Behind The Silver Screen
By Jerry Miller
It was a bright sunny day on North Main Street in Dayton, Ohio. I was standing under the marquee of the Palace Theatre, across the street from the old Victory Theatre at First and Main and next door to Rikes Department Store.
It hadn't always been the Palace Theatre. An independent owner had given it that name a few years ago. For over fifty years it was known as Loew's Theatre. In fact, the original Palace Theatre was still standing on Fifth Street, but had been closed for over ten years.
It's been 5 years since I was last inside the theater. Today, June 21, 1975, I would take in its broken majestic splendor for the last time. I had known that this day would come.
The construction crew was already in the building preparing for the demolition of the old girl. The front doors were propped open; from under the marquee, standing on the sidewalk, I could hear inside was a jackhammer nosily breaking up the concrete around the snack bar in the lobby.
I walked by the box office. As I passed it, I reflected on how many hours I spent there, selling tickets, answering the telephone, watching the city busses going there north and south of town stopped in front of the theater. The city moved in its constant and repetitive motion.
I passed the doors into the foyer. Its tiles were old and cracked from the years of foot traffic from the decades of movie-going customers. The foyer ramped up to the six black lobby doors that were also propped open. I moved toward the lobby, choking on the concrete dust was flying out of the lobby into the foyer.
The lobby itself was rather small, more like a hallway. The walls had been painted white since the Loew's days. When I was here, the walls were painted with a kind of rose color. Even now the paint was dull and flat like the rest of the interior of the theater. I often wondered what the theatre really looked like in the heyday of the twenties and thirties.
Opposite of the lobby doors stood the snack bar with its candy case, popcorn warmer and Coke machine. On each side of the snack bar, double glass doors opened to the main aisles of the theatre's main floor. At the far sides of the lobby were empty doorways that allowed entrance to the side aisles.
A grand staircase rose from each end of the lobby turned directly to the mezzanine. I looked beyond the staircase towards the exit door and side aisle. I could see him in my mind...
With my eyes closed I could see him, tall, slender handsome in his tuxedo, hands in his pockets, leaning against the wall, watching a movie...
I fell in love with the place the first day I worked here, and later, I fell in love with him the first day I worked with him.
I tore myself away from my daydream and climbed the stairs to the mezzanine. Located on the side mezzanine was the Ladies Lounge and restroom. The left was the Gentlemen's Lounge and restroom. In their day, the lounges had sofas, tables and ashtrays, and attendants served patrons with towels and lights for those who smoked.
To the right of the back wall was a ramp on each side that led to the balcony. On each side of the ramps were doors. The door on the left led to the storage room and projection booth; and across the ramp from there was the assistant manager's office.
The left ramp was the manager's office and storage closet.
In the sixties the theatre installed wooden gates over the entrance to the balcony after business because slowed way down and the upper seating was no longer needed.
The gates were unlocked and I went right up the ramp into the balcony. All of the exit doors were open and the lights were on. The old Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer logo carpeting still covered the steps and aisles. Although it was over 30 years old, it had held up well.
I climbed the steps to the back of the balcony and sat down. I had never ventured this far up when I worked here. I gazed over the huge auditorium. The stage was wide open and the silver screen was gone.
The chandeliers were still in place. All that was left of the wall fixtures was the wiring hanging out of the electrical boxes that held them up.
I closed my eyes to feel the vibes of the place. I could imagine all the great movies and vaudeville acts that had played here. If the walls could talk I wondered what they could tell.
I could feel him close to me.
How I wanted him close to me again...
It was April 1969. I was a junior at Meadowdale High School. At the end of school one day, as I was getting onto my bus, another student grabbed my arm.
"Hey, Iím David. I work at Loew's. You applied there last week, didn't you?"
"Yeah, I did."
"The manager asked me to have you come down and talk to him."
"Okay, thanks. I will."
Damn, he was a nice looking guy.
I was seventeen years of age and up to this time I had not admitted to myself that I was gay. I knew I liked looking at other boys and even scoped them out in the showers at school and at the YMCA where swimsuits were never worn in the pool area. I had grown to love the naked male form.
I got on my bus excited about the idea of working in a movie theatre. I immediately went to the city bus stop after I got home from school. I rode the bus south on Main Street and got off at the front of theater. The marquee listed WHERE EAGLES DARE, a Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood WWII film written by Alistair McLean. I walked through the front doors, up the foyer ramp to the doorman's location at the top of the foyer. The doorman was an elderly man around 75. He was dressed in a tux, had white hair and a pencil thin moustache. When I told him why I was there, he walked over to the far wall intercom box and called the manager down. He told me he would be right out.
I walked down the foyer and looked at the poster frames. In one frame was the current attraction at the other Loew's theater in town. The theater was showing ROMEO AND JULIET. Across the foyer the poster for "Coming Soon" was THE WILD BUNCH.
"Hello," said a voice near the doorman.
"Hi," I said walking towards the man, "Iím Michael Brown. I was told to come in about a job."
The man was around 60 years of age. He was dressed in a suit, his gray hair was combed straight back. He smiled at me and asked, "How old are you?"
"What year in school are you?"
"Can you work evenings, weekends and holidays?"
"Okay. I have an opening at the Loew's Northtown. It pays one dollar an hour."
"Can you start tomorrow evening?"
"A white shirt is all you will need. Be there at 6:00 and ask for Miss Burns."
"Yes, sir. Iíll be there. Thank you, sir."
I shook his hand, left the theater and walked across the street to catch the bus.
I waited at the bus stop, biding my time, excited that I had a job. Lost in my reverie, I didn't notice him until he was nearly standing next to me. He broke my self-congratulatory moment as he stood there, looking down the street, apparently waiting on a bus as well.
He stood about 5'10" tall, and had brown hair and blue eyes. He was dressed like any other teen. He was thin, but great looking. I looked to down to check him out and couldn't get any impression of what he might have down there. I realized he had taken my breath away.
He must have noticed me looking at him and glanced at me and smiled, with a 'hi' kind of smile. Not a word was said between us. He walked towards the curb and waited for the approaching bus, No. 12 Fair Oaks. I watched him climb the steps and sit down in the back of the bus.
As the bus drove off, I figured I probably wouldn't see him again. My bus pulled up, No. 7 Forest Park, and I rode north with him on my mind.
I got home and told my mother I had a new job and I started the next day. She said that was great and finished making dinner. After dinner, I retired to my room to do my homework. That night I found myself thinking about him in my nightly wrist 'exercise'.
The next day couldn't go fast enough. I couldn't wait to start that night at the theatre. The day finally ended and I headed home. It was a Friday so I could do my homework over the weekend.
When it got to be about 5 P.M., I grabbed my shirt and walked the mile to the theatre. The theatre was at the south end of the Northtown Shopping Center. It faced Main Street and had a parking lot in the rear. The tower stood proudly above the marquee, which topped the roof above the foyer area. The box office was inside in the foyer area where "Coming Soon" poster cases covered the brick walls. I opened the all-glass door and entered the foyer.
An older gentleman stood at the doorman's area. I told him I needed to see Miss Burns. He nodded and walked past the box office, and me, across the foyer over to a door next to the poster cases. He knocked and a women dressed in a purple dress uniform appeared. As I introduced my self, she said she was expecting me. She told me to follow her into the lobby area. The carpet was alternated-strips of green, blue and purple. The walls were papered in solid colors of blue, green or purple. The snack bar filled the space between the only two aisle doors with its popper in the middle.
"Joe?" she said to a young man in a tuxedo sweeping the lobby with a toy broom and dustpan. "Would you take Michael upstairs and find him a tux to wear."
"Yes, Miss Burns."
I followed Joe, who had a slight limp, into the theatre and around the corner to the left to a door that lead upstairs. At the top of the stairs were wooden storage lockers. There were two doors on the left, one to the usher's dressing room and to the other the projection booth.
Joe led me into the dressing room and opened a closet where there were dozen or so tuxedos.
"Youíll need to take your clothes off but leave the white shirt on," Joe said.
I quickly followed his instructions while he found a couple of tuxes for me to try on.
"Hey, Joe," came the voice from the doorway.
I looked up to a tall, blond young man with blue eyes and a great smile.
"Hey Ryan, this is Michael." Joe then looked at me, "or do you go by Mike?"
"Mike is fine." I turned to Ryan and offered my hand. "Hi, Ryan."
"Hi Mike," Ryan said as he took my hand. His hand felt great.
Ryan moved around me and started taking his clothes off. I watched discreetly as he revealed a white Fruit of the Looms briefs; a nice package caught my eye. I turned back to Joe as he handed me a pair of trousers to put on. I tried on a couple of pairs and found one that fit the best. By then, Ryan had dressed and gone downstairs. After trying on nearly ten jackets, I picked the best one and I was dressed.
Joe took me downstairs and showed me around the theater. The auditorium itself had 960 seats, a small stage at the front and the same color motif of blue, green and purple spread out over the walls. The seats were covered in purple with love seats placed every four rows.
Painted plywood doors covered the exit wells that lead to the rear parking lot.
Joe asked me where I went to school and where I lived. He told me he was in his last year at Colonel White. Ryan went to Fairview High School.
Joe and Ryan showed me everything an usher does: clean the rest rooms, sweep the lobby and foyer, clean the glass doors, help in the snack bar if needed, how to seat late arriving patrons after the movie started and check the theater while the movie played.
I had heard that, in some theaters, ushers would shine the flashlights in customer faces to get their attention, but that wasn't done here. When seating someone after the movie had started, we were to point the flashlight down on the floor, slightly behind us so patrons could see where they were going.
The night went pretty quickly considering the movie ran for 2 hours and 18 minutes. I noticed that Ryan and Joe kept looking at their watches. Finally, they said it was time and told me to follow them inside the theatre.
They told me to watch the movie and I did.
On screen there was a bedroom scene where Romeo and Juliet were in bed together. Romeo stirred awake and sat up, naked. He stood up and his ass was completely exposed. I marveled at his over all beauty.
"Here it comes," whispered Joe to me.
I watched as Juliet suddenly crossed the screen with her breasts bouncing along. I didn't care about Juliet. I wanted to see more of Romeo, but damn if he didn't slide on his tights.
When the scene was over, Joe motioned for us to go out to the lobby and said, "What did you think, Mike?"
"I thought it was great."
I knew what they meant, but they didn't know what I meant.
We set up the ropes for the next showing. It gave the lobby a waiting area as well as a path for exiting patrons. A table was set up by the pay phones so that one of us could sell the souvenir programs of ROMEO AND JULIET for one dollar.
It was funny watching the girls, wiping tears and pulling dollar bills out to buy the program. I bought one so I could stare at Romeo that night when I went to bed.
We had only five minutes between shows and as soon as the last patron left the theatre, the ropes were dropped to let in the next crowd which had filled the lobby and lined up outside along the side walk.
My first night in the theatre business was an eye opener in more ways than one. We signed out at ten; I really enjoyed being nearly naked with Joe and Ryan when we changed together.
I walked home thinking that I would enjoy working there. That night I would be exercising wrist while I looked longingly at Romeo. Lustfully.
The end of Chapter 1