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.

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me and American Grafitti

me and American Grafitti

The summer of 1973 was coming to a close. I was still at the Renton Cinemas working as an usher and a doorman. Changes lay around the corner though, all of which I was happily unaware.

What I was aware of was my excitement for an upcoming release, booked for the Cinemas. The buzz out of LA and the GCC booking department was that a ground breaking film was going to light up the waning days of summer. They had screened a film by a young film student George Lucas. And they were high on it. The title was a little out of the ordinary, a puzzler actually – AMERICAN GRAFITTI.

The booking department was right. American Grafitti became a surprise sleeper hit. We simply did not have enough seats for all the people who wanted to see it. I saw it. Many times. And in many pieces. And its music filled the auditorium.

For it was a favorite to slip in on and catch a scene here and there. And indulge in the usher’s pastime – watching the audience. (A wise man once told me that there are three audiences – others; you, yourself; and the audience of One [God]). Here I was an audience to the audience. And I was enjoying their pleasure in seeing something for the first time.

The all time favorite scene to catch was the race at the end between Ron Howard and Harrison Ford (and the build up supplied by Booker T and the MGs – Green Onions). There was a built in excuse. An usher had to be on hand anyway, to open the doors and direct the customers out. Word had circulated that an in-joke had been included by the filmmakers when they made this film. The license plate for Harrison Ford’s vehicle read THX138, a reference to Lucas’ student film THX1138, which he later remade into his first feature film for Warners.

After hearing this, I went in to check it out. And the rumors were right. There it was in Technicolor. But I also couldn’t help but notice the license plate on the other car. GLD204. Did that mean anything?

Then it came at me in a rush. The GL must stand in for George Lucas; and after a puzzling moment I decided that the D must be for Director. And it all made perfect sense. Perhaps it is all only a coincidence, but…

In a town where you are only as good as your last project, film, or whatever; you are in competition with yourself, always having to surpass the one before.

Cue – All Summer Long by the Beach Boys.

Wild Assistant Managers I Have Known

Cinema 1 & 2 Renton Washington

Cinema 1 & 2 Renton Washington

Even though my Dad was the manager and was usually working when I was, I had more contact with his assistants when I was on the job.  As manager he had more important things to do than supervise the floor staff, i.e. the doormen and ushers. That chore fell to the assistant manager. The manager looked after the ticket and concession cashiers, the ones most responsible for the money coming in.

Many assistant managers passed through the Renton Cinemas. Some went on to become full managers, either for GCC as it expanded in the area (and elsewhere), or taking a position with the opposition. And some just couldn’t cut it, and moved on to other businesses, one with more humane hours.

Warren was an odd duck. Full of advice for younger people, though I don’t believe he was much older than thirty himself. He had a wife and a child, but he never brought them around the theater. In fact, in many ways he didn’t act married. He came by himself to company parties, sporting an eye-patch when it was a costume party, like the character from the Brenda Starr comic. He left employment under suspicion.

Mr Lambert wasn’t much older than a lot of us, and looked younger. He was a Marine vet, having done a tour in Vietnam. But what intrigued us most – he had been a member of a local rock band –  a one hit wonder, and as such had shared the stage with a big group as an opening act (I thought it was either the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, but have yet been unable to verify). We were glad for him when he moved on to a better job, but sad for ourselves, for he was fun to work with.

Then there was my Uncle Bud, married to my mom’s sister.  He came to show business after a twenty year career in the Air Force. Hailing from Rome, Georgia, my dad always called him Rebel. Of course in return he always referred to my dad as Yank. So there was a good-natured back and forth, as they bantered in the office during closing on weekends. To me he was more of a “Dutch uncle” who offered advice on life and did his best to push my girlfriend and me together – though he did tease her mercilessly at every opportunity.  He later became a theater owner himself down in Puyallup and then built a little twin cinema in Long Beach Washington. He’s gone now. I’ll always remember the missing man formation of C-130s that came in low and slow over his gravesite at his memorial service.

A few years later, I myself joined the ranks of wild assistant managers. But those stories are for another day.

Boeing Takes Off on Airport

Boeing Takes Off on Airport - top

Certain films had scenes which were fun for an usher to check out again and again. Not only to just enjoy the vibe, but also to observe the reaction of the audience to what for them was a brand new experience. I liked to slip into the back of the theater when Airport was winding down to its conclusion, when George Kennedy, as his character Joe Patroni adverted disaster by driving a stranded 707 out of harm’s way. He succeeds despite dire warnings that structural damage to the plane was imminent. The young man in the cockpit with him exclaims, “The instruction book said that was impossible.” To which Patroni replied, “That’s one nice thing about the 707. It can do everything but read.”

This remark brought the audience, in many cases, to their feet. Some even danced in place, a little victory jig. For you see, many of them worked for the biggest employer in Renton.

Historically speaking, Renton Washington had always been a transportation hub. The railroad tracks around town gave you a clue that it was once a railroad crossroads. Now, in the seventies, the railroad connection lived on in Paccar – a manufacturer of railcars, trucks, and a supplier for parts for the even bigger company Boeing.  Boeing’s Renton plant was turning out (they would argue, and the dancers agreed) the best commercial airliners in the world. All three models were churned out on their assembly lines – the 707s, the 727s, and the latest the 737s.

It is for this reason that Art Silber, the GCC West Coast film buyer, was keen for this Universal release, based on the Arthur Hailey bestseller.  He wanted to acquire it for the Renton Cinemas. And he did better than just getting one “leg” of a wide release in the Seattle area. He put up a guarantee of twenty-five thousand dollars for an exclusive run and got it.

And it seemed like the entire population of Seattle, near and far, tried to get into the theater its first weekend. (Don’t tell anyone, but my dad pulled the last show of Anne of the Thousand Days, playing in the other auditorium, and ran Airport on both sides.  All to accomodate all those people standing in the line wrapped around the building). Airport remained at the Renton Cinema for the next 20 weeks.

Boeing also looms large personally, with many family members who have been or currently are on their rolls. My brother (the racer) is a machinist there, in fact the lead in the prototype department. My sister’s husband for many years was involved in their “blackbox” projects. Two of my wife’s brothers have each been there over thirty years; and her dad, when there, had headed up their audio/visual department (aside – Jeff Probst, host of Survivior at one time worked for him).

Somehow I missed being swept up into the Boeing conglomerate. But then again it’s just like the saying goes, “There’s no business like show business.”

Boeing Takes Off on Airport - bottom

The Blue and the Pink

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Our uniforms weren’t the only things blue. Part of the General Cinema identity, or “brand” as it’s called nowadays, were the shadow box screens in all their auditoriums. Gone were the heavy drapes or curtains hiding the screens during the intermissions. Recessed rondell lights bathed these boxes and the screens in a cool blue, a shade or two lighter than our uniforms. And a blue colored film leader was run before each feature presentation in which an animation of the GCC logo, the letters G and two Cs grouped in a form mimicking a film projector, accompanied by a catchy drum bumper.

Hung above the entrance to each auditorium was the word CINEMA, followed by a Roman numeral.  In Brockton’s case this was only I or II. The numerals were on hooks, so they could be taken down and the auditoriums swapped, dictated by which film was pulling the larger crowd. You see, Cinema II was half the size of Cinema I.

That is until The Sound of Music opened. According to its contract it was a road show, or reserved seat engagement. To that end auditorium II was selected, and there it stayed, week after week after week. Each seat was given a small metallic plate with a letter for the row and a number for the seat. The center sections had one numbering system and the sides another. And ushers became more important than ever. The customers selected their seats at the box office, and we helped them find the right ones.

Though our run was subrun to Boston, it was exclusive for the whole Southshore area. And it seems the whole Southshore came. By October 6 of 1966, we celebrated the 50,000th person to buy a ticket (the winner received some passes to a future show). My Dad also made it a practice to pass in for free to The Sound of Music any nuns attending in their habits. Word got out and we soon had nuns sprinkled throughout the performances.

Some one came up with a brilliant idea for an item to sell at the concession stand to the Sound of Music customer.  To anyone familiar with the film, they will remember the scene with Captain Von Trapp, Max and the Baroness sitting by the lake sipping pink lemonade. This scene is just prior to the intermission. So when the lights came up and the people trekked out to the concession stand they had something else to drink besides “tonic” (Eastern speak for soda pop), something else to enhance their movie-going experience – pink lemonade. And it was just like in the movie.

The Baroness – “Not too sweet, not too sour.”

Max – “Just too, uh… pink.”

 

Sorry Sir, but you’ll have to leave your bomb outside

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I was all of  fifteen, and could now get a job. All I needed was a work permit which was no problem at all, and a job. And that was no problem either, for I wanted to work at the Cinema and my Dad was the Boss. At times this would prove problematic, but in the main it was overlooked.

There was a hierarchy – manager at the top of course, then assistant manager, door men and ushers at the bottom.  Concession workers came under another heading, though in busy times ushers were expected to throw in and help them too. The best concession workers moved on to be ticket cashiers. The projectionists were mysterious union people hidden away upstairs, and in a twin theater constantly busy (this was before automation and multigigaplexes).

The ushers uniform was the same as the doormen, black dress shoes, tuxedo pants with the black silk stripe down the legs, white shirt and a black bow tie (clip-on), and a bright blue blazer, later emblazoned with the GCC logo on the left breast. Our main tool was the flashlight. We were trained how to greet people and offer them assistance finding seats. You would snap the light on, place its beam at their feet and proceed down the aisle. Usually they stated their preference as to area, and we did our best to satisfy their wish.

If it were busy, and the auditorium was filling up, you were expected to be proactive and “make doubles.” Single seats could be scattered throughout a row, and you would ask people to move over to free up two seats together.

With the show in, our next chore required our other tools, a short handled broom and a dust bin also on a handle. Easier to use than chopsticks, we would police the lobby for spilled popcorn and other refuse.

Sometimes we helped the doorman tear tickets. If the show was a popular one, and the lobby was full of people waiting to go in, we would unhook the control ropes, thus opening another entry point.  We could get them in and seated in short order, perhaps with the bonus of not having to usher anyone after the show had started.

I learned that life at the Cinema held a million stories and most of them not on the screen.

One day the doorman, whose nickname was “Honey” became unsettled after a new show had been let in. Reports were circulating in the news media about a Mad Bomber at large, spreading terror and his explosive packages in Boston and the surrounding area. One of the ticket holders to Honey’s mind looked suspiciously like the reported descriptions of the bomber. He took his report to my Dad. And while the staff kept tabs on the individual he called the police.

They arrived in short order. We took them into the auditorium to where the suspect was seated. The police didn’t fool around. At the point of their guns they brought him out to the lobby for questioning.

It proved a false alarm. And thankfully the customer thought the whole incident quite funny. He rather enjoyed the attention.

I Left It at the Barbers

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My father’s new theater was the Cinema 1 and 2 in Brockton, Massachusetts. The building was in the parking lot of the Westgate Mall. Its back was right up against the cloverleaf of the freeway. So it was a good location. And a popular one.

A spacious lobby sat in the center, with a long concession stand at the back as the focus. Doormen stood guard over the entrance to the theater auditoriums, Cinema One on the right and Cinema Two to the left. And inside ushers with flashlights would escort you to your seats. I would soon join their ranks.

But for the time being I would only pay visits, usually by walking from our apartment about a mile away. I had a bicycle, though I don’t remember ever taking it on the long trek to the theater.  One memorable time was after a heavy snow fall. The snow plows, as was their duty, had all been out early, especially in the mall lot. So there were long mounds everywhere, at least five feet at their summits. And a whole series were pointed in the direction of my travel. So I would trek to the top of the snow pile in my shoes (I still had an aversion to boots and hats), and traverse its length like Lawrence in the dunes of Arabia.

The mall had two large department stores, a Bradlee’s and a Gilchrist’s. Dad tells me there was a Plymouth bank where they made their deposits, and a Chinese restaurant, with whose owner he traded passes for takeout.  I only remember the barbershop.

By this time I no longer sported a Roman haircut, but I was still an oddity in that I parted my hair on the right.  I would instruct him to mind the part, taper the back, and oh yes, since one ear was higher than the other to take that fact into consideration when balancing the length between both sides. And one other thing, when using the razor on the back of my neck, watch out for the mole in that vicinity.

This was only an invitation to the barber to tease me. Come time when he put the clippers away and took out the razor, he would ask me, you sure you don’t want me to remove that for you? A mildly funny jest until one time he actually did it. He sliced it clean off. So along with the mole I left a little blood at the barber’s.

It was all an accident of course. Or was it?

The Summer of Bond, James Bond

Summer of Bond James Bond

As I related before my father held down two jobs in Salem, one as driver for the Salem Laundry and the other as assistant manager at the Paramount Theater. Around about 1964, an opportunity came to him to apply to a new up and coming theater circuit – General Cinema Corporation of Boston. They were the proponents of twin theaters, two cinemas served by one common lobby between them. (My father tells me it was all an accident. Their plans for a single screen cinema in the Peabody Northshore Mall, included a bowling alley and a restaurant.  When no takers came forward for the restaurant, someone in the home office of GCC proposed making it another screen instead. And the rest is history). The plus side, with two films running, the chances for success doubled.
The plus side for my dad – only having one job. For he got the position, and started at this complex in Peabody, just north of Salem. What it meant to me, was a whole new venue to watch movies in, and like the Paramount, for free.
My dad has some photos taken in and around the theater for special events. One clearly shows my brother and sister sitting in the front row for a re-issue of Cinderella. The opening day festivities were accompanied by a Disney artist and Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck. Where I was, my father can’t say.
If it was summer, I was probably next door watching Sean Connery. For that was the summer of Bond, James Bond. This was the beginning. Dr No, debuted in 1963 followed by From Russia with Love in the spring of 1964. Someone at United Artist had the bright idea to pair them up for the summer, and the Peabody Cinema played this double bill. (Cue – James Bond theme). It went gangbusters, and held over week after week. And I was there to watch them every Saturday.  After the thrill of the first viewing, it was fun to sit there in anticipation of observing the crowd react to their first viewing.
The following year, I started my bubblegum collection of Bond cards. This first series was in black and white and covered the first three films. Of all my card collections this is the only one that is complete.