Cinema Penitentiary diary July 27, 1984 Prince’s “Purple Rain”Opens at the Harvard Square Theatre



It was early July, 1984.  I had recently turned 33. I was covering the  box office at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge Massachusetts when the phone rang. It was the owner of the theater and he was being mysterious.

“I’m going to say just one word and I want you to think about it,” he began. After a long pause, he whispered, “Prince.”  And then there was silence.  When I didn’t break the silence, he did. “So what is your feeling about it?  What is your response?” he asked.

“I don’t have one,” I answered.

“Then this is what I want you to do.  Go to each member of the staff.  Find out what they think.  If they ask any questions, just repeat the word. Ask them what they think.  If they ask for more information, tell them you don’t have any.

When the box office attendant returned from her break, I asked if the name ‘Prince’ meant anything to her. She shrugged her sweatered  shoulders and shook her drooping head. I counted out the drawer and took the cash  into my office, counted it, put it in the safe, then went upstairs to talk to the usher who guarded the doors  of Cinemas 2 and 3. When he heard the word, he got excited.  He had been at the theater much longer than I, and remembered the days when acts such as Bob Dylan and The Clash had given concerts there.  His first thought was that we were bringing the concert schedule back, and that Prince would be opening the season.

I had never heard of Prince, and soon discovered that I and the box office attendant were in the minority.  The rest of the staff was gaga over him, and the rush of rumors was gaining momentum. “Everyone is excited about Prince,” I told the owner when he called back.  “They are all asking if he  is going to be giving a concert here.”

“No, no concert. But he has a movie coming out and we might be opening it.  I’m just worried about what kind of clientele it will draw.  Look into it and we’ll talk tomorrow.”  By the next day I had found out that Prince was a crossover rock and soul act who was likely to appeal to the Rocky Horror crowd as well. This seemed to be in accordance with what the film’s distributors had told the owner. “But are we going to have any racial problems?” he asked me. I then realized this was the crux of his concern, and assured him that everything would be fine.  The Orson Welles Cinema had showed “The Harder They Come” every Friday and Saturday at midnight   without incident, while the last time we showed the Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same,” three rows of seats had been torn out of the floor.

Once he was convinced that his theatre was not likely to be destroyed by unruly gangs coming up from Roxbury on the Red line, he made his decision to book the movie.  The staff was excited about it, and the more I learned about Prince, the more I looked forward to opening day.

Things didn’t exactly go smoothly.  “Purple Rain” was Rated R, so we weren’t supposed to sell tickets to kids.  The kids then got into the theater through the back doors while the previous audience was exiting.  Since all the shows were sold out, for every kid that snuck in there was an adult with a ticket who couldn’t get a seat.    So the ushers had to check the tickets of the kids in the theatre who appeared to be under age, and they didn’t leave peacefully.  To keep this problem under control, we started to let the kids in through the front door after selling them adult-priced tickets.  Still, there were people sitting in the aisles for every showing.  Problems were minimal when the movie was on the screen, but fights broke out occasionally , and some ushers were threatened to mind their own business. One night, a projectionist lost his cool and used a firehose to break up a fight.  The next day, on his timecard, he added in pen, four extra hours “combat  pay.”

After that first chaotic weekend, I assured the owners that, if we added several more ushers to the schedule, we should be able to handle any problems that arose.    Once everyone got into the swing of things, working “Purple Rain” was allot of fun.  Especially for me, because I spent most of my time inside the auditorium,  loving the movie more and more the more I saw of it. One night, after the last show, I recognized a group of people leaving that had been to see the movie several times, so I started talking to them about it, and they invited me and the closing ushers to an after hours Purple Rain party at their apartment in Central Square.  It one was unbelievable.  They played the soundtrack album over and over, not only singing along to every song, but dancing foot perfect to every step. an older guy remained seated during the Prince numbers, but came alive for the Morris Day and Time selections.  “Now that’s my style,” he confided, leaning on my shoulder for support as he rose to the occasion.

It was a craze, a phenomenon, and it seemed the whole city of Cambridge was jumping on the bandwagon.  But I was so out of it that I didn’t know Prince had been turning people on for six years, and the five albums that preceded the “Purple Rain ” soundtrack had been best sellers.  Where had I been?  The only music I had been  listening to in the 80’s was Kate Bush and Elvis Costello.  I had loved soul music in the sixties, but white appeal artists such as Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson had put too much grease around the edges and I stopped following it. Now Prince was bringing it back in full force and it was more exciting than ever. It was like Elvis Presley  reborn with Smokey Robinson’s voice, James Brown’s dancing shoes, and Jimi Hendrix’s guitar.  I was hooked and remained so for the next ten years.

Unlikely as it may have appeared to an outsider, Prince was somewhere on the grounds of nearly everything that happened in the ensuing decade.   As I fought against the news yesterday that he had passed away, I saw for the first time  how pronounced his influence was on everything I remembered of those years.  I heard him in Bob Dylan’s “Empire Burlesque” and Miles  Davis’ “Live Under the Sky.”  He had rekindled the country’s desire to learn new dance steps and cleared a road for dancing divas such as Paula Abdul.  Admittedly, she was not the greatest thing to hit the airwaves, but she put some life into those dead Reagan years.  And life is what Prince was all about.  You couldn’t sit around and be depressed with “Let’s Go Crazy” on the turntable.  When Prince was in the house,  there was always the optimism that something good was about to happen.  And even when a day passed that hadn’t an ounce of good in it, there was always tomorrow.  And every tomorrow began with the invitation to “Get up.”  And we did.  And even though Prince is gone now, I still hear his admonishment to “Get up.”  So do it.  Get up and celebrate life.  Don’t let the elevator bring you down.


2 thoughts on “Cinema Penitentiary diary July 27, 1984 Prince’s “Purple Rain”Opens at the Harvard Square Theatre

  1. I was really into his music from Purple Rain to Lovesexy, after which his writing lost its original edge and fell into the general run of funk that he had re-ignited. I like the bowie comparison,but not for the re-invention idea, because Prince maintained the same general persona throughout his career, although he did mount different stage shows. But just as Bowies music lost much of its originality in the 80’s, becoming part of the general din, so did Prince lose his lead in the 90’s. He was also a bit like Hendrix, in that he had those years of popular hysteria followed by attempts to expand his musical palette that didnt connect as well with the mass audience as his earlier work.


  2. the above comment was written in response to Pete, whose original comment had disappeared,and I have restored below:

    “This second tribute supplied some interesting personal history from you too, Bill, and explained your connection with that film perfectly. Talking to people of all ages yesterday about his death, it seemed that everyone could name at least one song of his that they liked. I have a few of his albums, and though I confess that there were periods when I could take or leave his output, I could never deny his talent.

    I recall him being compared to David Bowie by a close friend. This was based on his ability to reinvent himself and his style on numerous occasions, and also because of the way he created (and re-introduced) musical genres in a refreshing and compelling way.
    Best wishes, Pete.


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