Re: The People’s Nickelodeon
The price of admission to the People’s Nickelodeon was a nickel. It was 1971, and my day job was working as a cashier at The Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater. So, when the midnight after-hours Nickelodeon began, I volunteered my services as a cashier. In lieu of a salary I got to be part of the “in-crowd” and partake in the fun of presenting classic movies, vintage cartoons, and cult shorts under the banner; “uppers and downers” to the young, hip underground film set. One thing the counterculture staff of the theater got a kick out of was punking the deep pocketed porno crowd. I smiled when unsuspecting O’Farrell Theater customers walked in and thought the porn movies were still playing. A guy in a business suit plunked down a twenty-dollar bill for a ticket. I said, “I can’t break a twenty.” He then pulled out a ten. I shook my head. Next, would be a fiver, and I would look him straight in the eye and say, “Mister, do you have a nickel?” With a bewildered look, the guy fished out the coin and plunked it on the counter. As soon as he turned the corner and stumbled into the dark theater, I burst out laughing.
It’s hard to describe the People’s Nickelodeon to folks who weren’t there. And it’s hard to convey the vibe of the early anarchistic Nickelettes. The best depiction at the time came from David Kleinberg in the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, who characterized the scene as; “The freaks answer to the Mickey Mouse Club.”
He reported his experience of interviewing the Nickelettes backstage:
“’We’re the kids that were rejected in high school’ a voice shouts as they stand around you like a group of girl scouts with cookies to sell.
‘We’re the ugly ducklings.’
‘People come to see us. We’re popular.’
‘I make sex movies.’
‘We’re All American girls.’
‘We drink milk and eat granola.’
‘The more out of step the better.’”
Our process was pure improv. We’d meet the day before the performance on Monday afternoon, find out the featured movie for that week, and decide on a theme. On Tuesday, we’d meet at 9:00 pm, get as high as a kite drinking, and smoking dope while putting on costumes and make-up. Then around 11:00 pm we would do a quasi-rehearsal, maybe coordinate a finale song and dance, and at midnight, we would do the show and let whatever happen, happen. The Nickelettes and the creators of the People’s Nickelodeon saw it as a 1970s vaudeville-type revue. But it was more like a free-for-all with permission to do anything we wanted. On the week that Gulliver’s Travels played on the big screen we dressed as cheerleaders and cheered for the little people and then the big people. The audience roared with approval so we took it further and led a cheer for Gulliver, then the Nickelodeon, and lastly, the Nickelettes. Our antics encouraged louder and louder shrieks of laughter and applause: a high point for counterculture cheerleading. And all for just a nickel.
In his article “Midnight at the O’Farrell” for the Los Angeles Free Press’s San Francisco Report, Clay Geerdes described the Nicks:
“…the Nickelettes have been performing a valuable form of theater. It is always cathartic to see those things which most of us express only in the darkness freely expressed in the light.”
Unbeknownst to us at the time, the winds of change blew open a new door for women’s lib. Read more about it in Anarchy in High Heels.