That's right. There are eight--count 'em, eight--right now. And three more on the way. Sound a bit like a Christmas card from Bobby Kennedy? Well, no--it's just another annual business report from the Sack Theatres. Within 15 years, Ben Sack has managed to piece together a chain of eight movie houses which dominate Boston. Not since Cotton Mather has one man managed to dictate so successfully what passes for entertainment in the town.
"We like to think of our theatres as exclusive country clubs," says Sack. "Where else can a nice young couple go out for an evening for four or five dollars? Just a hamburger and a cup of coffee costs a dollar and a half." The Sack Theatres have become an established part of institutionalized Boston. Sack is right: that lends the enterprise a certain prestige. Yet its very success seems to threaten the unconventional approach which Sack claims has helped him make it.
Dark Suits, Tight Jeans
Stretching from the Charles River to the fringes of Back Bay, downtown Boston has about 16 first-run movie houses. Eight are Sack Theatres. Of the remaining eight independent theatres, one deals mainly in Cinerama, four others usually deal in foreign films. Thus, it is Ben Sack who chooses the majority of American films to be presented in Boston. Sack, who merely acts as an exhibitor, could not be charged with any sort of monopoly violations. But the temptation so to accuse him remains.
When questioned about his possible stranglehold over the surrounding competition, Sack quickly shrugs it off. "Getting movies is like being in Las Vegas--you shoot craps. Often I have to decide whether or not to buy a film I haven't even seen. A recent one cost me a $300,000 advance. Now anyone who wanted to put up $300,000 could have had that picture." He ignores the fact that his theatres are practically the only Boston houses with the past record and potential capacity to justify such an outlay.
The seating capacity of the individual Sack Theatres ranges from 600 to 4,000. Diversity is the key to the operation. Sack explains, "It's like clothes. Some people like dark suits, some like sporty jackets, some, tight jeans. Having eight theatres, we have a different type of picture in each so that we can accommodate the picture to the person. We can play to any taste."
And, despite Sack's frequent protestations against being stereotyped, his individual theatres have taken on their own personalities. A grand tour of the Sack line would have to begin with the Beacon Hill. Hidden away by itself on the north end of Tremont Street, across from the burial ground of King's Chapel, lies the most risque' of the Sack Theatres. Perhaps because its marquee is removed from sight of the proper old ladies who chase pigeons off the Common, the Beacon Hill was the first to specialize in the now ubiquitous "recommended for mature audiences" film. Ever since Tom Jones broke house records, the theatre has presented Sack's more "sophisticated" movies. The mature audiences--possibly, the same ones who wear those tight jeans--seem to respect the delicacy with which Sack treats the theatre.
Further down Tremont, you come across the two big volume houses. First you reach the Sack Savoy, with its capacity of 2,800. A false front enables the Savoy to straddle the entire block in order to maintain an entrance on both Tremont and Washington Streets. It attracts a varied audience. With a film like its Christmas attraction, Valley of the Dolls, the Tremont side draws from the slightly vulgar matrons. Not Boston's grandes dames, mind you, but the displaced suburbanites who just love to come into The City. After they poke around in the nylons at Stern's and buy half a Bavarian cheese cake for a buck-twenty at S.S. Pierce, while they are still foaming at the corners of their reconstructed mouths with the salivary marshmallow of their Bailey's sundaes, they decide to duck into a movie so they can haul off their heels for a bit. Then, over on Washington Street, you see the higher level of the Combat Zone clientele: the pimply teenagers, the drifters, the sailors and their girls. The Savoy has the finest interiors of any Sack Theatre. It shows the lowest quality films.
"The Bible" Didn't Sell
Next, there is the Music Hall. The old Metropolitan, it is still called by older Bostonians. It is the second largest movie house in the country. It seats over 4,000. The Music Hall tends to stick with sure hits. Whenever the Boston schools relinquish their charges for a week of vacation, the management never fails to be ready with the latest James Bond extravaganza or yet another Italian western. At $1.50 a head, 4,000 popcorned kids make for a pretty respectable showing on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
Across the street, the big, expensive films are lodged. Road show films--with their promises of ever-enlarging screens--were Hollywood's answer to encroaching television. They are the sprawling films which run over their budget while assiduously reproducing illustrated trots to Great Books. Road shows inevitably run about three hours; tickets are sold on a rerseved seat basis ranging from $1.50 for balcony seats at 10:00 Saturday morning to $3.30 for the orchestra on a Friday evening.
The Saxon generally presents the more auspicious vehicles; it favors films based on the works of established authors. T.H. White, Joyce, Pasternak did well, but The Bible didn't sell. Around the corner, the Gary is older, dingier, a bit more stodgy. It usually sticks with Films for the Entire Family. Although a muddy mural in the lobby purports to depict everyone from Socrates to Tolstoy to Thoreau, the pictures shown at the Gary are more akin to Margaret Mitchell and Hugh Lofting.
But, then the scene changes. You must go all the way down Boylston Street, down past the infirmary-like back door of the Playboy Club, past the darkening Italian facade of the Public Library, bitterly sulking amid the surrounding renewal. Then, at last, the pristine but sterile phallus of the New Boston--the towering Prudential Building. And, nestled at its base, not one, not two, but three Sack Theatres happily clustered together under a grand parking garage, the whole complex multiplying with amoebic ferocity. The Cheri 1 and 2 have already given birth to Cheri 3. Cheri 4 and 5 are soon to arrive. These theatres offer the key to Sack's flexibility. They are all relatively small--the smallest seats only 600--and therefore can be made available profitably for movies with a more limited appeal. They also allow Sack to shuffle movies with the ease of a river-boat gambler--large Tremont Street attractions occasionally find themselves in a Cheri for their final days.
The Cheri is still in its infancy. The third screen was installed only last September. They still seem to evoke only the blandness of the architect's original blueprints. But a certain carnival atmsphere has begun to emerge. The Cheri lobby functions something like a county fair. Tickets for each picture are sold in their respective kiosks. There is a huge refreshment stand stranded like a useless life raft in the center of the floor. Off to one side, there is what pretends to be both a sidewalk café' and an ice cream parlor. Remnants of an art exhibition are occasionally displayed on the walls. People mill about, others line up at the various entrances. They are generally enthusiastic. The circus has come to the inner city, and the side shows are just great. The success of Cheri 4 and 5 should be congenital.
Elevator to the Top