Theater Daze By Mike White. Part OneBox Office Boredom Going back to my days at the Star Theater I’m really thankful that I was allowed to work all three of the jobs allowed to the "cast members," those of usher, concessionaire, and box office person...
Part OneBox Office Boredom
Going back to my days at the Star Theater I’m really thankful that I was allowed to work all three of the jobs allowed to the "cast members," those of usher, concessionaire, and box office person. Cross-training was not only encouraged but it was requiredyou had to work X number of shifts at each position before you could get a raise. Of course, there were some who would try to avoid one of the positions even if it cost them fifty cents an hour. Each job had its pros and cons but the biggest gripe everyone had was the customers.
Being in the box office meant that you had to have direct contact with everyone. This wasn’t bad at all if the person coming in knew exactly what they wanted to see and didn’t have a gripe with the price. But, oh, that was a rare customer indeed. Most people walking through the door either had no idea what time their movie was or even what was playing. And then there were those who needed a synopsis of everything, the rating, the justification of this rating, and a recommendation or condemnation of its entertainment value. The concept of not knowing what you’re going to see and when it starts is completely alien to me but it seemed commonplace among those who just kind of dropped by the theater to see what was shaking or to buy a box of popcorn. That’s right, you heard me correctly. I must have seen at least two dozen people walk in, buy a medium or large popcorn with extra, extra butter and walk out again. "Nothing tastes like movie theater popcorn." Yeah, but nothing costs as much either. Not even a whole fifty pound bag of unpopped corn fresh off the truck costs as much as your large buttered.
It was here that I learned that my opinion meant nothing to the common man. "That Short Time, is that any good?" "Not that I’ve heard." "Okay, I'll take one ticket to that." And, invariably, I'd hear, "What? Six Dollars?"
I didn’t mind the little old ladies who demanded a refund, despite my earlier warnings that they would probably not enjoy Whore. I didn’t mind the idiots who said I had pointed them in the wrong direction when they left the box office and ended up sitting in an empty theater for two hours waiting for their movie to start. I didn’t even mind (too much) the people who would come up and ask for a movie by actor or concept instead of by name.
Having already gone into the kind of title mix-ups people make in CdC #4, I'll spare our faithful readers all the gory details of The Search for Red September and just pass along some of the titles I heard while in line for The Usual Suspects: "The Unusual Suspects" came up quite often, but the best one had to be "Those Suspicious Characters" and I don’t even want to think of what came out of people’s mouths when they asked for tickets to Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead!
I really was expecting too much from people for them to remember the name of the movie they were going to see. My favorite day came when I had two sets of patrons who both asked for "ACT." I sent the old ladies to Class Act and the young rabble-rousers to Sister Act. I never felt so good giving a refund and telling them of the importance of being clear on requesting a title. Sure, I could tell exactly what most people were going to see as soon as they walked in the door but it was so much fun making them say the title. Sometimes it might have been obvious that the kids with black nail polish were not here to see Boyz N The Hood and the kids with half of their over-alls falling down under their triple fat goose coats were not likely to want to see Fire Walk With Me. But I was slick, man, if I worked too many box office shifts in a row I knew what tickets every plain Jane and John Doe were going to request when they stepped up to the plate.
The people I minded the most at the box office were the jokesters. I once wrote a screenplay about what it was like to work in the movie theater business and started it off with a scene like this:
A young thick-necked man and his wisp of a girlfriend stand in front of the box office, staring at the big screen listing today’s show times. Finally, as if waking from a dream, the man steps up.
Yeah, one adult and one child for Pretty Woman.
The girl giggles and lightly slaps the man’s arm as a shit-eating grin covers his face and the box office worker’s night of eye-rolling begins.
That'll be twelve dollars please.
Part TwoWould You Like Butter Flavoring On That?
"If people are dumb enough to pay it, we'll keep charging it," was my pat response when I worked in the concession stand. I heard more complaining in the Stand about prices than I could ever imagine hearing in the box office. Also, my nerves were more worn and I was more likely to go off on people when they gave me shit.
"Can I have that popcorn?" (Pointing to the popcorn being made at the moment) "Sure..." I would say, knowing what a complete pain in the ass it is to have to stop my regular routine, walk over to the popper, wait for the corn to be done, and then walk back to a butter machine. I got my revenge, though. The popcorn was certainly fresh. So fresh, in fact, that the popper hadn’t even had time to sift out the seeds. And, it wasn’t like the sifted popcorn wasn’t going directly into my warmer in a matter of seconds. It never sat around, except for the first corn put in the warmers in the morning.
I would return to the front of the Stand with a big ole bucket of some popcorn and a lot of seeds. "Can I have extra butter on that? I mean, just soak it." Okay, you asked for it. There’s your soggy bucket of seeds, anything else?
We were never allowed to say just "butter" in the Stand. It was a old tale of housewifery passed on from one worker to another that some new employee somewhere called it just "butter" and a woman had an allergic reaction to the soybean oil that it really is. So it became mandatory to ask, "Would you like Butter- Flavoring on that." The "Flavoring" was our caveat emptor.
You’ve got to remember that I was working at a time before the big oil scare. We had no qualms about cooking the corn in coconut oil and dousing it with a bit of the sodium-concentrated "Savor-all." It became a real pain when we would have to make a batch of non-Savor-all corn because we had to remember to do it first (before the popper was tainted) and, no one bought the foul- tasting plain corn anyway.
To me, people wanting popcorn without Savor-all, popcorn in a manner that we just didn’t fix it, should have learned to go without popcorn at all. Where did they grow up? Maybe they should go to another theater. That, to me, was like wanting a fried egg at McDonalds when the eggs just don’t come that way. Star Theater’s motto was not "Your way, right away." No, it was something really lame like, "Love, laugh, live." I mocked the motto so much that I can’t even remember the real deal.
In the concession stand the biggest problem was people complaining about the prices. The second biggest was that customers expected us to know exactly where and at what time their movie was showing. That’s not the job of the concessionaire. Time and again I'd have to say, "Do you have your ticket?" and then proceed to read the information to them off of it.
Working in the stand had its perks; a busy night went by fast and there was always pop to drink and left-over hot dogs at the end of the night to eat. But, it was the worst in terms of end of the night hassle. All those cups and buckets to be put away, the popper to be scrubbed out, the warmers to be left sparkling. As time went on we also had to worry about the hot dog warmer, the nacho cheese dispenser, the frozen coke machine, and the pretzel turner. And, also, there were those not-so-busy day shifts where one had to look busy. The Stand was in the middle of the theaterright in the line of sight of the manager’s kiosk. So, if you had some dicky manager sitting there talking on the phone all day, the people in the stand were stuck out in the open. No slacking allowed.
Being an usher, though, was a slacker’s paradise. There were guys who fell asleep on the job fer chrissake. Years before "Where’s Waldo?" we used to play our own little game of "Where’s Cornell?" Usually in Theater Five, sleeping.
The customers, generally, left you alone as an usher. You'd tear their tickets, tell them where to go, watch them, making sure they knew the difference between right and left, and sweep your little area a bit. That was the state of being known as Post. Some nights it felt like all I did since I was born was stand on post. "Welcome to the Star, that’s in theater three which is the second theater to your right. Enjoy your show." If I were to say these words one more time, I would attain some sort of oneness with the universe. But, luckily, just at the time I thought I would crack, someone would relieve me of my duties and allow me to slack off and do an aisle check. Oh, those glorious aisle checks. That’s a euphemism for standing in the back of a theater and watching a movie for a few minutes. Sure, you were supposed to walk down the aisle, looking for nogoodniks with their feet on the back of the chairs but in an empty house, who cares? The only people I loved to bust were drinkers and smokers. What the hell do smokers think? That I can’t smell it and see it? I just love enforcing those federal laws!
Part ThreeAdventures In Slacking
The grunt work of being an usher came in cleaning theaters. Walking up and down the rows, picking up popcorn buckets and cups of pop. I didn’t mind this. The only time it got gross was when people would bring their chaw o' tobacky into the theater and use their cup to spit in. On a nice, busy night there might be upwards of eight people cleaning one theater and we would move like a well oiled machine. On a nice, slow day there might be two guys cleaning and chewing the fat all the while. We ushers, when we could get into groups of two or more, could talk up a storm. And, if you held the "break schedule" just right, it would look like we were discussing the next few movies letting out and who would stand post and while the other cleaned instead of mulling over the implications of the works of Sam Cooke. We discovered that one could make a never-ending medley of all of Sam’s songs as long as it kept going back into "Chain Gang" every twelve to sixteen measures.
Other fun times were to be held while cleaning theaters in complaining about end credit music. My top three all-time worst closing credit themes would have to be from Suburban Commando, Loose Cannons, and Spaced Invaders. The best? Boyz n the Hood, Men Don't Leave, and The Hunt for Red October. Heck, I hate to admit this, but I even had a fun time mocking Axl Rose during the end of Terminator 2.
Another plus of cleaning theaters was all the money to be found. If it was a wallet I was honest and gave it to the manager to put in the lost and found drawer (after we went through and looked at the guy’s family photos and what-not). If it was loose money, I’m sad to say that it was divided up amongst those cleaning (never mentioning it to the people on post). One busy night my friend was cleaning a theater with a pair of dweebs. As they were finishing, my friend was up front pulling out the brooms from behind he screen, the two dweebs bid their fond adieu, "See ya, sucker!" and left him to sweep the rows all by his lonesome. The happy ending to this story is that he found a big ole wad of money in one of the rows and, since he was by himself, he didn’t have to cut anyone in on his take.
As fate would have it, Cornell was always luckiest at finding full wallets on a Friday night which he would then empty and throw above the doors of the theater where no one would ever look or should have reason to be. This was rumor, of course, and I doubt it sometimes since I never saw Cornell clean a theater.
There were two different Posts to stand at; One Through Four and Five Through Eight. At the first you had the advantage of being hidden from the manager’s kiosk and the ability to stand around and talk for long stretches. But, the spoiler came in when one was alone and forced to watch the televisions in the back lobby for long periods of time.
There were six or seven big screen TV’s right in the line of sight of that 1-4 Post stander and one’s eyes were drawn to them. They showed an unending loop of previews. When the new tape came in at the beginning of the month everyone was excited to see the new previews and the usher standing Post that day was looked at in envy by the box office and concession stand workers who were denied visual access to the tv’s. By the end of the month, a tear would come to my eye when I saw some poor sap stuck over there for hours on end, watching the same trailers over and over.
Unlike my days at Blockbuster (see CdC #5), there was no way to block out the tv’s or play something else. Those previews ran all the time. They were just a constant drone to every worker except the guy who kept watching and memorizing every line.
"I want you to meet my sistah, goddess of fiah," these words from the Markd for Death preview still haunt me. And why is space being taken up in my brain with the knowledge that a lot of the scenes in Gremlins 2 had different angles?
Every usher at the Star Taylor was going nuts when Death Becomes Her came out since so much of the movie seemed to be missing. Where was the scene where Meryl Streep is frozen? Where’s the line about Ernest being dead? What the hell happened on the way to the theater that half this movie was gone? I finally found out about all these missing scenes just a few months ago. I had put together an idea of what the story might have been like originally and it’s pretty close to what was in the original script. If you want to know more, I'd recommend Cutting Room Floor by Laurent Bouzereau (ISBN 0-8065-1491-4) which covers a lot of other Zemeckis films as well as some familiar territory to those who read "Video Watchdog," like a long discussion of the different versions of Blade Runner and Legend.
Death becomes Her is the movie that differed the most from its preview but there were quite a few others where different takes had been used in the final cut, such as Godfather III and Michael Corleone’s big "Everytime I try to get out, they PULL ME BACK IN!" was much more over the top in the preview than in the actual movie. Huh, imagine that, Al Pacino being over the top. I guess the roots of his over-acting go back a lot further than Scent of a Woman.
One advantage of seeing all the previews also allowed one to judge how good a movie was in regards to how long ago the preview was first seen. Sure, there are "teasers" like Terminator 2 with its cool Terminator factory stuff that was later cut and the infinitely-cooler-than-the-movie Alien 3 teaser, but I’m talking about full-fledged trailers that seemed to go away and come back and go away again for a long time before the movie either came out or showed up at Blockbuster. The best example of this was SWING KIDSjust because it looked so fucking stupid. We ripped into that preview every chance we got. It’s unofficial tag line became, "While the Jews burned, they danced." Nothing like Nazi teen angst to make me want to see a movie. Another good preview that became a MIA movie was Where the Heart Is with Dabney Coleman and Coupe de Ville with Daniel Stern. Either these were "blink and you'll miss it" or just never made it to wide release.
The second Post, by the way, was fun or horrible, depending on who was managing and projecting that day. The Post was only a few feet away from the manager’s kiosk and on a good day a lot of time could be spent with one’s elbows up on the counter shooting the breeze and deciding who to should "trade out" lunch with (movie passes are gold when bartering for food). On a bad day, I would bissel a lot (Bissel is the brand name for those carpet sweeper things and can be used as an noun or verb and even sometimes as an adjective but then it’s spelt "abysmal") and try to over-hear where the management was going to get lunch from, while leaving everyone else to eat popcorn and stale hot dogs.
A lot depended on the management. With the right managers the job was a dream. Work got done but, after the last of the patrons were shown the door, the theater might become the scene of a killer laser tag match, a drunken night of video game and card playing revelry, or, we might simply have an employee showing of a print to be released the following day.
Watching a movie in the company of just your fellow employees was quite a treat. We would be as loud and obnoxious as the movie merited and inside jokes were yelled instead of whispered. I still remember Flatliners fondly, not just as a link for the Kevin Bacon game, but because of the great time we had hooting and hollering when little Billy Mahoney came back to kick Kiefer Sutherland’s ass. "Yeah, get him Billy!!!" Though there may not have ever been more than forty people watching these after-hours screenings, we made more of a ruckus than a packed house on a Saturday night and we were proud of it.
The most successful employee screening was probably Terminator 2 since everyone was so psyched to see it and it lived up to its hype. The least would have honors given to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. I had been part of the committee to decorate the lobby for that film. We had arranged a trade-out with a donut place and gave free coffee to anyone with a FWWM ticket-stub. We also had a huge display, complete with a "corpse" wrapped in plastic. The guys who worked on the display were so excited that it must have been contagious because, the Thursday before the movie opened some of the other employees stated that they wanted to have a showing of it. "You’re not going to like this movie," I told them. They blew me off and we proceeded to have the showing (since the manager was a big Twin Peaks fan too). By the time Agent Cooper finally showed up, half of the audience was gone.
I think the only other movie that drove people away as quickly must have been Dutch.
There were quite a number of films that came to the theater and were never heard from again. You'd be surprised how many so- called "straight to video" releases have had a theatrical run. Brain Dead is one I distinctly remember watching in Theater 6 and I did an aisle check or two on Class of 19999 and Wild Orchid. We even had a big gala premier for Mirror, Mirror, that cheesy horror movie with Karen Black. I was amazed when I read about the sequel finally coming out so many years later since all of the promotional material we had said, "Mirror Mirror 2, coming soon!" There must have been some major kickbacks going on since the movie opened in our largest theater and we had posters for it all over the place. But, by Saturday morning, Mirror, Mirror was safely tucked away in Theater 7, the place where movies go before they die.
The only movie I remember opening in Theater 7 that only lasted Friday through Wednesday was A Man Called Sarge. I did one aisle check on it and then went to ask the manager, "What’s the deal with this A Man Called Sarge movie?" "I dunno." The film is still something of a mystery. Supposedly it’s available on video but I’ve never seen it in any store, not that I’ve made a whole lot of effort searching for it either. At least other movie misfits like Ski Patrol, Basket Case 2, and Cheetah have faired better enough to be widely available for rental.
Then there was the curious story of Def by Tempatation. I was actually too embarrassed to go see this at the theater I worked at so I spent my hard-earned money across town to catch this film. Let’s just say I wasn’t surprised to hear that the distribution center wouldn’t accept the cans when they were taken back the next week. There was no record of them ever being there so they returned to the theater where they sat upstairs in the projection booth for two years before mysteriously disappearing. Imagine my frustration knowing that I had two years worth of time to see this movie for free after I had spent four dollars on it at the second run show. And now someone, somewhere is probably enjoying that movie every night in its full 35mm glory. Too bad the print only had a mono soundtrack!
Yes, most of the time, that job was a pain. But, I also had a lot of fun, singing, hanging out in the back room eating raw popcorn and pasting the extra "T" onto all of our "The Pope Must Die" posters.
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