CineSavant Column

Saturday December 29, 2018

Hello, and happy-new-year-approaching!

Fellow film writer Sergio Mims sent me a link to this old news video item about The Exorcist that includes plenty of footage of the great National Theater in Westwood, where I worked in 1972 and 1973. (Play the video that says ‘Cultural Impact.’)

It includes interviews with three people I knew fairly well. Manager Harry Francis was an old-school company man who ran the theater along road-show lines — we ushers and assistant managers addressed each other only by our last names, like in Downton Abbey, and we walked around in our tacky finery as if waiting on tables. The assistant manager Randy Robbins let me room with him for a summer, and I went out on a movie date once with the cashier interviewed, Donna (excuse me, Miss) Yearwood. I am shocked at how young she looks here. She was very sweet and much too sophisticated for me; I must have seemed a tadpole by comparison. I was smart in that I decided to quit a few weeks before The Exorcist arrived; I have to say I was offended by the way the Warners publicity men whipped up a hysterical campaign promising patrons that real devils were on the screen, even implying that actor Jack MacGowran had died due to a demonic curse.

Roommate Steve Sharon and I were able to walk down and take a look at the long lines forming in the rain; Robert S. Birchard shot 16mm film of the long lines that I was able to use much later in a home video promo for Exorcist III. Assistant Manager Mark Stern worked such long hours that he got permission to walk the theater in his stocking feet, because they were so sore. I think the publicity people made note of that, too. It was probably the most pressure put on a theater staff that I ever saw; Mann Theaters brought in staff from all the other theaters to fill in. There were five or six ushers just working the lines waiting outside.

The National had bad luck for almost its entire history — the flops booked into it greatly outweighed the hits and I think the last film I saw there was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989. The theater’s design was pretty incredible — that giant marquee up front lowered on an elevator device so its sign could be changed. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences built a new theater in Beverly Hills, it copied the design of the National, simply reversing its orientation — the big staircase was to the West, not the East. As you can see in the video, there used to be a big empty parking lot on the East side of the building, and now the entire block has been redeveloped. The theater was so modern that we never thought it would be razed and replaced, but when Westwood stopped being the center of moviegoing in the 1980s, I guess major change was inevitable.

Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson