Tales from the (Movie) Theater: Transitions (Part 6)
(image c/o Cinema Treasures)
Continuation of the series that began here.
After a few months of working without too much incident, mostly during the closing and the occasional opening shifts, at the Huntington Park Warner Theatre, big changes came to the venue — my way, too. Having started off as the newly minted projectionist, the low wages for personnel overall contributed to the prominent trend of my tenure: turnover.
It didn’t take long for the middle guy to leave. In a short time, I was no longer the least experienced. Unbelievably, I became the second most senior tech there — right behind my younger brother, the lead projectionist. That change, by itself, produced immediate dividends, though. I received better choice of hours, but my brother got another recruit to train.
All in all, an improvement — especially for moi. More ‘openings’ than ‘closings’ at the theater meant for a better social life. And since I didn’t have to report for work till noon — when the theater yawned to life and staff checked in — I could still attend weekday morning classes or sleep in on weekends. However, more was brewing that would have a greater impact.
While the proprietor had been progressive in changing the theater’s content to Spanish language (or sub-titled) for an evolving community, before I arrived, business wasn’t as robust as he expected. The owner chose all of the movies his small string of independent theaters marketed and screened, obtained weekly from a couple of local movie distributors.
He needed to regularly attract enough ticket purchasing customers to keep the business viable. Keep in mind, the majority of the ticket sales went to the studio/distributors. More importantly, having people in the seats brought them to the concession stand, where theater owners traditionally made their profit. For the months he tried this, the Spanish content didn’t bring enough patrons; at least for his bottom-line.
I distinctly remember he even booked two weeks of Mexican soft-core movie titles to see if it could get more people to the theater during this span. And it may have, at least for the male patrons. But with the Lyric down the street, what was the point? Still, that move didn’t exactly stimulate food or snack sales to any great degree.
Nope…and that wouldn’t do. So, he changed back to mainstream U.S. movies — and that’s what I would show for the rest of my term in the projection booth. The owner even trumpeted the change by having a minion (me) get the ladder out to add to the beautiful WARNER marque you see in the lead image the words, ‘Under New Management’.
The trouble was, it wasn’t true. There was no new management, only new content. The result of the ad was to have a Huntington Park police detective come by one day and ask to see the new business license for the new owner. As might be expected, said proprietor had to sheepishly talk with law enforcement over the phone to straighten out “the misunderstanding.”
As much as the new content had positive ramifications for the theater, its workers, and movie patrons (perhaps, the balance sheet), the next development that followed had a tidal wave effect for me. My brother left the movie theater, as he explained in my interview with him:
Question: Why did you leave the movie theater?
“I was working part-time in real estate (while there), being unsuccessful actually, working with our aunt [our mother’s older sister]. And it was difficult at 19-20 years old to do it. I didn’t have the patience. But there was a representative, a sales person for Ticor Title, who came in to her office from time to time. He had referred me to someone (at Ticor). Probably within a matter of a couple of weeks, I had taken an interview, was hired, and was out the door.”
Later, he mentioned this:
“Yes, and there were other aspects driving the move. I remember an incident that made it clear it was the right moment. At the time, I was semi-living with my girlfriend. There was a period I had to take the bus to work – I had no other form of transportation. This one day, my girlfriend also had to go to the area (Huntington Park); perhaps, for an interview or something. We were on the bus, and we were running late. I was probably 20-30 minutes late. And if I’m late, that means the movie theater is late because they cannot start the movies without the projectionist.
As I’m coming along, with my girlfriend next to me, the woman Isabel [the older person in charge during the daytime who sold the tickets at the box office and managed the concession stand] was pretty upset with me. She couldn’t open the theater’s doors, and patrons were waiting out in front to get in. And she started screaming at me as I arrived. The bus stopped right there in front of the theater, too. It happened all right there. My girlfriend then got into an exchange of words with her (because she didn’t care for the woman making a scene, along with her yelling at me). Mind you, this episode is occurring while my girlfriend was still on the bus. And as the driver is closing bus door (to get away from all of this) to head off to the next stop, with both hands, my girlfriend flips the older woman off! True story.
By that time, I’m left there with this hysterical co-worker who is mad as hell at me for being late AND for having a crass girlfriend. Which to say the least, was the beginning of the end of our relationship because of this upset. And then wouldn’t talk to me, at work. It was an uncomfortable feeling everyday, thereafter. You come in and try to acknowledge each other, but I only got the evil eye from that point forward. It became pretty clear that moving on would be for the best.”
So, after working there for over a year, from 1975 to 1976, he gave his notice. Before leaving though, he’d have one final key duty as the lead tech for the movie theater. My brother spent his last working days there preparing, as he’d done only a few months before, his sibling for the task ahead. He spent a week training me on all the responsibilities that I, the newly incredulous and soon-to-be senior projectionist for the Huntington Park Warner Theatre, would have to know and assume.
(Image by jericl cat via Flickr)
My Wednesdays were never, ever, the same from this moment forward. Primarily because, for those of us old enough to remember, that mid-point of the week was once the customary day when new movies opened, were released into theaters, back then. And preparing for the weekly changes was what I had to learn. It came with the new lead role I’d inherit. I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the process, just hadn’t had to do it.
Along with the normal closing duties, the projectionist who worked the Tuesday night shift unquestionably had to gather up all of the movie reels after the last show and re-pack them into their cans that arrived the week before. That, and lumber them from the fourth story booth down to the lobby for the morning pick up — heaven help you if you forgot that task.
Early Wednesday morning starts would become the new work norm. Taking last week’s movies back and picking up the new content from the distribution company the owner designated, the brand new pattern. My brother warned me it was possible I’d have to pick up, return, and drop-off those for the owner’s nearby theater in Bell, too, if there was a hiccup with their personnel. It all came with the territory.
Oh, and don’t forget to change titles on the marquee to match the new movie arrivals.
Also, it would be up to the lead projectionist to calculate the new movie schedule and times, and hand it over to our box office each week before the theater opened for business that day. Runtimes were printed on the label affixed to each movie can. First show always commenced shortly after opening with the top-billed film screening that week, with fifteen-minute intermissions between movies.
And it all had to be calculated by hand into standard hour:minute time. Better be right first time, too. It served both the theater staff that answered the phone to give out showtimes to callers before recorded answering machines came into prominence, let alone the internet, and those potential ticket-buyers walking passed. Simple.
Finally, my sibling drilled me to become more proficient in my projecting and repair skills. First and foremost, so I could train the new and future ex-projectionists that would make their way through the HP Warner theater booth in the coming months. Who would have thunk it?
After only a few months of working there, absorbing all these changes, I assumed the lead projectionist position at a movie theater I’d attended since childhood.
While I made a few dollars more each week, it was still beyond belief, or maybe laughable, to be in that chief position. I just didn’t understand its meaning, or the joke, at the time. All of this in the bicentennial year of 1976, and I was only 21 years old.
To be continued…
Previous: When the Moment Comes… (Part 5)
Next Up: Surprise! (Part 7)
The entire Warner Theatre Project series can be found here.
12 Responses to “Tales from the (Movie) Theater: Transitions (Part 6)”
Another superb piece Michael, love reading these 🙂
Very kind of you to say, Chris. Thank you very much.
I can’t believe you did all this and still kept your love of movies! I’m not sure movies would’ve been relaxing to me anymore.
It kind of etched them into me, I think. It was easy to tell these stories cause they left such an imprint. And movies, before I started working at the movie theater, had become special in and of themselves. Thanks, Marianne, for the read and comment 🙂
Good stories, once again thanks for sharing. My best friend in High School did the marquee at two or three theaters each week, on Tuesday night for the Wednesday openings. I still like the idea of the mid-week release.
Thank you very much, Richard. What did your friend tell of that task? Getting up on the ladder to change titles (and not misspell them) was interesting. All of this came back to me when I saw Inglourious Basterds a couple of years ago.
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I wish I was as great of a storyteller as you, my friend! Always great, engaging and well rounded pieces. Ended with such style. Thanks for sharing. I can’t wait to share this series with my friends that work at my local theaters
Very kind of you to say, T. Much appreciated. Thanks for the readership, my friend.
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