Friday, June 27, 2008

Through Being Cool

My second job ever was at a movie theatre (my first job was in Sea World, near Mission Beach, so I guess technically that was in show business as well). Working in a theatre was always a very chill job; you slept in, stayed out late, got the ladies into the show for free and hooked them up with popcorn.

I ripped tickets and sold tickets. I put too much butter on the popcorn when someone asked for it. I made fun of customers, and hung out all day at work until my assistant manager told me to go get a life. And I stuck at it, getting my second job at another theatre when I moved to Berkeley. And slowly I moved up, becoming an assistant manager (which was so very much different – now you had to notice and pay attention to the money and where the staff that was doing such a good time hiding was).

They say the movie theatre business is in your blood. And it is in mine. I became surrounded and quickly enamored by the ephemera and accouterments of showing movies – the posters, the booking policies, the vagaries of the grosses, the raconteurs who ran movie theatres, and the long history behind exhibition. There is so much art to the business.

I walked the lines of the “Star Wars” films, feeding on the excitement of the kids (of all ages) a day before it came out. I heard an entire crowd gasp in unison as Mel Gibson jumped from that building in the first “Lethal Weapon.” I heard the loudest gales of laughter I've ever heard come from the audience watching Bogdanovich's “Noises Off.” I was faced by a crowd of 900 (and hundreds more in line outside) when the power went out during “Mission: Impossible” during a busy summer weekend. I cleaned up vomit after customers who partied too much and threw newspaper at the midnight movies.

One night I heard the ushers and candy girls stayed last night after I left...and wondered if I should have stayed, too. I watched them take over the theatre to shoot a Will Smith movie, and then have the scene not make it into the film after all.

I saw Yoko Ono walk in with her entourage, and leave after 30 minutes. I saw George Lucas see "Backbeat” 2 days in a row. Jerry Garcia came in with a cane to see “The Crying Game,” 10 weeks into the run, long after he must have known about the surprise twist. Dana Carvey tried to disguise himself , but it was so obviously him.

(Back when we knew who Dana Carvey was.)

I've been through a lot at movie theatres. I kissed my favorite candy girl in the theatre on New Year's Eve. (She didn't kiss back.) I learned how to smoke at movies, and stood outside smoking with the other ushers. I stayed until 4:00 a.m. sitting on the stairs with them, talking about movies and girls and the manager. When I was about 12, I threw jujubes when I got bored with a Disney film, and the usher made me stand in the corner of the lobby for 20 minutes. I mixed vodka with the Orange Whip behind the candy counter, and sipped on it all night along from a courtesy cup along with the projectionist, who put me up to it.

I got punched by a customer in the chest, trying to keep him out of “Day of the Dead.” I once had to stop a film and check every ticket because 25 kids snuck in through the exit door all at once ("Fort Apache: The Bronx" indeed). I've been threatened by 13-year-olds that they'd beat my ass after the show got out. A parent called the police on me for kicking her rotten kid out. I memorized the last 20 minutes of “The Devil's Advocate.” I've gotten robbed at gunpoint. Twice. I felt my first naked breast in a movie theatre, watching a Dustin Hoffman film.

I've found a top-set of dentures, and maybe a thousand umbrellas (I've never paid for an umbrella my whole life). I've found bras, and once a pair of panties (and she came back very sheepishly the next day to ask for them back). I've found a wallet with over $2000 in it. I found a gun in the bathroom (and he came back just 2 minutes later).

I've cried watching movies. I met both my wives working at theatres (they both worked at the theatres I worked at.) I've seen porn, and musicals, and silents. I fell asleep during “Rules of The Game,” reportedly the best movie ever made. I almost never left in the middle of anything – during “Shanghai Knights" I wanted to...but for those outtakes.

I've counted $75,000 some days. I've counted a grand total of $125 other days (not at the same theatre). I've had way too many hot dogs, but I don't eat the popcorn. The UTC popcorn, 20 years ago, was still the best (and Sheila showed me how to do it).

It's been 20 years. And after 20 years, I'm leaving the movie theatre business to go back to school. Classroom school; book school. I'm studying film archiving and preservation at UCLA, which is not something to shake a stick at (if that's your idea of a good time). That's the big time.

In a way, it's still exhibition. I'm just at a different place on the food chain. The field is moving towards a discipline of trained professionals facilitating access to rare film not available through normal venues. (Digital and at-home delivery is the wave of the future.) I finally discovered that the degree will mean more in this industry than all that experience telling the teenagers to tuck in their shirts, or where's your name tag?

The theatre experience is slowly dying, as people watch films on their laptops, or at home, or forget the whole things all together. I won't be standing a theatre lobby listening to the people leave the theatre at midnight anymore either.

Theatres are sacred places, like church, in which people go to honor art, and think about things more important and meaningful than their mundane lives. They're cathedrals, sacred places to be honored.

I'll miss it.


Heather said...

I love this! Sweet an funny too....

Roger L. said...

Thanks. And as they say, "it's all true."


Anonymous said...

It sounds like a eulogy but is insightful. I suppose we experience many deaths in out lifetime and constantly have to reinvent ourselves. But you can still be very "cool" in a new way.