The Set Up – By the Numbers #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year The Set Up By theNumbers

When it comes down to it, the film business is exactly that. It is a business.

And it is also an art form, and more specifically in the studios of Hollywood, a collaboration of artists.

The two come together in a marriage of sorts. But by no means is it a marriage of equals. The business side, by dint of the numbers it collects (i.e. the monies come their way first), is the dog that wags the tail.

So a look at some numbers:

On the production side for the prior year of 1938, a total of 769 films were released, 362 from major companies and 407 from the independents (with a mix of US produced and foreign imports for both). This marked a slow climb from the 595 films in 1930 when the squeeze of the depression that hit in 1929 could be visualized. (1928 had reached a high of 834, and stumbled in 1929 to 707). Things were looking up on the production side.

In 1938 there were 18,182 motion picture theaters in the US.  They saw roughly 85,000,000 paying customers pass through their doors that year, yielding a total gross of 1,016,600,000.

Attendance for 1938 showed a drop off from the 88 million of 1937. This disparity showed up in the weak numbers for the spring and early summer of 1938. A panic set in at the studios, so they came up with a campaign to ballyhoo the box office – calling it the ‘Motion Pictures Greatest Year” campaign.

This hype came true – not for 1938, but for the year 1939.

The Bouncer of the Coliseum

The Bouncer of the Coliseum

I have mentioned the Coliseum Theater in Seattle in two former posts, filed in the “Memories” category, but have not yet spilled any ink (nor emitted any electrons) describing it. When it opened in 1916, it had the distinction of being the first theater in Seattle (if not the entire country) specifically designed for showing film. The secret was in the floor. The design called for a curve to the floor of a sufficient pitch that one had a clear sight line over the people in the row in front of you – not unlike the theory behind the stadium type seating that revolutionized movie theater design in the 1990s.

Another strange detail about its design – was the lack of stage space – it was tall and wide, but had no depth. The screen was mounted on that shallow back wall. (I understand from my research that this was a choice by the owner at that time – Alexander Pantages, who, though his was a vaudeville circuit, intentionally cut down on the scale to save on the number of musicians and stagehands he had to hire).

By this time – the mid-70s, there were no muscians (except for those neon ones up on the revolving sign above the marquee), and there was one lone stagehand. Or half a stagehand, as they shared one with my theater the Fifth Avenue up the street. (Again this was the redoubtable Walt Coy).

Gone for the moment were the big Hollywood productions from the Coliseum’s screen. Instead the invasion of violent Hong Kong Kung Fu flicks and blaxploitation bombshells exploded daily in its auditorium. As a consequence the company thought it prudent to have a bouncer on hand to control any instances of patrons imitating the bad behavior of their favorites up on the screen. Into this latest incarnation of the Coliseum stepped my bride of just a few months.

[Aside – My uncle Bud was then the manager of the theater. She had worked for him when he was assistant to my Dad at the GCC Renton Village Cinemas. He knew what a great cashier she was, and hired her, no nepotism required.]

The box office in which my wife spent most of her time, was out in front of the entrance, situated at the corner of Fifth and Pike. It was literally all by itself – an island – cut off from the rest of the building. One gained entrance by stooping over and waddling through the low half door – the only way in or out.

All went well until the night the projector broke down. My uncle announced to the patrons inside that the problem could not be fixed and that they could repair to the box office and there receive passes for another day. They soon surrounded my wife, sitting in the glass fishbowl that was the box office. None of them wanted a pass. They all loudly demanded their money back. Strangely, to a man they all argued that they were from out of town and only in for the night, and would not be coming back any time soon. It felt to her like a riot was about to break out.

Before that could happen, the Coliseum bouncer stepped in. His name was Bobby, a black, ex-prizefighter from Chicago. (The rumor circulating the district had him on the lam from the Windy City, hiding out from a vindictive mobster). I had heard of the description “caulifower ear” before, but had had no concept of what that even meant – until I saw Bobby – and that vegetable like appendage attached to his head. Even then it was an afterthought to your consciousness, as he had an overwhelming presence. To call him “solid” is an understatement – more like a brick wall in motion. Yet for all his power and mass (and cauliflower ear), he had the sweetest and gentlest temperament.

He soon had things in hand, and when through, escorted my wife from the Coliseum to my theater.

My wife was shaken, understandably. And I did not object nor try to dissuade her when she decided to resign the next day. (She soon found a job at Virginia Mason Hospital, where she was the one weilding a knife when surrounded by carrots and celery).

We still paid an occasional call to the Coliseum. Shortly after this time, its bill of fare changed and a couple of back to back blockbusters settled in. That is where we caught The Towering Inferno, followed six months later by Jaws. The Coliseum was the only place to see them in the Seattle area.

And still under the protection of Bobby.

Down in the Canyons of Seattle

Down in the Canyons of Seattle

We were canyon dwellers in Seattle, and spent the majority of our time in the one canyon called Fifth Avenue. Out where our apartment was located the canyon was a little more open, but as we trudged off to work the canyon walls grew steeper and the shadows lengthened. My wife’s place of work came first on the trek up the arroyo. She cashiered at the Coliseum theater, a gleaming white Roman-like structure at the corner of Fifth and Pike. (Bruce Lee was mixing it up with Chuck Norris in “Return of the Dragon”). My theater was farther up the avenue past our opposition, SRO’s Music Box theater, at this juncture running the first run hit, “Chinatown”, the Jack Nicholson starrer, directed by Roman Polanski.

[Aside – though I was gone from the UA Cinema, I remained in contact with the cinephile’s there. Pat and Wendy, Karl, Stephen and Billie caught the film at the Music Box, too. We all liked it. Except Billie. For some strange reason she took umbrage to the red and green Lucky Strike cigarette packages, an Art Director’s touch that lent an additional layer of authenticity for the rest of us.]

On the first day I walked under the marquee, it was lettered with the title “Uptown Saturday Night,” a comedy starring Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier. Oddly, it was double billed with “The Getaway” (the Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw version, directed by Sam Peckinpah and written by Walter Hill).

I have a lot of memories linked to the entrance of the Fifth Avenue theater. At break times I relieved the cashier in the octagonal box office, which sat smack dab in the center of the entrance. I took tickets at the ornate doors behind and in line with the box office. I changed the posters in the large shadow box frames lining the sides of the entrance. And I watched one building come down, and another go up.

By the time we changed our bill of fare (two thrillers – “The Black Windmill,” directed by Don Siegel; doubled with “The Day of the Jackal,” directed by Fred Zinneman) some big changes were underway across the street. The Fifth Avenue sat across from the White Henry Stuart Building. Both were within that section of Seattle known as the Metropolitan Tract. This valuable acreage of real estate is owned by the University of Washington, having been the former campus of the school (prior to 1895). The decision had been made to demolish the White Henry Stuart building in order to put up a newer and bigger structure. Now as the wrecking balls moved into place and began battering away at the canyon wall in front of us, we were introduced little by little to views of the setting sun on Puget Sound. The pounding continued throughout our run of “Airport 75” (directed by Jack Smight), and the pile drivers added their tune somewhere along the line to our Christmas film, “The Front Page” (directed by Billy Wilder, assisted by Howard Kazanjian). By the time John Cassavetes’ film “Woman Under the Influence”  moved in, we were treated to the spectacle of a non-ending convoy of cement trucks adding their contents to the continuous pour that resulted in that “golf-tee” like structure that is the base of the Rainier Tower. And two huge cranes worked in tandem as the new building sprouted up forty stories.

At one of these change of billings, I was almost seriously wounded by a falling plate glass window. No, it did not wing in from across the street. I was changing posters in that afore mentioned shadow box frame. The posters were enclosed behind two huge pieces of sliding plate glass. A cylindrical lock slid on and off a bayonet-type piece of metal that was attached to the plate glass that slid behind the other. I had just unlocked and removed the lock, and was gripping the plate glass in front to slide it open when that glass cracked in half. All the weight of the upper portion of the window came down on top of my right thumb, glanced off, and crashed back into the box frame, instead of falling towards me and chopping me off at the ankles.

The incident gave me pause to reflect. I had the smallest of wounds on the knuckle of my thumb, a mere quarter inch long (and a tiny scar that lasted a decade or so). It left me with a deep sense of gratitude. A thankfulness for God’s protection from injury. Something I will always remember.

Confessions of an Assistant Theater Manager

Confessions of an Assistant Theater Manager

Early in 1973, I had switched from being a doorman at the single screen theater, the Cinerama, to a job as assistant manager for the UA Cinema 150 and 70 down on Sixth and Blanchard. It was unlike any theater I had worked in up to that time. Yes, I had toiled in twin cinemas before, but the UA was different.

It was a twin theater that was twin everything. Each theater had its own projection booth, and its own concession stand with their own stock rooms. They did share one box office between them. You entered through the box office area, paid for your tickets, and either went right to the Cinema 150 or left to Cinema 70.

The lobby of the 150 was striking. It was lit by chandeliers and the white floors made it brighter. The walls were decorated with white wall paper that was imprinted with a red brocade pattern (this feature always reminded me of an ice cream parlor). Stairs led up from the lobby to the auditorium filled with rocking chair loges. Whereas the ceiling over the 70 was normal, that over the 150 was a high dome structure.

There was something just a bit eerie about walking in this auditorium. You could sense the whole structure move slightly under your tread as you walked up the aisle, for underneath it was all wood construction.

Mr. William Shonk was the manager of the UA (and also the regional manager for the UA circuit). He was a reserved individual, who approached everything with a calm and collected demeanor. He was all business in his relationships, though on certain occasions a wry sense of humor showed through the cracks of his reserve.

Around the time Mr. Shonk hired me, Sounder graced the screen on the 70 side and was doing a bit of business due to its four Oscar nominations. We had quite a few school groups coming in to see it. On the 150 side Harold and Maude shared a bill with Travels with My Aunt.

I wasn’t much older than the rest of the staff, the box office cashiers, the concession workers, and the ushers – most memorably – Karl, Wendy, Billie, and Fabio. (Add Wendy’s boyfriend Pat and you could not find a crazier bunch of cinephiles).

Given the responsibility to manage workers roughly the same age, was perhaps not the best situation, especially when we had time on our hands and the boss wasn’t around. The one instance along this line that I recall occurred just after putting a matinee show in. Concessions were restocked, the lobby was swept clean and empty of customers, (they were all in their seats, with eyes on the show, and not on us). Our breaks were upcoming for which we would each pour ourselves a small drink and use a similar cup for some popcorn (if you wanted candy or ice cream you had to pay for it). But since it was not yet break time, what else could we do?

That’s when curious minds enquired away. I must have been returning a stack of cups to their case, having misjudged how many were needed to refill the dispensers. That’s when I asked myself – “What would happen to this paper cup, if it were filled within a half inch from the top and set on fire?” Would it continue to burn when it reached the level of the liquid? Or would it continue to consume the outside of the cup where it had a dry surface and oxygen? Why don’t we experiment?

So, we did. We made sure to conduct it in a clear area behind the door to the stock room well away from anything else flammable. We took a small cup, filled it with some water, and set the lip on fire. It caught easily and made a neat ring of flame around the top. And as you may have guessed it extinguished itself when the cup burned down to the level of the water. And we learned another little fact – the wax on the cup had melted and spread across the surface of the water holding it in place.

Although this was an interesting bit of information, I have yet to employ the knowledge gained in any useful way.

Just Trying to Help

Just Trying to Help

I worked with an interesting set of people at the Cinerama. Jack Hamacher was the manager, but I did not see him much after he hired me. He was more of a delegator and kept behind the scenes, (in stark contrast to my dad’s style of managing). Mr. Hamacher’s style was more of the older generation that came up in the forties and fifties. Corinne Strello worked the box office and had for years. She was a blonde fashion plate, and held aloof like her boss. I did what I could to help at every opportunity and kept a low profile.

My favorite on staff was the assistant manager, Mr. McKnight. He had direct supervision over me, the lowly doorman. His was a gentle command with a calming presence. His smile wreathed a cherubic face that matched the rest of his body. For he was barrel-chested, right down to his toes. I would harken to his Mr. Magoo like voice (which he matched in tone, if not cadence), and do my chores, often with him lending a hand beside me.  And he had a little buzz of a laugh as he would tell a joke to wile away the slow periods between crowds.  He saw to it that I was free to go after the last show was passed in, while he stayed until the last customer had left and the last light turned off. This usually got me off around 10pm. It was a blessing not to be there until after closing which in some cases could be well after midnight.

One night when Mr. McKnight sent me on my way, I got in my Roadrunner and pointed her homeward. By habit I wended my way over to I-90. I dropped down off of a hill and pulled in behind a car stopped at a traffic light. The car ahead of me was held back on the same incline that I was. Once the light would change we would each pull forward down off of this slope and level off onto a street that eventually fed into I-90.

The light changed and the vehicle ahead of me pulled forward and bounced a bit as it met the new level surface. Before I moved forward I was shocked to see a gush of gasoline push back that car’s licence plate and splash all over the road ahead of me. I drove forward and soon was on I-90, the car with the problem some distance ahead of me.

It was obvious that this person with the “leaking” car had just refueled, and somehow had failed to replace their gas cap, probably leaving it at the station. Soon we were through the tunnel and down on the pontoon bridge headed towards Mercer Island. My mind was a whirl as to what to do next. There were two lanes both directions, but they were narrow ones, and with the tricky to negotiate “bulge” up ahead I decided not to go alongside. Periodically more gasoline spurted out the back, due to some unseen circumstance or condition.

Passing over Mercer Island I was still pondering my options. It was night, and not being a cop, I really could not pull them over. I decided to wait to see if it continued the way I was going. If the person took I-405 South I would attempt to alert them to their dangerous situation. Visions of carelessly tossed matches plagued me.

At the I-405 exchange, the vehicle took the ramp for I-405 southbound. So it was decided. I sped up – easy to do in a Roadrunner – took to the passing lane and drove up beside the doomed auto.  I honked my horn and waved. It was a woman at the wheel, alone. She sped up. The fact of her sex made it worse. Should I try again and risk terrorizing her? This time, visions of discarded cigarette butts, glowing red.

I scrawled a quick sign on a piece of paper with a pen, and charged up beside her once again. I held up the sign to my passenger window and honked. We were beside an off ramp. She took it. Just to get away from me, I thought.

I kept on in the passing lane. In my rearview mirror, I could see her headlights stopped at the top of the ramp, poised for a turn onto the overpass. I could only imagine how scared she must be. She appeared to stay there. I hoped she was near her destination. And I hoped she soon would discover the problem with her gas tank, and perhaps know that the crazy guy in the Roadrunner was just trying to help.