Not Show Business But The Business Of Shows #1

This is the first in a series of posts that will offer tales, trials and tribulations of working in the movie theater biz.

Me building a movie circa 1989 at the Tri-County Cinemas 1-5 in Cincinnati.

I have been in the movie exhibition business for 24 years (minus my stint in the Army). It’s been a mostly enjoyable ride. Hollywood spends their millions making their films and then hands off this very expensive product to us in the hope that you will in turn buy a ticket, sit down in a dark room with strangers and watch. A veteran in this industry once told me “we are not show business but the business of shows”. He is mostly right; we are in the business of moving herds of people in and out of auditoriums. But there are moments of genuine pleasure like standing in the back of a crowded theater and listening to an audience laugh uncontrollably or being around a Harry Potter crowd as they line up for a midnight show. There are moments of pure hell, like when the power goes out on a busy Saturday night or when a guy has died in an auditorium (that story will be posted here at some point). As the Everly Brothers once sang “ah, the stories we could tell”.

When I started in 1988 at the Tri-County Cinemas 1-5 in the Cassinelli Square, theater attendance was greater than it is today. That summer we played Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Die Hard, Midnight Run, A Fish Called Wanda and Cocktail. It was not uncommon for most of those to sell out on a Friday and Saturday night (auditoriums had higher seat counts then as well). Yes, we had home video at that point but entertainment at home had not reached the slick plateau we currently reside on. Going out to the movies was a more common event in most households. Moreover, films could easily play 6-10 months (and in a few instances over a year!). That never happens now. The biggest film of 2012 (The Avengers) played roughly 10 weeks.

My friend Tim and I applied at the theater at the same time that summer. Once we had been working there for a few weeks it was apparent to both of us where we wanted to be; in the projection booth. We envied the projectionists. These guys didn’t have to deal with the customers. We never saw them  much because they were upstairs most of the time. We imagined (incorrectly) that they just stood up there and watched movies through the port windows.  Upstairs was this very-low-light, narrow labyrinth of chattering projectors, well worn carpet, strange smells and ash trays. What’s not to like? However, it would be a few months before we were allowed into their secret society. First we had to work in the trenches picking up trash and seating patrons.

To enter an auditorium after it has been filled to capacity with all you filthy people is similar to walking into a crime scene (you may think “minus the blood” but in some instances you would be wrong). The air is filled with a mixture of body funk, popcorn, and a lovely sour odor that forms when spilled soda settles into the bottom of a trash can. It takes courage and youthful ignorance to reach down and quickly pick up all of the things that have been thrown to the floor. I learned a valuable lesson the time I picked up a coke can that immediately felt warmer than it should and also felt completely full. In my hasty grab-lift the contents spilled onto my hand. Yes, someone had utilized said can as a toilet. Theater auditoriums are often filled with evidence of copulations, diaper changing, the flu, etc.

As an usher in those early days it was not uncommon for games to spontaneously form amid the cleaning and chaos. Tossing cups into the trash from great distances was always the most common. These games could occasionally lead to aggressive and destructive behavior. There was one guy I worked with that decided that he wanted to try and throw a half-full soda cup up towards the ceiling to see if he could make it go splat. We never cleaned after the last shows went in; that was left for the actual janitorial crew at the end of the night. So this sometimes led to ushers doing something destructive/messy in an auditorium just for the amusement factor. As I said, this guy decided to throw a large, half-full soda cup at the ceiling. We would have all been amused enough if the cup hit the ceiling and made a mess. We were all thoroughly amused beyond expectation when he hurled the cup up into the air and it miraculously impaled itself on to a fire sprinkler and did not come back down! It just sat there and dripped. I don’t remember how long it stayed up there but it was there for a while and it was no doubt a conversation piece to anyone who happened to look up.

Yes, even though it was dirty work, it was certainly entertaining enough for $3.30 an hour. I was going to wrap it up here but I just remembered something that I have to mention. Smoking. It is strange to think about now but you could smoke your brains out in movie theaters. There were ashtrays all over the place. In the lobby of course but we also had one outside each auditorium door. A common sight was our managers walking around keeping us on task and even talking with customers- all with a cig burning in hand. Ah, the good old days of lots and lots of second hand smoke.

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