The Mountain Blows its Top

Eruption of Mt St Helens

We moved from Renton down to Vancouver, Washington in February of 1980. Just in time to see a mountain go up in smoke.

My Mom and Dad were already living in the area. We’d been visiting them for a couple of years  – (more of an imperative from their perspective, as we now had a grandchild of theirs to bring on our visits).

My Dad worked with Tom Moyer Theaters in Portland OR, an up and coming theater circuit (my Dad had made a switch from General Cinema Corp back in 1977). He passed on the word to me that they were looking for a film booker to help in their film-buying department. Film booking was what I did at the Saffle Theater Service in Seattle, so I had the skills and experience. And thinking it would be a good move, I applied.

I got the job, and a whirlwind move ensued. In short order, we sold our home in Renton, packed up our household and ourselves, and trooped down I-5 to Vancouver.

(Aside – I think my book collection weighed more than all our furniture and our individual body weights combined. The moving company miscalculated on their estimate – which created a problem. Mr Moyer would only pay the estimated amount and refused to pay their final billing. I didn’t either).

We stayed with my folks while we were looking at homes, and were turned onto a property by my Mom who had a friend wanting to sell their almost brand new home in the Hazel Dell area. We put our signatures to the contract on March 15 (the day that a series of minor earthquakes began to shake things up below Mount St Helens, a snow-topped cone in the nearby mountains), and were safely nestled in our new house by the beginning of April.

Things really began to shake after that, or so they reported on the news. For we never heard a peep from within our home, or from my folks’ house – where we passed most Sundays for supper. And their house was one whole hill closer to the mountain than ours.

We didn’t hear it on the day Mount St Helens erupted either – Sunday, May 18, 1980. Again, we were alerted about the event on the news, and immediately went outside to look. And there right from their front yard we saw what looked like a column of smoke, belching forth from the top of the mountain, and rising up and up, out of our sight. It was drop jaw, awe inspiring.

And that was not the end of it. More eruptions followed in the next five months, including one that sent the ash our way (the original eruption had exclusively gone eastward).  I had to go up on our roof and scoop the ash out of the gutters by hand. It was surprisingly light-weight and silt like.

And it was getting everywhere. Advise was being offered to car owners to make sure extra precautions were taken to insure that carburetors were protected against its intake. (Imagine a full roll of toilet paper substituted for the regular air filter).

We missed the last big eruption in October of 1980. Our attention was focused elsewhere.

For on that day, our son moved the mountain off of our minds by his birth.

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.