Moving on Up to Booking Films

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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.

Working the Fifth Avenue

Working the Fifth Avenue

Collage made from photos on the Fifth Avenue website.

As I mentioned in my last Memories post, I left the UA Cinemas and began a job as assistant manager for Mann’s Fifth Avenue in Seattle. It wasn’t an exercise of my own will that I left the UA. I was dismissed. The Manager Bill Shonk was being promoted, so the company brought over the manager from their theater in Spokane as his replacement. Russ (a Danny DeVito look- and sound-alike) didn’t take a shine to me, so he fired me to bring on his assistant from Spokane. Actually as it turned out, he had other plans, he needed a confederate to facilitate his thievery. It is heartening to know that what is hidden does not stay that way, but in the fullness of time will be revealed.

Anyway, I was on to other pastures, and the Fifth Avenue theater was a fantastic “pasture,” or perhaps a better analogy would be “rice paddy.” The Fifth Avenue, as most of the “Pleasure Palaces” built in the 20s and 30s, was designed with a exotic theme. In this instance, Imperial China. Like Grauman’s Chinese theater in Hollywood, the movie goer was treated to sumptuous surroundings – from the entrance to the lobby to the auditorium. And many critics consider the Fifth Avenue theater in Seattle to have “out Chinesed” Grauman’s. A story circulated that the Chinese dignitaries at the opening in 1926 marveled at the authenticity of the decor.

(Aside – I have seen depictions of the court at the Forbidden Palace in some films, and I had “deja vu” for the lobby at the Fifth).

My new boss was Johnny Bretz, a movie theater veteran, who began his career back in the thirties. He had started out at the Egyptian theater as a doorman and moved over to the Neptune as assistant manager. Both theaters were in the University District (near the UW), and at that time (1974) were art houses. In the 1960s he was a purchasing agent and auditor for the Evergreen State Amusement Corporation (a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox) with 18 theaters in Oregon and Washington. He moved onto the Fifth Avenue after Mann Theaters of LA acquired the assets of National Theaters Corp (Fox West Coast).

My first day, Mr Bretz took me on a tour of the theater, showing me the lay out, where the doors were to check and lock at closing, and where the lights were to turn on and off, etc. He briefed me on details regarding the concession stand, which sat between the two main aisles into the theater from the lobby. Then into the theater proper, the decor inside was splashed in red and gold and green and blue. Coming out from underneath the cover of the mezzanine and upper balconies I saw the main lighting fixture, a golden dragon with an ornate lantern suspended from its teeth. A white globe was anchored beneath the lantern. Quite impressive. He explained that the globe, according to the Chinese motif (and legend) was a “pearl.” We went right down to the front of the auditorium and over to the left side, and climbed a short stair up to the stage. He brushed aside the curtain and led me back stage. As we went along that stage wing with all the paraphernalia of a theater stage – switches for stagelights, ropes and counterbalances, it reminded me of those old movies like “42nd Street” and “The Zeigfield Follies.” That notion was reinforced when he led me downstairs and through the dressing rooms and a chorus room. The picture would have been complete if a crusty old stage hand stood nearby puffing on a stogie. (Well, actually, I met that character later, only minus the stogie).

While downstairs, Mr. Bretz instructed me in the mechanics of the theater’s air conditioning system. It was a water cooled affair. By my spatial sense, I judged it to be under the center of the stage and running perpendicular to its longitudinal axis. A huge lever switch was thrown and a enormous drum at the back whirred and hummed to life. The movement of the air thus created was forced over and around some radiator like structures with cold water coursing through them. And the resultant cool air was propelled onward and upward in the ducts to their apertures in the auditorium.

On another occasion I visited another area of the structure. The theater itself is located inside the Skinner Building, an eight story office building. It comprises the first five floors. Office space fills up two of the floors above that, and another was given over to a ball room. It wasn’t Mr Bretz who took me up to the fifth floor, I believe that it was the afore-mentioned stage hand (more about him in future posts). He unlocked this most ordinary of doors and ushered me into a remarkable space. The fifth floor housed the magnificent terra cotta ceiling of the theater. It was not as beautiful as what could be seen from below. Lots of steel bars – horizontal and vertical – ran this way and that, around which and to which the terra cotta had been formed and fixed. You could make out the shapes of things, but they were in reverse. The biggest part of the structure was the dome section under which you knew the dragon lurked and from which the lantern hung. To see all this you tread a very narrow catwalk. Surprisingly there were holes in the terra cotta through which you could see the auditorium four stories below. It was a little unnerving, for that material seemed oh so fragile. Come time to retrace my steps, I remember with pleasure discovering an old poster resting on the terra cotta – too far out for me to reach, but close enough to admire – the image of a curly-topped Shirley Temple in “The Little Colonel” looked back at me. (I checked, the film did indeed play at the Fifth, opening on March 12, 1935).

The Fifth Avenue was a little farther away from our apartment than the UA, but at only six blocks there was still no need to fire up the Roadrunner.