Coming In In the Middle

October 2, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the previous post, I said that up until the 1950s, it wasn’t uncommon that moviegoers would come into the theater halfway through the film. After The End, they could stay in their seats, wait for the movie to start again — after the previews, newsreel, and cartoon — and, when the film reached the part they’d already seen, leave.

It’s hard to imagine now, when everyone is in their seat by the time the feature starts. (A very few people may be late but only by a couple of minutes.) The only historical evidence I could offer was Roger Angell’s memoir Let Me Finish. As a twelve-year old, Angell would go to the movie theater right after school, and it was rare that the movie showtimes coincided with school dismissal.

There’s also this: Danny Kaye’s big breakthrough came in his first film, “Up in Arms,” in 1944. His tour de force in that movie became known as “The Lobby Number.” Kaye and friends are in the lobby of a large movie theater, and he tries to dissuade them from going in to see the musical they’d come for. These musicals are all alike, he says, and launches a parody of the genre, starting with the credits and the MGM lion’s roar. It’s Kaye at his manic best. After about five minutes, as he is singing an up-tempo song, he stops suddenly and says calmly,
So here we are, back in Fresno, California.
And this is where you came in.
But do not fret my friend.                                                           
[singing] This is a picture that ends in the middle
For the benefit of the people who came in in the middle.
This, this is the end.
You can hear the whole thing. Or just push the slider to 5:10.*

If you can base the final joke on the idea of people walking into the theater when the film is halfway through, it must have been, as we now say, “a thing.”

*There’s a YouTube clip (here) from the movie itself, and it gives you a better sense of the context for The Lobby Number. Unfortunately, the clip ends before the final line.

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