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There was a certain tension as she was sitting down next to me. I’m not entirely certain why. And I’m not entirely certain where the tension was either. It just sort of rested there above the moment. The movie continued. Light filtered through the film the way it always does. I wasn’t sure what to say when the credits had started rolling, so I told her this story. Not even sure if it’s true, but it makes for a pretty good bit of small talk after a first date. The story goes something like this:

Years ago—you know, back in the early days of movies, you didn’t pay to go and see a movie. You paid for a ticket to get into the theatre. (See—back then there was just like . . . one screen in a movie theatre and no one snuck from theatre to theatre, so they only charged for admission into the theater, not actually seeing the film.) Anyway . . . this was back in an era where you didn’t go to see a movie—you went to see a picture show—a series of shorter films. See-this was back before television. Going to see a picture show was kind of like watching an hour and a half or whatever of television. People would dress-up and go there with their families and they’d see a picture show—there’d be news in the form of a newsreel. There’d be children’s programming—a bugs bunny or mickey mouse cartoon or whatever . . . and then there’d be some kind of big central film—a drama or romance or comedy or whatever. Something for the whole family.

Anyway—they only charged for admission to the picture show back then, figuring that people would sit there, watch a single picture show and leave—because the reels would repeat every couple of hours. People would leave. Other people would come in. Anyway..this was the depression. Kids didn’t have jobs or anything like that and you figure—air conditioning didn’t happen at home back then, so during some hot summers in the depression, kids would just sort of hang out there and watch the same picture show over and over and over again.

(And at this point, I don’t know if she’s just humoring me or whatever. I’m not sure whether or not she looks bored, which kind of seems to mean that she’s NOT bored. I could be wrong . . . )

Anyway—these kids were just hanging out there making the place messy—not buying any concessions or whatever and it was a problem. Thern there was this guy who owned a cinema in the Midwest somewhere. He decided that there had to be some way of getting kids to get up and leave, but he couldn’t figure out what it might be. He figured, y’know, just giving the kids the blank screen wasn’t good enough. Kids saw a blank screen all the time between reels. You could wait a little while longer between shows if you wanted to to try to make the kids bored, but that would throw you off schedule, y’know?

She’s lookin’ kinda tired, but not actually bored, which is actually kind of a surprise all things considered—I would’ve expected her to start yawning and asking me to take her home, but no . . . her eyes are locked on mine, but she’s tired. I tell her that if she wants me to, I can take her home right now. No, she says. There’s time. So okay, so I tell her, I say:

So this guy figured that if a blank screen couldn’t get these kids to leave and an actual moving picture kept them there (even if they weren’t actually paying attention) then how about a static image—I mean what would happen if you just took a single frame from an upcoming picture, made a slide out of it and shot at at the screen between programs? Would that make these kids get up and leave? Well, they tried it. And sure enough, they ended up finding out it worked. Kids would sit through a picture show, make it to the closing card (that’s what they called those slides) and it would advertise this show that was coming-up while also cuing these kids into the fact that it ws the end of the program and time to scram.

Word spread pretty quickly that this worked—evidently this had been a problem all over and it took this one guy from the Midwest to figure out how to fix it. And so cinema owners all over the country started doing the same thing. They’d take single frames out of a reel, turn it into an advertisement for some upcoming film and throw it on the screen between shows.

Well, it didn’t take long for the big studios to catch on to the practice and before long you had the picture companies all doing their own officially licensed trailer cards. They were called trailer cards or trailers because they would trail on at the end of a movie. 

Thing is, things get pretty sophisticated pretty quickly and what ends up happening is picture shows turn into feature films. Full-length feature films become the next big deal and now a simple image of an advertisement doesn’t really live-up to what they’re trying to advertise, so they end up making those trailer cards at the end of the movie into whole film commercials for the features. And since they’re still trailing the film, they’re called trailers . . . only NOW the entire reason behind creating the cards in the first place is no longer a going concern, but the entire reason for putting those trailers in is a bit suspect . . .

And then she asks me what happened, you know, why is it that the trailers don’t happen after the movie anymore. Like she’d just been listening to me this whole time and only NOW decided to try to speak up and say somethin’ . . .

Russ Bickerstaff

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