Movie Theater Memories
Roxie Theater marquee, circa 1981
Its now been just over three years since I’ve entered a movie theater. I never would have predicted such a thing. Never in my life would I have predicted or assumed theaters could go out of business or be replaced by screens carried in one’s pocket. Never in my life would I have considered there would be movies I would never see only because they were streaming behind a company’s private paywall and might never be dropped on dvd or blu ray. I feel 10,000 years old: What world is this? How did we get here?
A few days ago, I saw a vlog of a young filmmakers respond to watching Lawrence of Arabia for the first time. I realized by watching it at home on a monitor or even a nice tv, you’re still missing a percentage of what its cinematic experience is like. I was lucky to get to see it in theaters when it was restored in 2002 and still recall the feeling of being in a public auditorium watching it. It was immersive and tactile.
There were dozens upon dozens of movies I only remember because of seeing them in theaters. Because of being drunk in Transformers. Because of sneaking into the head of the long line for Jurassic Park. Because the random lady next to me before Freddy Vs. Jason almost grabbed my arm and screamed: “I’ve waited 20 years to see this movie!” Because of how Spirited Away quieted an entire auditorium of kids at a mid-afternoon matinee. Because of how Reservoir Dogs had several strangers stand in a huddle outside the theater talking about the experience. Because because because because because…
I don’t have ‘streaming memories’. There were great moments in some of the films watched in the last 5 or more years– such as the Penguin freeway chase in The Batman. But those memories don’t dig as deep, nor feel as impassioned.
I’ve worked in theaters. A small art house and a huge flagship theater for a chain. I remember them, too– sneaking shrimp fried rice into a screening of Camille Claudel, taking my mom to The Color Purple– which felt like a secular church service.
Below is an old, journal work I did sometime between 2002-2003 when I worked at the aforementioned Flagship Theater Chain in San Francisco. I worked there from between Thanksgiving through Christmas, if longer. I was there for Lord Of The Rings: The Return of The King and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I’ve long saved this writing but never found a good use for it. Its weird to think of a future without theaters, without the uniquely galvanizing experience of the Big Screen. I don’t want to sound out of touch and whine about ‘young folks’ missing the ‘magic’ of theaters. I don’t think they believe in its magic versus the convenience of watching The Dark Knight on a cell phone in back of a bus.
For four consecutive days I worked the main door, tearing tickets. Uniformed and propped up by a podium to keep me from collapsing onto the floor. Behind me stood an LCD advertisement kiosk that rotated a video and audio clip of Robbie Williams’ ‘Feel’ every seven minutes for eight hours.
Eight hours is a long time to stand in one place and be expected to remain cheery and smile. Midweek, the afternoon auditoriums are sparse to empty. Yet I still wait at the door for you. Naturally, when you arrive you don’t see me. I am a utility. You thrust your ticket at me as if I were a machine. You don’t slow your gait. You’re offended by attempts to read your ticket, so you shuttle past while holding it with your middle finger covering the information I’ve been asked to check. Or your ticket is facing away from me, upside down. Or perhaps you’re the one who ‘just had that ticket a second ago’ and now can’t find it and have to dig through every pocket twice before remembering you left it on the concessions counter.
This game of hide and seek is mildly amusing. Two young boys approached, their arms hugging curly fries and soda, their tickets between their lips, little white tongues. I gently take and tear each ticket then carefully replace the stub back in their mouths. Next, a woman whose arms were equally full tells me her ticket is in her back pocket. My cross training did not cover pat downs and searches without warrants. Her friend holds her soda while she digs into the aforementioned pocket and of course, it’s not there. “I’m glad I didn’t let you look,” she said after a few seconds of digging. “Yeah,” I said. “I would have been in there for a while.”
One girl places her tray on the edge of my podium while looking for her ticket and her tiny bag of popcorn topples scattering across the floor. She shouts “I am not having a good day” then blames me. To be blamed is what I’m here for! Thank you!
One gentleman walks into Final Destination 2 with a video camera. I tell the security officers and a manager and they collectively shrug. Otherwise, security usually stands several feet behind me during lulls in the afternoon pointing out the techniques you use to get in. And you’ll get busted if you’re Black and appear in the hallways more than once. And if you’re young and Black, your kind of movies– 8 Mile, Biker Boys — put security on edge. You’re already suspicious and security is there primarily for you. Naturally, your movies don’t last here very long. Drumline. Antwone Fisher. Head of State. The big manager said, “If the movies don’t help pay the rent they’re evicted.”
One older gentleman wearing a vintage rain slicker and carrying a large brown shopping bag, entered a movie only to have security follow him and after three minutes, quietly lead him out of the building. The tall, white security guard walked listening to the shorter, older Black man as they approached the door. The security guard was kind and patient, motioning the Black man to continue on to the escalator. The Black man did not complain, was not loud. “He’s a vet,” The guard turned to me as the man disappeared. “And had a disarmed, vintage grenade in that bag.” Only then did I notice the guard was sweating.
If you’re white, you’re alright. Security isn’t concerned about you. And you could care especially less about the ticket taker, so we’ll leave no comments. Though if you’re white and older and female with short brown hair, you will actually thank me for working Christmas/New Years/Thanksgiving. Thank You, Ma’am. You’re the only one who noticed. Enjoy your show.
Every employee is tasked to cross-train, or be able to fill any of several different positions at the theater during a shift. Cross-Training requires both a written and oral exam. Employees are given a thick document to study before taking an oral exam administered by a manager. Passing the exam will earn a quarter more per hour, pushing me up to 8.25. However resistant I am to uploading trivia into my head and heart, every morning I open the materials to study, and I feel myself wanting to weep.
The day the manager was ready to administer my test, he walked past while I was behind the counter cleaning the popcorn bin and clapped his hands: “Today’s the day! Once you clock out, come to the office.” He said.
I clocked out, changed clothes, went upstairs and sat waiting. During that time, I was visited by several nagging questions: “Why am I taking a job-related exam on my own time? Why was I studying for a job-related exam on my off hours? Why am I clocking out in hopes of getting .25 more per hour?”
Earlier, he explained:“This is for your benefit.” But after sitting and thinking for several minutes, I realized it benefited the company which didn’t like paying overtime. When that thought arose, I jumped like popped corn, dropped the written part of the test into the trash and went home.
A few days later, the manager and I rescheduled and I consented to filling out another written test, proof on record that I passed. The oral test was rescheduled for the following week, during work hours. This time I went into the office and the manager leaned back in his chair and began drilling me with various scenarios.
“If a patron brings a crying baby into an auditorium,” he said. “As an Usher, what are you obligated to do?”
I knew the answer, but could neither say it nor stop myself from saying aloud: “Pepper spray the momma and sell the baby on the black market.”
He did not laugh. Rocking backwards in his chair, he said, “Ooo-kay,” and we moved on.
I got my quarter. And a pewter Clapboard pendant engraved ‘Cross Trained’ which I was supposed to stick somewhere but never took out of the box.
The only part of the job I loved was Box Office. On days I was scheduled to do box office, every night I left work relieved and my cash drawer was always balanced. I would free-lance box office to this day if I could.
Early mornings, the manager will arrange the stanchions and rope maze while you wait outside for security to open the main door. You’ll run to me with your card or cash and maybe share a pleasantry or smile. Most likely though, you’ll wait in a long line by yourself or with your potnas or girlfriend and when you finally get up to the counter where I welcome you with a smile, you’ll have no fucking idea what movie you want to see or what any of the movies we’re playing are about — OR — you’ll be on a date with your girl and you’ll ask her to decide what movie to see (you got in your car, drove across town, parked and made no decisions beforehand) and she’ll shyly not say anything, letting you decide. You could then select something you want (Die Another Day!) or something you think she might like (Maid In Manhattan!) but you can’t make up your mind and you decide to not see anything at all and walk away, not even offering an apology for holding up the crowd –OR– you’ll get to the counter and stare at the list of movies on the wall behind me thinking, god knows what, if you’re thinking at all –OR– you’ll be a little old lady who’ll cut in front of the line and toss your money on the counter with a scowl on your face signaling ‘Say Something About It, Motherfucker’ –OR– you’ll decide on a movie, pay for it, let me give you the change and your ticket, then change your mind because its too long (The Two Towers: 3 hrs 15mins) or its a musical (Chicago) which forces me to void and reprint those tickets and take a breath in lieu of cursing you out. –OR– you’ll stand in line with your homies and collectively buy tickets, only to rush back downstairs after 10 minutes for a refund because, well, why not. –OR– you’ll stand with me at the counter and say the words ONE or TWO before you wake up to the fact you’ve never mentioned to which film –OR– you’ll be crazy and have security escort you and your son back downstairs because you’re drunk or high and yelling that security is racist and they can suck your d**k while a clique of elderly women pretend not to hear –OR– you’ll be an Actor! in an ascot to see The Emperor’s Club for Oscar worthiness or Cher with her entourage of bodyguards or Joan Baez hanging out at the candy counter or Beck rushing first out of Harry Potter, though looking more Berkeley than the brood of students following. –OR– you’ll be Phillip Seymour Hoffman doing a late screening. –OR– you’ll be from the UK and ask if you’ve been assigned a seat number. –OR–you’ll just need to know which movie starts in the next 20 minutes that stars Cameron Diaz or J Lo. –OR– you’ll be Black, twentysomething, smelling of weed and sweating THC and I respectfully ask twice if you’re sure you want to see The Hours and you insist you do –OR– you’ll be with your girl who’ll be so fine and White or Asian with huge breasts and an even larger credit card. When you’re told two tickets cost nineteen dollars, you’ll make no attempt to put five on it and my pride for you swells ten fold: you’re a man who can hear a number and not flinch. –OR– you’ll say nothing to me except the title of the movie you want to see and toss a crumbled bill like you were in a dice game. You have no use for the words: please, thank you or the odd sounding: Hello. –OR– you’ll be from Japan and because you’re excited about the new James Bond movie you’ll confuse the words ‘matinee’ with ‘martini’ and you will be grateful for a minor correction, despite neither of us recognizing the English appropriations of French and Italian words.
OR if you’re a lucky tourist, of all the staff, you’ll find me to ask: ‘What’s the difference between the Imax and a regular movie screen?’ and I’ll say: “A standard movie screen is about 65 feet wide and 30 feet tall. Our Imax screen is 75 feet tall, 97 feet wide.” My work? As you register those numbers, Done.
One Sunday morning, I worked alone at the Box Office as two women entered, flanked by two small children. My fingers ran laps over the button for the movie I already know they’re here to see.
The ladies argued sweetly. “You paid for lunch,” the brunette said. “I’ll take care of the movie.”
“No!” The blonde insisted. “I’ll pay. I got it.” She wasn’t friendly. She folded her arms and resisted listening.
“Or we could split it, which would be fine.” The brunette said, wilting with kindness.
“Not at all,” The blonde said. “I got it.”
The blonde approached, elbowing her way towards me. The brunette accepted defeat and stood behind with the children, both happy enough pulling at the belts between stanchions. “Two adults, two children for Treasure Planet.” The woman said.
Four tickets on an Imax screen first showing on a Sunday morning? “77.50.” I said. There was no matinee.
The blonde looked at me, her face flush as if I’d asked for a blood sacrifice.
Her friend stood behind her, casually bored. The children could care less, spinning around the stanchions. I printed tickets.
“Treasure Planet is only 90 minutes,” I wish I had said. “It’ll be over soon.” Besides those four, I don’t recall selling any other tickets to that film that day. It was evicted after two weeks.
I’ve never outright quit a job. But this is how I was asked to leave the movie theater.
The long talk with my shift manager, the former accountant, humbled me. (“How do you like it here?” she asked. “I hate it.” I said.) She had kids, a former husband, and mindfully enjoyed her job. I had no one and nothing in my life. Maybe it wasn’t the job I hated, it was just me. After our long talk at the counter, I took lunch, which found me thinking instead of eating since I had such little money. I decided to change my attitude. To be optimistic and positive. I confidently returned to my shift.
A couple hours later, just before closing the concession stand, I was approached by two bashful Chinese students. They had found a wallet in their theater and gave it to me to turn in. The manager’s desk was at the end of the long counter, so I took the wallet and began heading that way.
But from my right, I saw two men staring at the menu above and quietly began approaching the register. The words of my shift supervisor were encouraging and made me want to give up my irritation and anxiety. I made eye contact with the men and they lured me to the register and, for the moment, I dropped the wallet in my pocket.
As I began ringing up the order, someone walked up behind me. The one job at the theater I didn’t qualify for was cooking in the kitchen. The dude running it that night stepped up behind me to check if they were ordering any fried food. If not, he could start cleaning up. They didn’t. But between the wallet, the order, the chef literally breathing down my back, I began to feel anxious.
Ringing up their order, I reached into my pocket, turned to the cook, and asked if he would take it to the manager’s station while I finished their order. Because we are all the same, working the same job, at the same place. We are drones swarming in service to one thing. This is called a team. Right?
He took the wallet and disappeared. A few minutes later, he returned.
“The wallet?” He said. “If anyone asks, don’t mention it.”
And I didn’t. I was happy to be a team player and went on with the night.
When the security officer approached to ask if a wallet had been turned in to me, I flat out denied it. The officer looked both puzzled and saddened, turned and walked back to the managers’ station. But when he returned, I changed my answer and finally told everything, except how sad I’d been feeling the whole time I’d worked there.
The next day at work, I was included in a meeting with the theater’s top boss. Not the manager who gave me my cross training test, but his boss. I told it: the Chinese couple, the customers, the cook in my ear. What the boss’s boss told me: the cook took the wallet, emptied it dividing the contents between himself and another (it never occurred to me to open it) then dropped the wallet in the restroom behind the toilet.
The two dudes were fired and banned from the theater and I was sent back to unemployment.
Sometime later, I realized what a perfect test that moment was. A better test than the one which gave me a quarter bump on my check. The Chinese couple could have been hired for the night and given a phony wallet. So genius, I thought every company should do a similar exercise. I didn’t pass that test, but as I left there, I felt honored I took it.