It never sunk to shabby.
The Music Box Theater in downtown Seattle, where I worked as a 19-year-old usher, had a plush crimson satin curtain that spread open at the beginning of the coming attractions, slightly worn violet carpeting, soft comfy chairs, and ornate chandeliers which hung somewhat menacingly from its auditorium’s curved, painted ceiling. I think those chandeliers were nigh obligatory in pre-war movie houses, though living in earthquake country makes one wonder why theater architects required their patrons to take on such worry. They probably thought while watching Godzilla, any personal concerns for safety would seem petty compared to what Fay Wray was being put through.
A bit of research reveals that “The Box,” as we staff liked to call it, billed itself in its heyday as “The Beauty Theatre.” Sumptuous, abstract and colorful wall decorations throughout. Its warm, sweet, and smallish lobby would fill up quickly before the show with patrons queuing for popcorn and Raisinets.
The screen always seemed huge; disproportionate. And in relation to the 846-person capacity auditorium, it was. But that contributed to an exhilarating mix of intimacy and splendor that demanded claim to heightened significance. One could hear the building insist “This is more important, Bub, than your daily living room TV show. This is a THEATRE you’re attending. Show some respect and awe!”
I worked at The Box in the summer and fall of 1974. At that time, it was one of a half dozen pre-war movie houses within a few block radii. All of them ornate. Some of them truly palace-like. The Paramount sat 3000. The 5th Avenue Theatre, more than 2100. The Coliseum, built in 1915, was called “the first of the world’s movie palaces.” For sheer splendor and might, The Box did not compete well with its neighbors. But there was more to the value of the place than size and glitter. Character and a kind of sweet integrity matters, right?
While not an anachronism quite yet, one could clearly tell, however, that its days of peak prominence were past. By the mid 70’s, movie theater multiplexes were just beginning to sprout in the suburbs, and the structure of film distribution was changing. A first-run flick would initially show at one main downtown theater. The Box was so designated. The run in that theater would continue until attendance began to lag. Then the film would leave for a suburban run that subsequently would end its big screen life.
Some first-run films would run for a week at The Box. Others for many weeks. I worked at the theater for a total of four and half months. During that time, one film ran for all but the last 2 weeks of my tenure – Chinatown.
My sense-memories still linger from The Box 45 years later. The smells of freshly popped popcorn. The taste and feel on my hands and clothes of the greasy non-butter butter we squirted on top of the popcorn at the patron’s request. The unfulfillable lust on a co-worker whom I knew was beyond my league. The happy thunder of 325-lb Wayne Cody, then known as Seattle’s “Mound of Sound” on KTW Talk Radio, who worked next door to The Box, coming in for his regular large Coke and popcorn combo before his show while we’d shoot the shit about the Seattle Sockeyes professional ping pong team and other sports trivia.
I experienced my first union-management negotiations at The Box. The “company union” secured us 15 cents above minimum wage but feted us peons nonetheless to a luxurious lunch in the Cloud Room atop the nearby Camlin Hotel as the obese old Union Secretary in grey suit and tie worked to convince us to sign on to a crappy deal. “Sorry, folks, you just don’t have any bargaining power,” he maintained.
“But why do we even pay union dues?” I ask.
“That’s why your dues are so low!” he replied. We young folks caved.
What I remember most from my four-plus months at The Box was Chinatown. I watched it on breaks. I watched it when guiding folks into the auditorium. I watched it before my shift started and sometimes after I finished. The more I watched it, the more genius I saw in director Roman Polanski’s exquisite attention to detail. The slicing and healing of Jack Nicholson’s nose. The clues revealed by decoding Chinese-accented English. The brilliance of Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of a woman with the impossibly painful and complex task of saving the life and innocence of a child she was condemned to mother. The shameful degradation of public interests at the benefit of private gain in the shaping of land use. Is Chinatown why I became a city planner? And finally, the perfect scene within a scene that found this extraordinarily well-crafted movie, set in the 1930s, to be shown in this splendid little theater, built in the 1920’s. Form follows function indeed! And architecture sets the stage.