I spent most of my adult, working life in movie theatres. I first worked as an usher at a little triplex movie house in D.C. back in 1970, shortly after high school. There were three auditoriums, usually running 3 different movies, and we did 6 to 9 shows a day, depending on film length. I wore an outrageous monkey suit-- a red tuxedo jacket w, black lapels, black pants w/ a red stripe down the leg, and a clip on bow tie. A humiliating and uncomfortable costume for a young wastrel in the early 70's. Pay was $1.80 an hour-- oh, and free movies. Yeah, baby! This was the start of an employment path that saw me *never* have to pay for a movie (at my own theatre or any other) for the next 25 years or so. You do the math...
I carried a flashlight. I actually showed people to their seats and patrolled the theatres during the shows, making sure people were quiet and kept their feet off the chairs. (Yeah; we actually spoke to them and asked them to behave...) I took lit cigarettes away from smokers (did this to Kris Kristofferson, once...) and sometimes had to eject disruptive or drunk people. We really tried to guarantee a quiet, safe and enjoyable show for everyone. Gone are the days, huh?
I answered phones; I fielded customer questions and complaints, herded audiences into and out of the lobbies and theatres; I printed, then sold, collected and tore tickets; sold popcorn, sodas, candy; I even cleaned the place after hours-- grimly sweeping up the remnants of the tickets, popcorn and snacks I spent all day selling. It wasn't very hard work, but it kept you very busy.
Every workday consisted of concentrated periods of frenzy and chaos as we got the folks into the shows. This was followed by long stretches of relative quiet as the movies were in progress and we could relax a bit, after sweeping the lobbies and stairs and restocking the concession stand. The entrance and box office were at street level. You ascended a small flight of stairs and (if it was the day's first show) entered the auditoriums, or waited in one of two lobby areas above, and outside the houses until the previous shows finished and we cleared and tidied the theatres before sending you in.
Upstairs lobby and auditorium entrances, Cerberus 1, 2, 3
Theatres, 3040 M Street, N.W., Washington, D.C.-- Circa 1970
(When this photo was taken, we were running Andy Warhol's TRASH in 2 of the 3 theatres and doing great business with it. Warhol Superstar, transgender actress and cast member Holly Woodlawn-- in her screen debut-- (she's the "Holly" Lou Reed sings about in "Walk On The Wild Side") showed up, buzzed 8 ways from Sunday. Over-amped, she vamped and camped it up all evening, shrieking, giggling, flouncing about, and held court, signing autographs, posing for pictures--and then passed out cold on the stairs, slumped against the orange handrail you can see here. We had to carry her across the street to her hotel room at the Georgetown Inn to revive her. That evening was a walk on the wild side for us all.)
We amused ourselves as best we could. One thing I loved to do was to slip into the auditorium and watch the crowd's reaction to funny, sad, exciting, or tension-inducing scenes. The shrieks at Regan's demonic convulsions in THE EXORCIST, the groans during the pulse-pounding car chase in THE FRENCH CONNECTION or the gasps during the cavalry massacre in LITTLE BIG MAN were always sure-fire emotional barometers of involuntary group reaction, performed en masse.
We always had to keep an eye out for the end of the film, as we prepared to prop open the double set of doors for each house as the credits rolled, the house lights came up, and we allowed the crowds to depart before letting in the waiting customers. Any time we entered or exited the theatres during these final minutes, we always had the full attention of all the people gathered in the lobbies.
We had a little routine we used to do, where one of us ushers would loudly ask the other coming out of the theatre (playing it for the benefit of the assembled crowd), "Is the show breaking? What's happening?" The other one would reply, "Almost. The pregnant lady's roller skating with the bear." The first usher would very matter-of-factly respond, "Uh-huh. O.K. Gotcha. About two minutes, then." and we'd busy ourselves, surreptitiously observing people's reactions to this exchange. The resultant (and demonstrable) confusion on their faces may very well have been the origin of the currently used online acronym "WTF?"
There were remarkable breaks in the routine sometimes, depending on the show and the audience. Once I got a phone call from a high school English teacher inquiring about group rates for his literature classes for a recently arrived film based on a classic novel. He asked if WOMEN IN LOVE was suitable for teenagers. I told him I hadn't had a chance to see it yet, but that I understood it was rated R and was based on a famous D.H. Lawrence novel that dealt with the permutations of a very passionate love affair. The house manager took the phone, and approved a reduced rate for a guaranteed 40 tickets, and the teacher showed up a few days later with a busload of energetic kids. We bundled them all into the theatre and I set about sweeping up.
After a while, the #2 auditorium doors burst open, and the teacher appeared, yelling "EVERYONE BACK ON THE BUS, RIGHT NOW!" followed by a stream of grumbling, hooting, pissed-off teenagers cat-calling him and shouting, "Aww, c'mon, man!" "We wanna stay!" and "Don't be a dick, Mister Anderson!" Veins bulging in his head, spittle flying from the corners of his bloodless lips, he bellowed at me, "I THOUGHT YOU SAID THIS WAS O.K. FOR KIDS, YOU LITTLE BASTARD!"
I poked my head into the theatre to see a very naked and sweaty Oliver Reed wrestling an equally nude, slippery-looking Alan Bates in front of a roaring fire, the two men basically dry humping one another amidst a chorus of grunts and groans. Wow... Ken Russell really pulled no punches with this one, did he? The kids continued their angry departure from the place as their trembling teacher shoved his now contorted and sweaty mug close to my face and barked "WELL? HOW ABOUT THAT?" I began to laugh hysterically, and asked him "Well... which one of us is an ENGLISH LITERATURE TEACHER, buddy? How about THAT?" Ah, show biz, and The General Public. It's kept me amused for decades.
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