Extra Butter on That? (My Origin Story Part II)
So after I graduate college, I try to turn my underwhelming English Major (and my several years of toiling on the college paper) into a job on a Manhattan magazine, only to fail miserably; in retrospect, I wouldn’t have hired me either.
I’d been working part-time as an usher during college at a local theater in Huntington, NY, partly for the spending cash but mostly to see the free movies; these were the days (mid 1980s) when theaters were so overstaffed with ushers that they would actually leave an usher in the theater for the entire movie, just to make sure the crowd was behaving. (Soon, this job became largely busting smokers, when the ban on in-theater smoking went into effect, and there is nothing so amazingly obvious as a plume of smoke rising into the light from the projector). I remember my first night as an usher, I watched “Careful He Might Hear You” (which, if you have never heard of it, is foreign. And depressing). And then they put me in the same theater for the second show, and I watched it again. Okay, no job is perfect.
So after college, I’m living at home and enduring my parents’ glares, so when I got offered a job as an assistant manager at the theater, I bit the bullet and said yes. After a year I was promoted to manager and given my own theater (actually, moved around to a few theaters); after another year I moved into the city (into a very small apartment with a friend) and start managing Manhattan theaters.
Initially, the good part of this is that I was working for Cineplex Odeon, which was peaking at that time. They were Canadian, they were expanding, they were building big, beautiful theaters. Unfortunately, they were building them too fast. Pretty soon they started hemorrhaging money, and then the desperation struck.
One of their gimmicks was that the served real butter on their popcorn, which was a dicey idea to begin with – no one was really trained in handling the butter, and otherwise all the candystand had was low-maintenance items like popcorn and candy. So sometimes the butter got left in the machine over night, and often it had a brown tinge.
But to make extra money, Cineplex Odeon decides to charge for “extra butter”. Customers would get an allotted dose, but if they wanted extra they’d have to pay 10 cents a squirt.
The problem was, of course, that they were pressuring the theaters to sell a lot of extra butter. Some of the managers, like me, refused to really go along with this; I’m not going to use high-pressure tactics to convince a patron that they need to drown their popcorn in the real stuff (which, by the way, tended to make the popcorn very soggy and greasy anyway). Other managers encouraged their candy girls to do whatever it took. And some theaters were averaging charging 3-4 squirts on every bag of popcorn they sold.
But they weren’t really selling this butter. They were just banging the 10 cent extra butter button every time they sold anything to anyone (even if it was just candy and a soda). Because the theaters were charging tax, apparently no one noticed the extra 20 cents they were being nicked for.
Of course, it was painfully obvious if you look at the numbers (or at the printer record that the concession stand churns out in the office). But not only did Cineplex Odeon not warn theaters not to do that, they proudly sent out to the theaters ranking sheets of who was doing the best at selling extra butter.
(This was actually – briefly – a minor scandal in New York, when a newspaper reporter broke the story. But nothing was done about it, and Cineplex Odeon soon shelved the whole real butter thing anyway. They’ve since been sucked up by Loews).
I actually liked being a theater manager most of the time, because I like movies, I like having a good time in movies, and I want other people to have a good time in movies. One of my favorite things was to stand at the side of a theater auditorium during comedies, and just watch the crowd react in unison to things that were funny, squirming in their seats – it’s priceless. But I digress.
Manhattan had its challenges; I remember on opening night in Times Square for a Steven Seagal movie, he was there, with a guest list full of young Gottis and Gambinos (though I didn’t see anything, and they were very well-behaved, I swear). The theater was also open to the public, which made it a little nuts (this was the only time we ever had this mix of star-attending-premiere/public-paying-to-get-in-too).
So one guy was unhappy that the candy stand was moving too slowly, and he punched a 16-year-old candy girl in the face. So we hold him for cops (I had at least one security guard – this was the big city) and they take him away, while the girl, blood streaming down her face but no major injuries, gets cleaned up. Several hours later, the puncher’s mother comes by, furious that we had her son arrested for no reason. I told her what happened, and even pointed out the girl (who must have weighed 90 pounds, soaking wet). The mother turned around and immediately left.
Another day (when I wasn’t working), during another Steven Seagal film (whichever one he fought rastafarians in), a rasta guy stands up in the middle of the theater, and, upset at the depiction of his people (I assume), fires his gun into the ceiling. Half the crowd bolts. The manager calls the cops, who go into the theater, to find that the shooter left, and that the other half of the crowd is still happily watching the movie.
Another night, same theater (the National, which they since turned into the ABC Studio, a shame), a large group of teens “bum-rushed” the theater, trying to get in without paying, even though the last show had been on about 45 minutes by then. The National had a long staircase going up to where the theaters were, so we heard the stampede coming; I was there to meet these 20-30 teens, with maybe one (unarmed) security guard and a couple of ushers loitering behind me.
Now, I don’t want this to be a black-and-white thing, but just for visuals, I’m white and meek, and the teens were all black, and they were probably all great kids when they weren’t trying to break into movie theaters but now they are trying to break into mine.
And the lead teen, I’ll never forget this, is holding a little paper plate of cake, with a fork in it. I’d love to know the backstory on that, but I forgot to ask him.
Instead, I just stood there, and as he approached, I stuck out my hand (missing the cake, probably a good idea) and stopped him. I looked at him, he looked at me. And then he turned around with his cake, and headed down, and all his friends headed down with him.
But these were the things that made the job interesting, these were the stories you could tell (hell, I’m telling them), these were the anecdotes that made it all worthwhile.
It was the bureaucracy that sucked out my soul. The extra butter, the slashing staffs down to levels where some nights it was just me, a candy girl and someone ripping tickets and hopefully the people in the theaters aren’t killing each other.
I’d gotten some work reading plays for a theater in New York (in exchange for free plays, cool) and turned that into doing some reading work for New Line, and then for HBO. Even though reading still wasn’t full-time yet, I bowed out of the theater managing business (actually, not really true. I backslid a year later, and worked for United Artists theaters for about 4 months, but when they started making me work 12-hours shifts for 7 straight days, and paying me so little overtime that the concession staff was making more per hour than I was, I stopped that gig as well).
Still, being a movie theater manager gave me my best story. I was managing the Chelsea Theater, on 23rd Street in New York, 9 screens on 5 stories. Opening weekend of “Do The Right Thing”, late show, and the movie breaks during the opening credits.
The crowd isn’t happy, and it is taking time to find the projectionist (the place had 6 projection booths, and one projectionist, but don’t feel sorry for him, those guys made more than everyone). Plus I know that, to run off film to splice it together, the movie is going to start 15 seconds after it broke. So I get up in front of the crowd, tell them we are going to get the movie on soon, and tell them they are going to miss about 15 seconds of the movie.
And someone yells out “What are we going to miss”?
Now, I’d seen the movie. I know that it’s basically just Rosie Perez, dancing up a storm. And I tell them that.
And someone yells “Show us”.
So I do.
I start doing the Rosie Perez dance, right there, in front of a packed house of about 300 people, and they are dying, they are freaking out, they are loving it. Again, I’m not only a white guy, I’m a white guy in a suit with glasses and no rhythm whatsoever. Any little children there are probably still traumatized.
Then the lights go down, the movie comes on, Rosie starts doing her thing, (which is so much, much better than my thing) and I’m out of there.
But its those kinds of things that made the job worthwhile.