Black-Market Popcorn --- Now It Can Be Told
Frugal breakfast bore unexpected fruit when I made my customary 6:00 a.m. entrance at the little diner where morning oatmeal is served. As I walked by one of the booths out front, I couldn’t help overhearing snatches of conversation between one of the cooks and her grandfather, who was just preparing to attack a plate of biscuits and gravy. "Back when I worked at the theatre…" said he, and I was stopped cold in my tracks. Could this be a veteran of long past days at the Liberty, the Allen, or even the generations-defunct Rose? Well, it turns out he worked at the Allen (of Them! fame) from 1941 through 1944, and his job was hustling the popcorn. Wesley couldn’t be bothered about the movies they ran, but his memories of that corn were sufficiently vivid as to fairly permeate our little dining area with the smell of molten butter. Seems business was a little slow in ’41 when Wesley initially took charge of the counter (popcorn's all they had for concessions, by the way, no candy at all, and one coke machine in the lobby). He made do with sluggish sales until the fateful day he added extra seasoning to the mix. Now, if you’re a connoisseur of theatre popcorn, the matter of seasoning can often draw the line of demarcation between a really fine culinary treat, and the tepid negation of your entire movie-going experience. Wesley’s enhanced popcorn was an immediate sensation, and sales rocketed. The boss was delighted. Only problem lay in the fact that there was a war on, and popcorn seasoning was a rationed item. You could only get one 450 pound barrel every four months. Wes had used up the Allen’s barrel in six weeks. Not to worry, said senior management, and then, in a hushed aside, "I’ll get that seasoning…" Maybe there’s a war out there somewhere, but we’re selling 1500 bags of popcorn in this place every Saturday, and at a nickel a bag, that’s seventy-five bucks! For this kind of windfall, rationing be damned! To this day, Wesley still doesn’t like to speculate as to just how the boss got those extra barrels. All he knows is … it was got. Of course, one’s imagination runs riot at the prospect of a small-town exhibitor dealing in black-market popcorn seasoning. Just how did he acquire it? What sort of criminal element was involved? Was our little community honeycombed with dealers in wartime contraband? Perhaps some sinister Axis agency lent an assist in obtaining the flavorful salt and butter combination. It’s fortunate I wasn’t born yet. Otherwise, I might have been sitting there eating popcorn at the expense of our boys in uniform. For all I know, this web of seditious intrigue extended all the way to the Fuhrer himself! Perhaps it’s best this story remain under wraps. The Allen burned up in 1962, and Wesley’s the only one left who knows of its secret past. We’ll mark this file --- confidential.
Just by way of background, here are a couple of 1941 ads for the Allen and its rival up the street, the Liberty. The Allen always ran a distant second behind the Liberty, both in seating capacity (about 300 less of them), and the fact they had no stage. Note the Liberty’s promise of "Deluxe Big-Time Vaudeville". They had stars making personal appearances as well. Wesley remembers seeing Wild Bill Elliot up there once. By the way, that run of Carolina may have been one of the last times the 1934 Fox feature was seen anywhere, as it is now a lost film --- pretty incredible that a major studio feature of such late vintage should have vanished from the face of the earth, but there it is. If anyone knows of a surviving print of this movie, please tell us all, and I’ll gladly make a correction (Henry King directed, and the cast including Janet Gaynor, Lionel Barrymore, and Robert Young sounds interesting --- here’s a still). For obvious reasons, this is one I’d really like to see.