Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Of Poor Doors and Balconies

As racial and social tensions mount in Ferguson, Missouri, I’m also struck by a new phenomenon that’s perhaps unique to the two coasts: the “Poor Door.” It seems that some pricey residential towers in Manhattan and at least one luxury property in West Hollywood have been trying to do a bit of fancy footwork around local zoning ordinances. Developers are often given certain valuable concessions when they promise to offer a fixed number of affordable “below-market-rate” apartments along with costlier units in the same building. In order to separate the haves from the have-nots, their new dodge is to create entrances that are separate but hardly equal.

Apparently, this sort of thing is a matter of course in London, where class snobbery is nothing new. But a construction project in New York that routes the occupants of the cheap flats to a much more modest door around the corner from the building’s posh entry hall has understandably raised a hue and cry. I was surprised to learn that something similar was recently proposed in West Hollywood, a SoCal city that has long been dedicated to gay rights and the protection of renters. When WeHo housing officials learned that the developers planned to build separate entrances, and also to bar low-income folk from their new project’s pool and spa, they cried foul. Quickly backpedaling, the project’s backers solemnly promised that their building’s amenities (including its main entrance) would be open to all.

In following the controversy, I can’t help thinking about segregation, and its impact on our nation’s movie houses. Veteran TV and movie producer Romell Foster-Owens grew up in San Diego, as part of a large, close-knit African-American family. The weekly ritual for Romell and her siblings was to spend Saturdays at the movies, munching on snacks from the concession stand and generally hanging out. Then, when she was a boisterous eleven-year-old, the family drove cross-country to visit relatives in the Deep South.  It was in Warner Robbins, Georgia, a sleepy town near a large military base, that she learned about life’s realities. She was so excited about seeing Flipper at the  local cinema that her parents let her run in ahead of them. As she recalled to me: “I’m in the lobby and I’m wanting to buy popcorn. And the lady’s telling me, in this very strange accent to me, that I had to go around the back. And I didn’t understand what she was saying, and I’m still being persistent: ‘I would like to get some popcorn and a drink.’ And she’s saying, ‘Nope. Can’t help you. You have to go around the back.’” 

Her parents quickly yanked her aside and explained that she’d have to enter through a side door and climb to a “Colored Only” balcony. Half-way up the stairs there was a niche where she could purchase refreshments. They tried hard to make her balcony seat seem like a cool adventure. Nonetheless “I’m still upset, because I’m sitting up in the balcony, and that’s not where I want to be. And that was probably one of the first times I felt like second-class citizenship.”

Romell Foster-Owens will always remember Flipper, not for the antics of the friendly dolphin, but because of the anger that consumed her that day: "After all I had the same money and had to pay the same price for my ticket as anyone else." But Warner Robbins was hardly unique: virtually all Southern cities relegated blacks to the rafters, and I suspect some Northern ones did too. (Anyone have any detailed info on that?) And it wasn’t just movie theatres. Check out this courtroom scene near the end of To Kill a Mockingbird.

(This is Thalian Wall in Wilmington, North Carolina, where Africa-Americans were relegated to the top balcony. There they sat on unpadded fold-up seats. Hardly separate but equal!)


  1. Romell Foster-Owens has read my post, and has allowed me to add some additional details about the "Flipper" situation: When she was banished to the balcony, her parents told her that during their youth in the Deep South, they used to throw popcorn on the white folks below: “That is what they did as teenagers to get back at being relegated to sitting in the Balcony. I guess they wanted me to know they did not just take the treatment they were handed.”

    She further remembers, “I was mad as hell but not ashamed. It was odd and very strange to be treated in such a manner. . . . My parents wanted me and my siblings to experience what they went through. Not to tell us that is where we belonged. But to let us know others may deny us, but it it how we respond that is important.”

    “To this day the Georgia movie theater experience has made a huge impact in my life. I was taught by both my parents to treat everyone the way you wish be treated. I have honored that lesson and have passed the golden rule on to my children. There will always be someone who thinks they are better than others. I just won't be one of those people and neither will my children or their children.”

    Thanks, Romell!

  2. Wow. I have no words for the utter stupidity that we allowed to go on for so very long. Mind boggling.

    Here in Wilmington NC we have the historic Thalian Hall - a theatrical exhibition place going back to the 19th century. It has been preserved very much as it was - and the upper gallery is still there. The seats are not plushly upholstered - they are fold down hard wooden seats. During a screening there last year of a movie I worked on - I chose to sit up in those seats - to experience the very tiniest piece of what it was like to be segregated to a separate section. (Of course, the fact that I had choice in the matter means I don't truly know anything about what it feels like.) The screen appeared smaller than my television from those lofty heights - and my tush hurt from the hard wood long before the screening had ended. I'm glad the venue has been preserved - only so people now can see a direct impact of the moronic decisions some of our ancestors made. My best to Ms. Foster-Owens.

  3. Thanks for your memories, Mr. C. I'll try to add your photo of Thalian Hall to this post.

  4. To all Movielanders: That's Wilmington, North Carolina's Thalian Hall in the photo below the clip from To Kill a Mockingbird. African-Americans could sit only in the top balcony, on hard wooden fold-up seats that lacked any padding. Our nation may still have a lot of problems, racially speaking, but thank goodness that sort of overt segregation is now against the law.