NEW YORK -- Howard D. Alexander remembers a kinder, gentler time at the movies.
"When I was a kid in the 1930s, I went to the Plaza Theater one night," recalls the former writer for the TV soap "The Guiding Light."
"I was sitting there in shirtsleeves and an usher came by and told me to put my jacket on. That's how classy a place it was."
Fast-forward to 1990. "I recently went there and had to change my seat -- there was a man sitting there eating a hot pastrami sandwich and it smelled awful."
Perhaps it's a mild example, but it demonstrates a distressing truism of the current day moviegoing experience -- it's the pits.
Admission and concession prices have increased, screen and auditorium sizes have decreased. Multiplexes have come in and elegance has gone out.
But now the movie industry -- and theater owners -- are getting theirs.
A new national survey by the Conference Board, a New York-based research firm, found that most Americans experience ticket shock when going to the movies: They feel they don't get their money's worth, especially compared to other forms of entertainment.
In fact, most respondents said they get better bang for their buck when they buy poultry, pet food and postage stamps.
"The prices of admission to movies . . . are regarded as too little for too much by a very large proportion of survey respondents," reported Fabian Linden, the executive director of the board's Consumer Research Center.
In a sampling of 7,000 Americans asked to rate the value received from a range of consumer items, 50.4 percent reported it a poor value, 40.8 percent average and 8.9 percent good value.
That put movie tickets at the bottom of the board's "consumer acceptance" list, right next to such consumer nightmares as hospital charges, lawyers' fees and auto insurance.
As well, the industry's competitors -- video rentals and TV sets -- were at the top of the list, followed by compact discs and cable fees.
If that's not bad enough, the Conference Board reported the appraisal of movie tickets has gotten worse over time. In their 1985 survey, 47 percent thought it was a bad buy compared to this year's 50.4 percent. And all this comes at a time when overall spending on entertainment has grown 55 percent from '86 to '89, but movie attendance has been stable.
Major trade organizations representing the industry report no plans to counter any negative perception of movie prices.
"Keep stressing service, and more service," wrote William Kartozian, president of the National Organization of Theater Owners in his monthly newsletter.
But the organization did "not wish to amplify or further discuss anything in the survey," said a spokeswoman.
Charles Winans, the president of the National Association of Concessionaires, was unavailable for comment. A spokeswoman said the organization had no knowledge of the study and planned no action in response.
"People are going to the movies less often than they used to," says David Davis, motion picture analyst for the research firm Paul Kagan & Associates. "But with price increases and revenue from anciliary markets such as video, the industry is making more than they ever have."
It's all right here in the numbers. Movie admissions over the last several years have remained relatively stable, but domestic box-office revenues have shot up. In 1987, they were $3.7 billion; last year, $5.1 billion.
But if the exhibitors think they have nothing to worry about, they're mistaken.
With the proliferation of TV, the inexpensive cost of video rentals and pay TV, research shows people are spending more of their income on entertainment ($18.1 billion in 1986, $28.3 billion in 1989).
But with box-office admissions stable, they're obviously not spending it on movies but on video, cable and pay TV.
Even though the sky's not falling on the industry, theater owners realize there could be trouble.
"We are obviously trying to be more competitive," says Dick Dotteridge, the vice president of marketing for AMC Entertainment Corp., the nation's second-largest theater chain. "And that means cleaner theaters, courteous employees, better concessions, a range of services."
But points out Dotteridge: "A great theater is not enough. If the product is bad, no one will come."
"Many of the movies are just not worth it," says Manhattan resident Ron Thibou, who was waiting last week to see a movie he did think was worth it, "Presumed Innocent." "Plus the theaters are overpriced."
Retiree William Mardzuk, waiting at the Loew's 34th Street Theater to see "Navy SEALS," admits he rarely goes to the movies because hardly any interest him and "it costs too much even at matinees