Back When A Buck Was A Buck – ‘Free’ Sounded Mighty Good

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Because people had almost no cash during the Depression, anything that was free, or almost free, got a lot of attention. Businesses knew that, and they traded on it to pull people through their doors. One of the best examples of that was Free Dish Night at the Victory Theater down the street from our house on Brook Street on Staten Island.

The goal of every housewife on our block was to collect a six place setting, or better still an eight place setting, of matched dishes — dinner plates, dessert plates, cups and saucers, soup bowls, and dessert bowls, plus a platter, or maybe two, and as many mixing bowls as possible — all free. 

Free! What a wonderful word it was in those days! And Double Dish Night? Oh boy! Stand back or get run over by sweet little old ladies!

The dinnerware was genuinely free, by the way. In those days there were no sneaky hidden costs. If the price of a regular Friday night ticket was 18 cents, it had better be 18 cents on Dish Night Friday, or you could plan on closing your doors. One whisper of a sleazy practice during the Depression and people stayed away — and never came back!

It must have cost the theaters quite a bit. Add it up. A six place setting comes to around 40 to 44 pieces. How could theaters afford to just give one away? Don’t ask me. Back then a modest six place setting set of dishes cost $11 or $12. So would 44 18-cent tickets pay for all that — and the movie too? I don’t know. Maybe it’s like the old joke. Ever heard it? A vendor stands on a street corner selling dollar bills for 89 cents. After watching him day after day for three weeks, a curious bystander walks up to him and asks, “Hey! How can you afford to sell dollar bills for 89 cents?”

The vendor looks around to make sure no one is listening, then he quietly whispers, “Sh-h-h! Don’t tell anyone. It’s all in the turnover.”

If you think Free Dish Night was something, you should have seen the bi-monthly Saturday Kid’s Matinee. I don’t know how many kids the Victory Theater held — maybe 1,100 or so — but every seat in the place was taken during Saturday Kid’s Matinee. 



Toys starting from simple things like stuffed toys, full size dolls (no puny Barbies or Kens for Depression kids), tea sets, and roller skates, through scooters, small and large wagons, and trikes, and all the way up to 24-inch and 26-inch balloon-tire bikes. There would be about 25 individual items, and there was no need of a microphone or amplifier during a Saturday matinee. You could hear a pin drop as the theater manager stood on stage calling out ticket numbers. Every eye in that theater was glued to a ticket because the first person chosen had the choice of anything on the stage.

I won something once. The good stuff was gone. I got a bunny rabbit. 


There were other kinds of freebies back then too. Some of them got the attention of the whole neighborhood. Staten Island being an island — which follows from its name I guess — there was a mackerel run every year. Normally, fishing in New York Harbor was a dud, but when the mackerel run came? Wow! Toss in a hook; yank out a fish! Toss in a hook; yank out a fish! Toss in a hook ....

We ate well during the mackerel run!

Then there were the free hot dogs and sodas on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, given away on the broad lawn of the cemetery where we celebrated everything — don’t ask me why. And every Cracker Jacks box had a free toy in it, and no plastic junk either. There were free shows at school three or four times a year too. But you know what was best of all?

Free samples of anything edible! 

Every once in a while Lombardi’s grocery would come up with free to eat, something like miniature loaves of Wonder Bread, small trial boxes of Kellogg‘s cereals, a free Twinkie, or — best of the best! — sample size Hershey bars, Butterfingers, Baby Ruths, Milky Ways, or Tootsie Pops.

Sorry. Gotta go, Johnny.

In case you’re wondering, I’m headed for the box of chocolates I bought Lolly yesterday. Talked myself into it.


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