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.

Buzzing Along Under the Monorail

buzzing-along-under-the-monorail

There I was on a trip, zipping along under the monorail. It was surreal, almost psychedelic.

Visions of 2001: a Space Odessey.

But I get ahead of myself.

Our world as a married couple expanded a bit when my wife took a new job at Virginia Mason Hospital. So our footprint in Seattle was enlarging. She had a further distance to travel, double what it took me to go to the Fifth Avenue Theater. She easily walked it. Or depending upon schedules I was sometimes able to drop her off at the Spring St entrance.

For the past five years we had been pretty insulated, having met each other in show biz, it seems the only people we knew were family or in show business (and a good percentage of individuals in those two categories overlapped).

At Virginia Mason she worked in the kitchen, cutting raw produce for the hospital cafeteria and for the patients’ meals. Carrots and celery for instance. In fifty pound bags – character and muscle building.

She co-ordinated closely with one of her co-workers, Dan Daniels. His job was to receive the produce, store them, then distribute them where and when needed; i.e., her cutting board. Not too long after she started there, he invited the two of us up to his home to introduce us to his wife, Mary. And for many times after.

Dan and Mary lived in the Queen Anne District, which, as some readers may know, is north of the downtown Seattle area. We were only familiar with a few things up in that neck of the woods. Things like the Pacific Science Center and the Space Needle; and our favorite restaurant at the time, Bloch’s.  (It was great for after a show. We came for the sandwiches. I always had the hot pastrami, and my wife had the prime rib. Yum).

Dan and Mary were fun-loving, festive folks. And holidays for them were always an excuse for a party. They were also artistic souls and everything was always tastefully decorated to the hilt. They introduced us to other things as well.

It must have been a New Year’s Eve celebration. There were noisemakers and party hats. And champagne at midnight. I believe it was the first time I had ever sampled the “bubbly.” I had had beer before, and that always with food, and never to the point of drunkenness. This new concoction was definitely something different.

It’s why I found myself in the passenger seat of the Roadrunner, buzzing along under the monorail at night back to our apartment. The supports to the monorail track flicked by with rythmic regularity. Any lights we passed seemed to bend around and through the windshield and side window and funnel somehow through my wide awake eyes, directly into my brain. It really was the “light show” segment from “2001.” The swift motion of the vehicle that cradled me, instead of comforting, added an element of creepiness, an edge of unease.

That “trip” contributed a great deal to the reasons I have been a teetotaler for the majority of my life.

Spokane, Expo ’74 and Henry Fonda

Spokane Fair

Sometime in the summer of 1974 we took a little roadtrip. My wife and I packed up the Roadrunner and headed east. We stopped down in Renton and borrowed her parents’ camper trailer and hitched it to our car with the black racing stripes.

Before hitting I-90, we picked up my sister and her fiance to take them along for the trip. Our destination was Spokane and Expo ’74 which had opened three months prior. We sped along at the 55 mph speed limit set after the fuel crisis precipitated by problems in the Middle East the year before. We did not go into Spokane the first day, but set up the tent at a wooded campground somewhere west of the city.

The next day we left the camper trailer set up on its site and took the Roadrunner into town unencumbered. The fair had been built right in the center of Spokane along the Spokane River, on land reclaimed from blighted industrial and railroad properties. One of the sights was a clock tower left standing when the rest of the Great Northern railroad station was taken down. We spent the day walking the grounds or in the skyrides, seeing the sights. One of the skyrides went over the river falls and underneath the Monroe Street bridge, the same street that was the bete noir of my childhood when my family lived in Spokane.

The US pavilion had an IMAX theater which ran a film entitled “Man Belongs to the Earth.” This was in keeping with the stated purpose of the Expo, a focus on the environment. Chief Dan George narrated and appeared in it.

Of all the exhibits, I was most intrigued by the one offered by the Czechs which, oddly enough, was housed within the Washington State pavilion. Called Kino-Automat, its small auditorium was rigged for audience participation. Each viewer had access to two buttons. At a half dozen points in the film “One Man and His World,” you were given the opportunity to decide between two options as to what would happen next. The vote was tallied live on the screen before it continued on its way. A good thing it was a comedy.

We returned to the tent camper for dinner and to prepare for the evening event. We had tickets for the Spokane opera house, the largest venue in the Washington State pavilion. On its stage that night we saw Henry Fonda in the one man show Clarence Darrow. Our seats were in the balcony; so we had a fine, but distant view of chairs, a rumpled suit, a necktie and suspenders. And a very recognizable voice. The fact that it was a monologue did not help my attention span. It had been a long and tiring day, so at points I nodded off. We were soon to get a closer view.

When the curtain dropped, we gathered together and picked up the Roadrunner in the adjoining parking garage. At the moment we emerged down the exit onto the street, we almost ran into a passing limousine. We realized at once that Henry Fonda was sitting in the back seat of the limo. He leaned forward and stared out at us. We returned the favor, sped up and took this shot.

Henry Fonda in his Limo

Thus ended our memorable day at the fair.

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.

Hitchcock and Me

Hitchcock and Me

I had to do some research to nail down the time period that I was at the Cinerama theater. As I mentioned in a former post, the theater changed hands some time during my tenure there. I was able to run down the date that this occurred by checking with the Seattle Times newspaper website. On August 15, 1972, the Cinerama was taken over by the Sterling Recreation Organization.

Using this same site I was able to track down the films that were booked at the Cinerama and hopefully to trace back to the time I started. I am not quite one hundred per cent sure, but I think I began when Stanley Kramer’s film, Bless the Beasts and Children was playing there, which puts the date as sometime in November 1971. I don’t think many people are familiar with this film. Not many saw it when it was out. It was a “coming of age” story about a bunch of misfit boys out to save a herd of bison from slaughter.  It wasn’t long before a second feature, the sci-fi film Marooned was added to it to help out.

From then until the take over, I tore tickets for:

Ryan’s Daughter – by one of my favorite directors – David Lean

Sometimes a Great Notion – Paul Newman (starred and directed) which might have been a re-release as it opened originally in 1970

A Clockwork Orange – Kubrick – this carried an “X” rating for its violence and controversy

Silent Running – directed by Doug Trumbull (famous for the SFX on Kubrick’s 2001)

While Bruce Dern and his robots Huey, Dewey and Louis were trying to save the last of Earth’s plant life, another figure joined the lobby to promote an upcoming film. And I had my eye on him.

Alfred Hitchcock was a great showman as well as a legendary director. For his upcoming film he had had full size cutouts of his standing figure created for theater lobbies across America. There he stood with a finger pointed at whomever he was facing. And attached to the back of the figure was a small tape recorder that continually played a message from the Master of Suspense – all centered around neckties – to huckster for his latest film – Frenzy.

I prevailed upon Mr. McKnight to give me the cutout after the film completed its run. And he acceded to my request, but not until after the run was stretched a bit when Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me was added to boost the attendance.

When Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask” moved in, I moved Hitch out and gave him a ride home in my Roadrunner.

Upon arriving home, I propped Hitch up on the front step and rang the doorbell. When my Mom answered the door, she must have jumped a foot in the air, and three feet back. After she recovered her composure, she told me, “Let’s do it to Dad!”

So we did.

Just Trying to Help

Just Trying to Help

I worked with an interesting set of people at the Cinerama. Jack Hamacher was the manager, but I did not see him much after he hired me. He was more of a delegator and kept behind the scenes, (in stark contrast to my dad’s style of managing). Mr. Hamacher’s style was more of the older generation that came up in the forties and fifties. Corinne Strello worked the box office and had for years. She was a blonde fashion plate, and held aloof like her boss. I did what I could to help at every opportunity and kept a low profile.

My favorite on staff was the assistant manager, Mr. McKnight. He had direct supervision over me, the lowly doorman. His was a gentle command with a calming presence. His smile wreathed a cherubic face that matched the rest of his body. For he was barrel-chested, right down to his toes. I would harken to his Mr. Magoo like voice (which he matched in tone, if not cadence), and do my chores, often with him lending a hand beside me.  And he had a little buzz of a laugh as he would tell a joke to wile away the slow periods between crowds.  He saw to it that I was free to go after the last show was passed in, while he stayed until the last customer had left and the last light turned off. This usually got me off around 10pm. It was a blessing not to be there until after closing which in some cases could be well after midnight.

One night when Mr. McKnight sent me on my way, I got in my Roadrunner and pointed her homeward. By habit I wended my way over to I-90. I dropped down off of a hill and pulled in behind a car stopped at a traffic light. The car ahead of me was held back on the same incline that I was. Once the light would change we would each pull forward down off of this slope and level off onto a street that eventually fed into I-90.

The light changed and the vehicle ahead of me pulled forward and bounced a bit as it met the new level surface. Before I moved forward I was shocked to see a gush of gasoline push back that car’s licence plate and splash all over the road ahead of me. I drove forward and soon was on I-90, the car with the problem some distance ahead of me.

It was obvious that this person with the “leaking” car had just refueled, and somehow had failed to replace their gas cap, probably leaving it at the station. Soon we were through the tunnel and down on the pontoon bridge headed towards Mercer Island. My mind was a whirl as to what to do next. There were two lanes both directions, but they were narrow ones, and with the tricky to negotiate “bulge” up ahead I decided not to go alongside. Periodically more gasoline spurted out the back, due to some unseen circumstance or condition.

Passing over Mercer Island I was still pondering my options. It was night, and not being a cop, I really could not pull them over. I decided to wait to see if it continued the way I was going. If the person took I-405 South I would attempt to alert them to their dangerous situation. Visions of carelessly tossed matches plagued me.

At the I-405 exchange, the vehicle took the ramp for I-405 southbound. So it was decided. I sped up – easy to do in a Roadrunner – took to the passing lane and drove up beside the doomed auto.  I honked my horn and waved. It was a woman at the wheel, alone. She sped up. The fact of her sex made it worse. Should I try again and risk terrorizing her? This time, visions of discarded cigarette butts, glowing red.

I scrawled a quick sign on a piece of paper with a pen, and charged up beside her once again. I held up the sign to my passenger window and honked. We were beside an off ramp. She took it. Just to get away from me, I thought.

I kept on in the passing lane. In my rearview mirror, I could see her headlights stopped at the top of the ramp, poised for a turn onto the overpass. I could only imagine how scared she must be. She appeared to stay there. I hoped she was near her destination. And I hoped she soon would discover the problem with her gas tank, and perhaps know that the crazy guy in the Roadrunner was just trying to help.