When I was a boy in the Bronx there was a movie theater on Southern Boulevard, not far from where I lived, and in that theater the world opened up to a small boy. You could go in to the Star Theater on Saturdays for a small sum; there was no nonsense then about having an adult with you. In addition to the feature film they gave you some shorts--Pathe news, a travelogue, a serial film about the adventures of, say, Tarzan of the Apes, each episode of which ended at a point when Tarzan or Jane were in dire peril. Music was furnished by a man playing a piano (this was in the early 1920's, in the silent movie days). It was nearly all any boy could want.
Not that show business had nothing more to offer: Across Southern Boulevard from the Star was a big, more expensive Loew's theater with an elaborate lobby and a balcony, which offered not only the feature film and some shorts but also vaudeville, with live singers, dancers, comedians, and, if you were lucky and came on the right day, performing dogs. But all this grandeur was beyond an 8-year-old's budget, and unless treated by my parents I learned to be content with the Star's simple fare.
Movies were for Saturday afternoons; on Saturday mornings, free from school, small groups of boys would build campfires in empty lots, then steal sweet potatoes from the baskets outside a fruit and vegetable store when the man wasn't looking, and cook them in the ashes. The potatoes invariably came out burned on the outside and raw and hard on the inside, but it was a point of honor (if there is honor among potato thieves) to eat them and pretend they were delicious. This mode of entertainment was ended for me when my father learned that I had been copping potatoes, and took his leather razor strop to my bottom. That left me with time on my hands on Saturday mornings.
One day a friend invited me to join an enterprise with him. The janitor of the Star Theater had offered him a job helping to clean out the theater on Saturday mornings if he could get another boy to work with him. The pay would be 15 cents for two boys for a morning, which seemed to us about scale for eight-year-olds with few other employment opportunities. So we reported for work on the next Saturday.
In the brightly-lighted empty theater we walked through the rows of seats picking up candy wrappers, pieces of popcorn, and similar trash. Occasionally we'd find a coin, and often the haul of coins amounted to more than our base salary of 7 cents each. The janitor, a tall, red-headed old man (he must have been 50 years old, at least), would walk through the theater, occasionally bellowing out instructions, his voice echoing and re-echoing through the empty theater, making his wishes difficult to understand and creating terror in his very young employees, who, in the way children have, guiltily assumed that their hearing problem was their own fault.
When we left the theater we would split our salary 50-50. Although we had had no courses in money and banking, we devised a satisfactory procedure to divide the odd cent: we would go into a candy store and, with the coin in question, buy candy priced at, say, four for a cent, a transaction no longer possible now that the cost of living has gone up.
At the time I was thus engaged in show business, Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Charlie Chaplin, George M. Cohan, and Florenz Ziegfeld were, in a sense, my colleagues. They stuck with it and achieved some success and recognition, but I went on to other things, like the fourth grade, perhaps missing great opportunities.
This early work experience affected me in later life. One of my first jobs after college was as a copy boy in the financial news office of the New York Evening Journal, a Hearst newspaper. This was the first time I had to use the telephone in a work situation, and I suddenly found I had a hearing problem. One day, for example, I took a telephone call from someone whose speech I could not understand, and who, when the financial editor took the phone and finished the conversation, turned out to have been John Hearst, himself. Since this job I never had trouble hearing on the telephone, and I cannot help thinking that the problem was in my mind, and that this earliest adult job experience was haunted by the memory of an old, red-headed man bellowing incomprehensible orders to a little boy in an empty, echoing theater.