy, WA

After I left the UA Cinemas 150 and 70, I applied for other “film biz” jobs in the Seattle area. One of the first places I applied was the Saffle Theater Service, a film buying and booking firm that covered the Northwest. I did not hear anything from them then, but soon after an assistant manager position opened up with Mann Theaters at their Fifth Avenue Theater, so I forgot about that application. However, the owner, Bud Saffle, must have remembered me, for a less than a year later something had changed and he contacted me with an offer for a position as his booker.

When I was hired on at the Saffle Theater Service, it was a big promotion in more ways than one. The salary was better to be sure. But so were the hours. They were regular “bankers’ hours.” A nine to five job. No more late, late nights. And there were other perks as well, but more on that later.

It was in a part of Seattle that was “new” to me, (possibly explained by the fact that it was in the opposite direction from the Fifth Avenue theater, and hence off my normal path). From our apartment on Fifth Avenue, I just had to head over to Westlake – a boulevard that cut diagonally across the regular grid. On the other side of Denny Way I took a right on John Street, and another right on Terry Avenue and looked for a spot to park.

I always took the Roadrunner and parked on the side of the small two story office building on the corner of John and Terry. The Saffle Theater Service was on the second floor on the Terry Avenue side. You entered through glass doors into a large open area, presided over by the company secretary and the company records. Mr Saffle had the office on the right; mine was beside his on the left (from its window, I could keep tabs on my Roadrunner).

Mr Saffle’s company represented about thirty independent exhibitors, i.e. theater owners, spread throughout the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. They were small town cinemas dating back to the thirties or before; or drive-ins from the fifties. Mr Saffle personally handled the larger accounts, the Mike Mercy Theaters of Yakima and the Kenworthy theaters of Moscow/Pullman. I had the smaller theaters around the hinterlands, like the Seeley in Pomeroy, WA. (It was only open a few months, being closed to store potatoes the bulk of the year). Of particular interest to me, was the Alpine Theater in Colville, WA. It was my Mom’s home town, and I was familiar with this theater, having lived in Colville when a boy.

Mornings were taken up with collecting grosses from our theaters and disseminating them to the pertinent distributors. You can be sure the distribs wanted to know, especially on Mondays after the weekend. They would press us to hold their films over (or try to get us to take off a competitor’s to bring their new title in – exhibitors and distributors have a notorious love-hate relationship). Monday mornings could be a real trial, especially for my boss, for he made all the big decisions – regarding hold overs and terms.

I had to learn new aspects of the “film biz.” Contracts, terms, booking dates and cutoff cards. Much of it was phone work, calling my counterparts with the distributors for film availabilities and terms, and advising my clients about what would perform well in their locations. Mr Saffle tutored me in the whole system that was in place governing the split of the box office monies, which is an interesting topic. Some films were flat $100 or $125, but those were always older films, usually booked as a lower half to a double bill. The newer films were paid on a percentage basis.

The stated percentage is what the exhibitor paid the distributor. So, for instance if the terms were 35%, that meant my client kept 65%. And that’s the way we liked it. Subsequent weeks bottomed out at 25%, and we liked that even better. Bigger films had bigger terms and required playtime commitments. For our bigger towns the minimum was four weeks. The first week was 70%, the second 60%, the third 50%, and the fourth 40%. If business held up the film could be held beyond that for 35%.

But there could be another wrinkle to the big term pictures – the dreaded 90/10. Each theater had an agreed upon house expense, the cost the exhibitor incurred just to open the doors for a week. (One which our firm always tried to negotiate up as high as possible). You would subtract that “nut” from your gross for the week, and of the balance you only kept 10%.  But hold on. There was an “if” involved. The distributor always took whichever was greater, the result of the 90/10 calculation, or the floor percentage for that week.

[Aside – I had heard one time that the whole 90/10 business had its origin back in the late thirties. An exhibitor came up with the formula in a bid that he put forth in an attempt to win the rights to show “Gone with the Wind” over his competitor. Then the floor was 25%]

When you ended up paying the floor percentage, you theoretically might not be covering your costs in that week. (And you always wondered why concessions cost so much. Many exhibitors would claim they weren’t in the film business, but in the popcorn business. They probably still do).

Then at multiple times during the week we had screenings to go to, (and the main reason I drove to work rather than walked). The distributors arranged these for film buyers in the exchange area to see their new product in advance of their release.

It was a much anticipated perk.

But more on that next time – so stay tuned and Watch This Space.

Viewing Star Wars

Viewing Star Wars

With “Star Wars the Force Awakens” everywhere in the news and on the brink of its opening this Friday, I thought I’d chime in with a post about my viewing of the first seminal film. It opened to the public on May 25th 1977 – the Wednesday before Memorial weekend. But I saw it before the public did, because that was my job.

At that time I worked for the Saffle Theater Service in Seattle, WA, and had been for a year. Part of my job was to attend the screenings of upcoming films and report back whether in my judgment the film would “play” or “not play” in the venues we negotiated for. If it were an art film or a documentary more than likely it was not for us, unless the boss deemed it a candidate for our theaters in the Moscow, ID/Pullman, WA area (homes respectively for the University of Idaho and Washington State University). If it were a saturation booking like “Sky Riders” from Fox, and if it was slated to have a massive TV advertising campaign, then, of course the answer was a resounding yes. We had quite a few drive ins and tank towns that wanted to get in on that action.

When the screening for a sci-fi fantasy film from Fox was announced in May of 1977 there was no buzz, no excitement going around among the denizens of Seattle’s film row. In fact, I don’t think there was any interest at all. I, however, was very interested.

Around Christmas of 1976, Fox had put out a brochure for their upcoming titles for 1977. I perused it as I did for similar offerings from the other distributors. Here Fox was touting the likes of The Other Side of Midnight, Julia, The Turning Point, and High Anxiety. What riveted my attention was the spread on a sci-fi title called Star Wars. The graphic didn’t mean a thing (of course it didn’t, no one had seen the picture yet – it showed Luke and Leia from the shaft scene on the Death Star). But the “written and directed by” credit did. And that was why I was excited – for it cited a name that I recognized as the director of American Grafitti, George Lucas.

So, it was with great anticipation that I sat with my wife in the UA Cinema 150 to see it unspool for the first time in Seattle. And we were not disappointed. The Cinema 150 sits (or rather did sit) under a dome and has (had) a gigantic screen. That screen filled an 120 degree field of view to your front. The opening scroll and the electrifying score racheted up the anticipation. And I swear that when that Star Destroyer loomed into the scene in pursuit of the other space ship, you felt that it was directly on top of you (I think it had something to do with the sense of space imparted by that dome).

From that moment I knew that this film was going to do fantastic, light years ahead of American Grafitti, but even so I did not know just how epic the grosses were going to be.

[Aside – I did have problem trying to convince one of our clients to play it at their theater. The Olympic theater in Forks, WA., did not want to take a chance on playing it until it was available for their normal two day schedule. They were only open four days a week – with two changes, one bill on Friday and Saturday and the other on Sunday and Monday. I finally convinced him to play it all four days, resulting in a record gross for him. Not surprisingly, he held it over another weekend].