Not in Kansas Anymore

Not in Kansas Anymore

It was a crazy month leading up to our wedding. I got pulled over by a cop one evening. It had been a long day – school in the morning and work at night. Since I was now an assistant manager at the UA Cinemas 150 and 70, I had the responsibility to stay until after the shows were out and lock up. By the time I hit Mercer Island on my way home my Roadrunner was slowing below the speed limit and wandering a bit. Or so the officer told me. He was suspicious that I had been drinking. I assured him that “no officer, I’m just tired.” I guess I passed muster on that count for he let me off with just a warning.

The day of our wedding was both memorable and a blur. We were so thankful to my folks for their insistence that we take time after the ceremony to take dinner with them and the rest of our new extended families before departing on our honeymoon. Besides my (now our) Roadrunner was a mess. Neither Karen’s folks’ home nor mine were adjudged safe places to hide it. We had parked it in a large shopping center lot in hopes that the crew at the Renton Cinemas could not find it to practice their mischief on. We were unsuccessful.

But we were not stressed at all about it. And that was due to the efforts of my sterling best man Dave. We did not learn what had been done to it until he had taken care of the problems. He retrieved it after the ceremony, but he had to clean it out before he could even drive it – it had been stuffed full of popcorn and ballons – about three garbage cans full. He cleaned off the shaving cream that decorated the outside. And then there were the hubcaps that had been taken off and stuffed full of dirt and pennies that rattled around when he tried to drive away.

So we were relaxed and no longer in a blur when we set out on the road for our honeymoon destination, Victoria, BC. Now as you may know you cannot “drive” to Victoria, you have to take a ferry. And we set our first stop – Anacortas – from where we would depart from its ferry terminal the next morning. I’ll never forget the sight we saw as we were driving into this town that evening. There is an oil refinery just outside town that was visible against the night sky, bathed a bright green light looking for all the world like the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz.

And like Dorothy, when we woke up the next morning, we knew that we were not in Kansas anymore.

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

Pontiac Descending or I Hit a House

Pontiac Descending or I Hit a House

It was the Age of Aquarius. I wasn’t getting a haircut as often and when I did I made sure the barber left my sideburns long.

I had a new pair of bell-bottom jeans (which my mom said made me look like a sailor – but what did she know?).  I also had a “new” car. I don’t remember how long I had this, my third vehicle, but it was long enough to get into trouble.  The first two, the aforementioned Desoto and the subsequent unmentioned two tone green Plymouth were stolid monsters. This third one was more of a boat – long and wide and despite that, I may say sleek.

It was a 1959 Pontiac Catalina, white outside with a red interior. And it had tail fins – twin twins, two on each side. With the tail lights strategically placed under them on the back panel, it gave the illusion of the glowing red engines of a rocket. And with a 389 under the hood it had plenty of power.

I was all set to go out on a date. My first. But I didn’t know where my date lived. She worked with me at the Renton Cinema behind the concession stand, and had given me her address. I just wasn’t sure that I had taken the right turn off of the main highway.

So what was I going to do? There were no cell phones in that day. No phone booths in sight. And I didn’t want to go all the way home to call. So I backed into the driveway of the first house I saw to ask for directions.

I walked down the driveway and over to the front door and knocked. The owner answered the door and my question. I indeed had the right street, I just needed to go further up the gravelled road and hang a right in the stand of trees at the top. The trouble came when I went back to my Pontiac.

I hadn’t noticed when I backed in that my car was resting on some loose earth on that side of the driveway. I was soon on my back clinging to the open door as my car rolled down the incline. It was a slow but inexorable procession, only stopping when the rear end struck the garage door of the house. And only then was I able to gain my feet. Quite shaken.

After another round with my insurance company, I was on my way. For the Pontiac was in no way impared. I was able to pick up my date, meet her mother, and head to downtown Seattle  – destination the Coliseum Theater, where we saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. We both liked Paul Newman and Robert Redford, but she soon let it be known that she was not interested in me.

However, don’t cry for me. Soon after I would go out with another “candy” girl who was interested in me, and later became my wife. Instead consider the rest of the story and never wonder again why guys don’t like to stop and ask for directions.

The Wild Bunch Plays Havoc

The Wild Bunch Plays Havoc

It wasn’t normal for the Renton Cinema to play Warner Brothers films. They were normally exhibited at the Sterling theaters. But for some reason in June of 1969, we opened the Sam Peckinpah film “The Wild Bunch.”

It was a bit controversial at the time. I wonder now if that might have been the reason that we played it instead of Sterling.

The number of Westerns had been dropping noticeably from the studios’ release schedules, at least measured from the baseline of the fifties. But I checked this year – and there were surprisingly quite a few of various flavors – Support Your Local Sheriff, True Grit, Guns of the Magnificent Seven, Undefeated, and the year was sent off with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Paint Your Wagon. More germain to this instance, probably, was the opening of the John Wayne film – True Grit. It came out in the Sterling houses one week before the Wild Bunch. And that might have been another reason that Sterling passed, they might simply have had no room to open the WB title.

The Wild Bunch opened in our small house, Cinema II which only had 500 seats. It was an R-rated movie. And now being old enough to view it, I took it in on one of my days off. I don’t remember a movie to that date in my young life that was so disturbing. Sure, there had been moments in Lawrence of Arabia that played similar notes on my psyche, but they were not as explicit as the Wild Bunch. In LoA you saw the aftermath, not the blow by blow that was put up on the screen by Peckinpah. I have read that Peckinpah, when planning this film, wanted to make it as realistic as possible. He had it in his mind to translate his experiences hunting deer, to this violent story of men in conflict. His memory of the bullet impacting the body of the animal, led him to find ways to replicate that in the shoot outs that he would depict. Another WB movie had led the way in this matter. Bonnie and Clyde was one of the first films to use the squib, that explosive pack of red liquid attached to the body of the actor. Peckinpah set out to out-Bonnie and Clyde, Bonnie and Clyde. And he did.

I remember sitting there sometimes too squeamish to look up at the screen out of fear of what I would see. At times like those, one’s own identity entered into the equation of movie viewing. What if this were to happen to me? What would I do in a similar situation? Run for cover assuredly. I remember being suddenly aware that there was a mind behind all this, at work trying to impact the audience, causing their thoughts to flow in a direction of its choosing. Peckinpah says he intended it as an anti-war, or at the least an anti-violence statement. Was he successful? Not if that was actually his intent, for the violence was actually an attraction for many, and he himself was surprised and saddened by that fact.

The envelope had been pushed and there was no going back. Going forward the Western would not be cast in the sensibilities of the Saturday morning matinee western, a la Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy. Nor was any other film genre left untouched.