How Film Exhibition Has Changed in the Past 50 Years: An Interview with George Mansour

Article excerpt

George Mansour has been booking movies into theaters since the 1960s, and has seen a lot of change in the business of film exhibition in that time. He first worked for Paramount and then Warner Brothers in Boston back in the days when the big Hollywood studios maintained offices in all the major markets. Since then he has booked such locations as the legendary Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, the old Nickelodeon Theaters in Boston, and a few gay porn palaces on the side.

People writing about film in the Boston area consider Mansour to be one of their most treasured resources. Although he had no formal education after high school, Mansour's knowledge of foreign, independent, and other "specialty" films is both vast and freely shared. It is a rite of passage for Boston writers to make the trek to Mansour's comfortable Beacon Hill apartment, there to tap into the movie experience so generously and volubly offered, and try to translate this flow of information and memory into an article like this one.

Boston-area writers are not the only people to recognize the unique quality of Mansour's experience and expertise. In his book, Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, John Pierson calls Mansour "just about the savviest specialized film buyer anywhere." And in October, 1999 Mansour received the 4th Annual Salles Achievement in Exhibition Award at Show East in Atlantic City.

Mansour grew up in West Roxbury, an overweight Lebanese gay kid who developed an early passion for movies. He saw two or three a week, and also kept scrapbooks (in big ledgers which his mother gave him after they had been filled up with figures from her grocery business) that held glossy magazine advertisements for 1930s and '40s films.

Not content with these mementos of happy movie experiences, he would make movies in his mind based on books he read, and cast them with stars of the day, like Montgomery Cliff and Patricia Neal starring in Reflections in a Golden Eye. All of these movies appear in the scrapbooks, with hand-drawn illustrations, billed as "presented by Sir George Mansour."

Mansour showed me these scrapbooks one afternoon in November, 1999 as a prelude to talking about the changes in film exhibition he has witnessed. Asked how he got into the film exhibition business, Mansour replied, "Sometime around 1969 I stopped working for Warner Brothers and went to work as a booker for Esquire Theaters. I had been in distribution for about 7 or 8 years." Esquire owned a lot of different kinds of theaters, first run and repertory, as well as drive-ins and exploitation houses, including several that showed mostly sex movies.

"There was a number of first-run houses in Boston in those days," Mansour recalled, "but lots more neighborhood theaters and independent movie houses. New England was particularly noted for having so many `mom and pop' movie houses. The one that Joe [Santamaria, Mansour's lover and partner for more than 40 years] and I bought and operated for awhile in Williamstown, [in western Massachusetts] was typical of that kind of theater."

Mansour remembered that "it held the auditorium for the theater, as well as two stores. Above the theater and the lobby was an apartment, which was intended for the owners. There was a door leading from the dining room into the booth. Whoever was living there was also the projectionist and everything else. The `wife,' might be selling popcorn while the `husband' was busy changing reels."

Theaters like the one in Williamstown "were mostly second run houses, but some of them were first run. The one in Williamstown was the only movie house in town. There were many, many more second run houses than repertory in those days. Today Dorchester has no movie house at all, but there were 5 back then. There were also houses in Roxbury and the Fenway, none of which are around any more. [Dorchester, Roxbury, and the Fenway are all neighborhoods of Boston. …