Working at the Manhasset Cinema in the Americana Shopping Center in 1974 was a dream job for a 17-year-old movie buff like myself. I handled the crowds out front, sold popcorn, candy and soda inside, and “watched the floor” — stood in the back to make sure the patrons behaved themselves which, of course, allowed me time to watch the movie.
That’s how I became an expert on almost every movie that played there then.
Take “Blazing Saddles,” for instance. We had the Mel Brooks comedy for six weeks. I watched it about four times a night, about 75 times in total. I knew the movie so well that between shows, my buddy, Donny Lawrence, and I would recite the lines to each other. And, if we happened to be working elsewhere in the theater during a showing, we’d often race to the back of the theater when we knew certain funny, tasteless scenes were coming to hear the audience’s reaction.
Things did not always go smoothly. We had our share of mishaps. Once we showed the Italian hit “Swept Away” starring Mariangela Melato and Giancarlo Giannini. It was a story of a bickering couple who ended up stuck on a deserted island. It drew big crowds. One night, our projectionist made a mistake and put on reel 4 before reel 3. Melato and Giannini were on the island, then suddenly they would be off the island, and the movie would end 20 minutes early. What to do? You couldn’t show reel 3 after reel 4. “Don’t say a word,” said our manager. And so it went, the nearly 2-hour movie suddenly became a 85-minute quickie, the audience filed out, and we ushers kept our lips zipped. Two couples did notice the discrepancy, and we quietly refunded their money.
The Cinema, which closed years ago, was a fascinating theater. In the 1950s, it gave out free coffee for a few years and even in 1974, long after the practice had ended, we’d have customers ask, “Still have the free coffee?” It was still a classy place, offering predominantly foreign films. Patrons dressed nicely on Saturday nights. Our tuxedo-clad manager had a long, extended holder for his cigarette. (We ushers wore tuxedos, too, but eschewed the cigarettes in favor of bubblegum.)
My favorite night was the time that Jim Jensen and his wife came to the theater. Jensen, the popular WCBS-TV news anchor, and his wife came a few minutes late — I’m guessing it was to avoid causing a commotion. I was ripping tickets at the door and recognized him. I gave him my “I-know-who-you-are-but-I-won’t-give-your-identity-away” nod. He nodded in return, and they went into the darkened theater. I felt I couldn’t let this moment pass and came up with an idea.
A few minutes before the movie ended, out came the CBS newsman and his wife. I approached him and said, “Mr. Jensen, since you are always giving out your autograph to fans, I thought I’d give you mine.” I handed him a sheet of paper which he read aloud to his wife. “To Jim Jensen, Always reach for the stars. Your pal, Saul Schachter.”
He tucked it into his pocket, smiled and said, “Thank you, Saul,” and disappeared out the door as quietly as he came in.
Reader Saul Schachter lives in Sea Cliff.