Hitchcock and Me

Hitchcock and Me

I had to do some research to nail down the time period that I was at the Cinerama theater. As I mentioned in a former post, the theater changed hands some time during my tenure there. I was able to run down the date that this occurred by checking with the Seattle Times newspaper website. On August 15, 1972, the Cinerama was taken over by the Sterling Recreation Organization.

Using this same site I was able to track down the films that were booked at the Cinerama and hopefully to trace back to the time I started. I am not quite one hundred per cent sure, but I think I began when Stanley Kramer’s film, Bless the Beasts and Children was playing there, which puts the date as sometime in November 1971. I don’t think many people are familiar with this film. Not many saw it when it was out. It was a “coming of age” story about a bunch of misfit boys out to save a herd of bison from slaughter.  It wasn’t long before a second feature, the sci-fi film Marooned was added to it to help out.

From then until the take over, I tore tickets for:

Ryan’s Daughter – by one of my favorite directors – David Lean

Sometimes a Great Notion – Paul Newman (starred and directed) which might have been a re-release as it opened originally in 1970

A Clockwork Orange – Kubrick – this carried an “X” rating for its violence and controversy

Silent Running – directed by Doug Trumbull (famous for the SFX on Kubrick’s 2001)

While Bruce Dern and his robots Huey, Dewey and Louis were trying to save the last of Earth’s plant life, another figure joined the lobby to promote an upcoming film. And I had my eye on him.

Alfred Hitchcock was a great showman as well as a legendary director. For his upcoming film he had had full size cutouts of his standing figure created for theater lobbies across America. There he stood with a finger pointed at whomever he was facing. And attached to the back of the figure was a small tape recorder that continually played a message from the Master of Suspense – all centered around neckties – to huckster for his latest film – Frenzy.

I prevailed upon Mr. McKnight to give me the cutout after the film completed its run. And he acceded to my request, but not until after the run was stretched a bit when Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me was added to boost the attendance.

When Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask” moved in, I moved Hitch out and gave him a ride home in my Roadrunner.

Upon arriving home, I propped Hitch up on the front step and rang the doorbell. When my Mom answered the door, she must have jumped a foot in the air, and three feet back. After she recovered her composure, she told me, “Let’s do it to Dad!”

So we did.

The Really Big Screen

The Really Big Screen

I was no longer working at the GCC Renton Village Cinemas. After a brief hiatus as a sales clerk in a bookstore at South Center in Tukwila (made brief by my forgetting to hold the last copy of a book for a customer who called in to reserve it), I was back in show business as a doorman at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle. It was a good fit. My school – Seattle University – was not too far away, just up on First Hill.

My tenure there was made interesting by the fact that it was the first time that a company changed hands while I was employed by it. It would not be the last time. When I was hired, the theater was owned by United (aka Pacific) theaters, noted in the Seattle area as a drive-in circuit. They only ran three hard tops in the state. Later, Sterling Recreation Organization (SRO) acquired those three theaters and added them to their mammoth chain. [Aside – Paul Allen now owns it, and has spared no expense in bringing it up to date.]

The building sat (and still does) between 4th and 5th Avenues on Lenora Street. The lobby windows faced Lenora, which was my point of view when manning the “door.” I was right across from the box office. People came in to buy their tickets, and when it was busy they went back ouside to line up along 4th Avenue. Sometimes when it was real busy I needed to go out and check the line. We had signs that I had to move every once and a while. They read “Ticket Holders Line.” You wouldn’t want them to be waiting there for ages, not realizing they were in the wrong line, especially if they hadn’t gotten their tickets. And if the line was particularly long, I would reassure them that there was plenty of room. In fact the line had to go around the block plus, before the auditorium would fill up. Amazing how many people can be strung out in a line (sorry, unintended double entendre, it was the 70s after all).

The auditorium was red, seats and curtains. There were a little over 800 seats total, so it was just a bit smaller than Cinema 1 in Renton, but it always seemed so much bigger. The customers were fed into it from the right and the left into a central traverse aisle, from which you went back into the higher seats, or down to those seats closer to the screen.

And it was unlike any screen with which I was familiar. Usually it is all of one piece, stretched out in a frame and mounted at the front of the auditorium. This one was made up of over one thousand – one inch wide strips of screen material, placed side by side in a curved arc, and stretched their full length of 35 feet onto a frame, and attached bottom and top.  And like their flat counterparts, they were each perforated to better allow the sound from the speakers to pass through. So to look at it from your seat, you were only aware of this huge screen that filled about a hundred feet across the front, and bowed away from you at the center.

It was a very impressive theater in which to view a film.

The Wild Bunch Plays Havoc

The Wild Bunch Plays Havoc

It wasn’t normal for the Renton Cinema to play Warner Brothers films. They were normally exhibited at the Sterling theaters. But for some reason in June of 1969, we opened the Sam Peckinpah film “The Wild Bunch.”

It was a bit controversial at the time. I wonder now if that might have been the reason that we played it instead of Sterling.

The number of Westerns had been dropping noticeably from the studios’ release schedules, at least measured from the baseline of the fifties. But I checked this year – and there were surprisingly quite a few of various flavors – Support Your Local Sheriff, True Grit, Guns of the Magnificent Seven, Undefeated, and the year was sent off with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Paint Your Wagon. More germain to this instance, probably, was the opening of the John Wayne film – True Grit. It came out in the Sterling houses one week before the Wild Bunch. And that might have been another reason that Sterling passed, they might simply have had no room to open the WB title.

The Wild Bunch opened in our small house, Cinema II which only had 500 seats. It was an R-rated movie. And now being old enough to view it, I took it in on one of my days off. I don’t remember a movie to that date in my young life that was so disturbing. Sure, there had been moments in Lawrence of Arabia that played similar notes on my psyche, but they were not as explicit as the Wild Bunch. In LoA you saw the aftermath, not the blow by blow that was put up on the screen by Peckinpah. I have read that Peckinpah, when planning this film, wanted to make it as realistic as possible. He had it in his mind to translate his experiences hunting deer, to this violent story of men in conflict. His memory of the bullet impacting the body of the animal, led him to find ways to replicate that in the shoot outs that he would depict. Another WB movie had led the way in this matter. Bonnie and Clyde was one of the first films to use the squib, that explosive pack of red liquid attached to the body of the actor. Peckinpah set out to out-Bonnie and Clyde, Bonnie and Clyde. And he did.

I remember sitting there sometimes too squeamish to look up at the screen out of fear of what I would see. At times like those, one’s own identity entered into the equation of movie viewing. What if this were to happen to me? What would I do in a similar situation? Run for cover assuredly. I remember being suddenly aware that there was a mind behind all this, at work trying to impact the audience, causing their thoughts to flow in a direction of its choosing. Peckinpah says he intended it as an anti-war, or at the least an anti-violence statement. Was he successful? Not if that was actually his intent, for the violence was actually an attraction for many, and he himself was surprised and saddened by that fact.

The envelope had been pushed and there was no going back. Going forward the Western would not be cast in the sensibilities of the Saturday morning matinee western, a la Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy. Nor was any other film genre left untouched.

The Renton Cinemas Open

The Renton Cinemas Open

As I stated previously, having my father on site was a real boon for his company GCC. He kept an eye on things (like wrestling the safe through the completed lobby and into his office), and headed off potential problems before they happened, or became costly errors.
The cinema was built on the property of a shopping mall area called Renton Village just off Grady Way. The shopping complex wasn’t as big as Brockton, but well attended none the less. Right down the sidewalk from the theater was the Sheraton Renton Inn, a high rise hotel. At the far extremity away from the theater was Schumsky’s restaurant, with which my father horse-traded passes for meals. A Tradewell grocery store and an Ernst hardware were the main anchors.
The big circuit in the Seattle area was the Sterling Recreation Organization, and as such had the film market pretty well sewn up. But GCC beng a national chain wasn’t without some influence. There were a few distributors that were very glad to see a new player in the area. In those days, Seattle had its own”Film Row.” The distributors kept offices down on Second Avenue. In the main we played Columbia, Universal, Buena Vista and MGM, which were headed up respectively by Al Boodman, Russ Brown, Homer Schmidt and Connie Carpou.
That being said, the two opening bills for the Renton Cinemas were not auspicious. On one side was the feature Duffy from Columbia and on the other Secret Ceremony from Universal. I suspect no else in the area wanted to play them. Between the doormen and us ushers the code word for the latter was “Secret Garbage.”
Duffy, which starred James Coburn in the title role, is noteworthy in my estimation only tangentially, through a couple of the people associated with it. One was Donald Cammell, a rather unusual avant garde type who worked on the screenplay and would later co-direct with Nicholas Roeg the Mick Jagger film Performance. He pushed the envelope so far he shot and killed himself some say on purpose. The other was the director Robert Parrish, at probably the extreme opposite end of the spectrum. He was Old Hollywood, having started there as a child actor in the thirties (City Lights and the Our Gang comedies), and graduating to film editor (Body and Soul) and later director.
Not a thing did I know of any of this. Of all I was blissfully ignorant. Such information came as my interest in film grew. For the time being I probably had a feeling akin to Parrish’s old boss at Columbia – Harry Cohn, whose talented butt was his barometer to taste in film – if it wiggled in the seat it was no good.

The Renton Cinemas Open 2