Dinner at the Golden Lion or I eat snails

Dinner at the Golden Lion2

When I think of Christmas in the workplace, it always recalls to my mind A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (as I am sure it does many of you), and in particular, one of Dickens’ characters whom we meet in Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Past, Mr. Fezziwig. There is something very attractive and warm about this character, the first example to the young Scrooge as a man who knew how to “keep Christmas.”

And when I remember Bud Saffle, my old boss at the Saffle Theater Service, echoes of Fezziwig reverberate, at least for one occasion – the office Christmas party.

That one year, Bud and his wife Diane, took his employees – myself and Lori B. (with our significant others) to the Olympic Hotel and its renowned Golden Lion restaurant. It was situated up in the area nearby my old workplace, the Fifth Avenue Theater. Though I had been working within spitting distance of this destination for a couple of years, I had never seen it, much less been in it. (We were more familiar with establishments of the fast food variety).

The Golden Lion was a high-toned eatery with decor and a wait staff decked out in a style reminiscent of the British Raj. (Turbans adorned those flaming the special dishes). It was a mite intimidating for one who didn’t know a chafing dish from a salad bowl. But our host put us at ease, and told us to order whatever we wanted.

Appetizers were first on the menu. Our first major decision. My eye landed on the word “escargot.” Having been a French major in college, I knew what those were – snails. I was not an adventurous eater, a truth to which my wife can testify. So, she was surprised when I opted for this gastronomic oddity. I admit I was curious as to how they would taste. And I learned that anything tastes GREAT in garlic butter sauce. Warm bread was supplied to mop up the extra.

After one bite of her appetizer my wife wished she had opted for something else. Perhaps one of the soups. She had ordered smoked salmon, easily her favorite fish, but in this instance NOT. One second through the smoke before serving, one step above raw, made her stomach blanche – (no, neither of us like sushi). I slipped her some bread with the heavenly butter garlic sauce.

The main dish selection was a foregone conclusion. We decided the minute our scan down the menu fixed on Chateaubriand Bouquetiere, a dish which just happened to be our favorite. We didn’t have to chew the rest of the evening. (The escargot had been springy, so for that course I got in all my chewing for the evening).

And dessert if I remember right was Bud’s selection, Cherries Jubilee in all its flaming beauty.

It must have been a banner year for the company. It was certainly a memorable Christmas dinner for us.

Moving on Up to Booking Films

image

The Seeley Theater in Pomeroy, WA

After I left the UA Cinemas 150 and 70, I applied for other “film biz” jobs in the Seattle area. One of the first places I applied was the Saffle Theater Service, a film buying and booking firm that covered the Northwest. I did not hear anything from them then, but soon after an assistant manager position opened up with Mann Theaters at their Fifth Avenue Theater, so I forgot about that application. However, the owner, Bud Saffle, must have remembered me, for a less than a year later something had changed and he contacted me with an offer for a position as his booker.

When I was hired on at the Saffle Theater Service, it was a big promotion in more ways than one. The salary was better to be sure. But so were the hours. They were regular “bankers’ hours.” A nine to five job. No more late, late nights. And there were other perks as well, but more on that later.

It was in a part of Seattle that was “new” to me, (possibly explained by the fact that it was in the opposite direction from the Fifth Avenue theater, and hence off my normal path). From our apartment on Fifth Avenue, I just had to head over to Westlake – a boulevard that cut diagonally across the regular grid. On the other side of Denny Way I took a right on John Street, and another right on Terry Avenue and looked for a spot to park.

I always took the Roadrunner and parked on the side of the small two story office building on the corner of John and Terry. The Saffle Theater Service was on the second floor on the Terry Avenue side. You entered through glass doors into a large open area, presided over by the company secretary and the company records. Mr Saffle had the office on the right; mine was beside his on the left (from its window, I could keep tabs on my Roadrunner).

Mr Saffle’s company represented about thirty independent exhibitors, i.e. theater owners, spread throughout the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. They were small town cinemas dating back to the thirties or before; or drive-ins from the fifties. Mr Saffle personally handled the larger accounts, the Mike Mercy Theaters of Yakima and the Kenworthy theaters of Moscow/Pullman. I had the smaller theaters around the hinterlands, like the Seeley in Pomeroy, WA. (It was only open a few months, being closed to store potatoes the bulk of the year). Of particular interest to me, was the Alpine Theater in Colville, WA. It was my Mom’s home town, and I was familiar with this theater, having lived in Colville when a boy.

Mornings were taken up with collecting grosses from our theaters and disseminating them to the pertinent distributors. You can be sure the distribs wanted to know, especially on Mondays after the weekend. They would press us to hold their films over (or try to get us to take off a competitor’s to bring their new title in – exhibitors and distributors have a notorious love-hate relationship). Monday mornings could be a real trial, especially for my boss, for he made all the big decisions – regarding hold overs and terms.

I had to learn new aspects of the “film biz.” Contracts, terms, booking dates and cutoff cards. Much of it was phone work, calling my counterparts with the distributors for film availabilities and terms, and advising my clients about what would perform well in their locations. Mr Saffle tutored me in the whole system that was in place governing the split of the box office monies, which is an interesting topic. Some films were flat $100 or $125, but those were always older films, usually booked as a lower half to a double bill. The newer films were paid on a percentage basis.

The stated percentage is what the exhibitor paid the distributor. So, for instance if the terms were 35%, that meant my client kept 65%. And that’s the way we liked it. Subsequent weeks bottomed out at 25%, and we liked that even better. Bigger films had bigger terms and required playtime commitments. For our bigger towns the minimum was four weeks. The first week was 70%, the second 60%, the third 50%, and the fourth 40%. If business held up the film could be held beyond that for 35%.

But there could be another wrinkle to the big term pictures – the dreaded 90/10. Each theater had an agreed upon house expense, the cost the exhibitor incurred just to open the doors for a week. (One which our firm always tried to negotiate up as high as possible). You would subtract that “nut” from your gross for the week, and of the balance you only kept 10%.  But hold on. There was an “if” involved. The distributor always took whichever was greater, the result of the 90/10 calculation, or the floor percentage for that week.

[Aside – I had heard one time that the whole 90/10 business had its origin back in the late thirties. An exhibitor came up with the formula in a bid that he put forth in an attempt to win the rights to show “Gone with the Wind” over his competitor. Then the floor was 25%]

When you ended up paying the floor percentage, you theoretically might not be covering your costs in that week. (And you always wondered why concessions cost so much. Many exhibitors would claim they weren’t in the film business, but in the popcorn business. They probably still do).

Then at multiple times during the week we had screenings to go to, (and the main reason I drove to work rather than walked). The distributors arranged these for film buyers in the exchange area to see their new product in advance of their release.

It was a much anticipated perk.

But more on that next time – so stay tuned and Watch This Space.