(image c/o Cinema Treasures)
Continuation of the series that began here.
I need to explore that most unique, though brief, portion of my tenure as a movie projectionist — that of Amateur Night. To recollect and get it straight these many years later, I called upon and interviewed my only brother (the very one I’ve mentioned throughout the series). His answers to some of my questions I have incorporated below — and into the remaining segments in the series, whenever possible.
Being the newly hired and trained, I assumed the low man position on the totem pole. This meant I got to cover the Thursday night shift, which included the audio-visual support for said event night. During my early term in the projection booth, the Huntington Park Warner Theater was into its initial spanish content phase, my brother confirmed,
“Originally, there was three theaters on the boulevard [Pacific blvd.]… And the one up the street, I think it was the Park Theater, they still showed American movies. But since there was a dramatic change, he (the owner) was one of the first — other than the theaters in downtown Los Angeles — that had spanish language movies.”
Before I arrived, the owner realized the demographics of the area were changing during the 70s, and that more and more of his clientele were Latino patrons. He was also competing for their dollars with the two other movie theaters along the Pacific boulevard shopping strip: the California and the Park (the other, the Lyric Theatre, went after, ahem, a different market).
Since his movie screen was now independent (no longer tied to theater chains), he moved its content over to a combination of spanish language-dubbed or -subtitled versions of popular (though older, previous released) U.S. movies. Or sometimes, the comparable Mexican studio films obtained from local movie distributors.
My brother had seen all of this and more. Months before, the owner sought and scheduled professional acts to augment the movie content and draw more faces inside the hall. Talented Mexican and Mexican-American singers, mariachi bands played on Friday and/or Saturday nights for the paying customers.
Most of which were the older hispanic generations who arrived decades ago from the post-WWII period, just like mine, as well as burgeoning new latino immigrants.
The reason the owner could do this was fairly simple, and purely structural. Only the Huntington Park Warner had an actual stage that could accommodate the music acts. While all of the indoor theaters in the area had movie screens, only one had a true stage deck.
It had what’s known as a proscenium stage, and it included its own functional backstage/wings with full rigging, a curtain and lighting system. Even, though at that time sealed, an orchestra pit. In fact, its moderately large projection booth (it easily fit three projectors) had, off to the side of the projectors, a dedicated portion with its own wide (retractable) window opening (highlighted in the image below), for a carbon-arc spotlight.
From this high perch, one could easily sweep the boards with bright luminescence.
Built in 1930, though smaller than its larger contemporaries, this Warner Theatre was at that time the versatile, though somewhat forgotten, grand dame in that area of Los Angeles. It easily handled whatever proprietors scheduled or threw at her. My brother related,
“I think there was a point where he (the owner) was trying to become progressive, and then, of course, he started having entertainment. He had some big acts that came down, in the hispanic markets. So, there came a point where he got me involved in a lot of activities because he wanted me there all of the time, more and more (even though he was bringing in other people because it started to get busy). So he would have these acts come in and I would be on the spotlight, controlling some of the lights.
And they really didn’t have any sort of choreography of the stage, or anything. It was like they would have some ideas, but there was no real communication as far as the staging to change a light to this or change it to that. Just do it. Then there came a point where I was bumped backstage because they needed more involvement. The more sophisticated acts came with their manager (or something), and you had to interact with that person. So, it was interesting to get involved in that, but by that time, I was one foot out the door.”
He being the senior projectionist, went through this particular span in the tenure. Toward the end of this particular stint, the owner added an amateur portion to his entertainment scheme.
“Thursday night they’d have Amateur Night. The big (pro) acts would come in Friday or Saturday night. But Thursday night was very entertaining because they would have improv, and people would mostly sing. And I remember they would be young acts, sometimes there were kids, but mostly adults singing. Mariachi style of music. And at the end of the night, a winner would be based on an applause system. They would go to each person and the applause would determine who would win. And then the winners would typically be given a gift certificate from one of the local vendors (in the Huntington Park shopping area). So actually, that was very entertaining. That was kind of a big deal, I’d forgotten about that.”
I believe the pro nights were over by the time I arrived, or soon would be. But, the amateurs certainly hadn’t left town. Think of this back then as a premature and less glamorous version of American Idol. Only this weekly competition always seemed to represent those early, painful episodes in a season when the talent was permanently thin.
And all the while being decidedly low budget.
Imagine yourself endeavoring to man a spotlight, attempting to follow overly dramatic performers belt out their favorites on a stage four stories below you. That was my primary role those nights. Absolutely no one stood still when they did this, mind you. And if you tried to anticipate where they were going…well, let’s say it was never boring.
It’s like trying to take a good picture of your cat…after she’s has sipped from your Jolt Cola.
I know I shouldn’t describe it so broadly. A few of the acts were quite good, in fact. It’s just some were of the train wreck variety, like Idol, only in spanish. But like a wreck, you just couldn’t look away, or forget them. While I don’t recall many of the tunes the brave diletantes made efforts toward, the torch songs were easily the most memorable, especially these:
Undoubtably, the first was the #1 song performed those evenings. Even my brother would occasionally intone Besame Mucho years later. I guess you had to be there. Covering Thursday night shift did not last long, however. Due to the turnover that plagued the establishment, I’d move into the second crew slot and it’d be the new guy’s responsibility.
The owner would also shift the theater’s content away from the live entertainment they once championed, too. What can I say, it was the 70s. Still, Amateur Night remained seared into my mind, then and now.
Likely, because this was the brief period when my brother and I worked right beside each other in a very unique job — call it a shared experience. Outside of the time we sold newspapers as kids in front of the local market, or as I helped him deliver newspapers to sleeping homes at o-dark-thirty, this was the last time we worked together in our lives.
It seems…oh, I don’t know…special. When I interviewed him, my brother happened to mention this little tidbit I hadn’t been aware of:
“The only thing I remember from Amateur Night, more than the acts themselves, were probably the girls, and the crowd. There were a lot of cute girls that would come in. I was the head projectionist, so instead of being upstairs [like you, stuck manning the spotlight] I’d be wandering around, trying to flirt with the girls.”
See what I mean? Special.
The entire Warner Theatre Project series can be found here.