Confessions of an Assistant Theater Manager

Confessions of an Assistant Theater Manager

Early in 1973, I had switched from being a doorman at the single screen theater, the Cinerama, to a job as assistant manager for the UA Cinema 150 and 70 down on Sixth and Blanchard. It was unlike any theater I had worked in up to that time. Yes, I had toiled in twin cinemas before, but the UA was different.

It was a twin theater that was twin everything. Each theater had its own projection booth, and its own concession stand with their own stock rooms. They did share one box office between them. You entered through the box office area, paid for your tickets, and either went right to the Cinema 150 or left to Cinema 70.

The lobby of the 150 was striking. It was lit by chandeliers and the white floors made it brighter. The walls were decorated with white wall paper that was imprinted with a red brocade pattern (this feature always reminded me of an ice cream parlor). Stairs led up from the lobby to the auditorium filled with rocking chair loges. Whereas the ceiling over the 70 was normal, that over the 150 was a high dome structure.

There was something just a bit eerie about walking in this auditorium. You could sense the whole structure move slightly under your tread as you walked up the aisle, for underneath it was all wood construction.

Mr. William Shonk was the manager of the UA (and also the regional manager for the UA circuit). He was a reserved individual, who approached everything with a calm and collected demeanor. He was all business in his relationships, though on certain occasions a wry sense of humor showed through the cracks of his reserve.

Around the time Mr. Shonk hired me, Sounder graced the screen on the 70 side and was doing a bit of business due to its four Oscar nominations. We had quite a few school groups coming in to see it. On the 150 side Harold and Maude shared a bill with Travels with My Aunt.

I wasn’t much older than the rest of the staff, the box office cashiers, the concession workers, and the ushers – most memorably – Karl, Wendy, Billie, and Fabio. (Add Wendy’s boyfriend Pat and you could not find a crazier bunch of cinephiles).

Given the responsibility to manage workers roughly the same age, was perhaps not the best situation, especially when we had time on our hands and the boss wasn’t around. The one instance along this line that I recall occurred just after putting a matinee show in. Concessions were restocked, the lobby was swept clean and empty of customers, (they were all in their seats, with eyes on the show, and not on us). Our breaks were upcoming for which we would each pour ourselves a small drink and use a similar cup for some popcorn (if you wanted candy or ice cream you had to pay for it). But since it was not yet break time, what else could we do?

That’s when curious minds enquired away. I must have been returning a stack of cups to their case, having misjudged how many were needed to refill the dispensers. That’s when I asked myself – “What would happen to this paper cup, if it were filled within a half inch from the top and set on fire?” Would it continue to burn when it reached the level of the liquid? Or would it continue to consume the outside of the cup where it had a dry surface and oxygen? Why don’t we experiment?

So, we did. We made sure to conduct it in a clear area behind the door to the stock room well away from anything else flammable. We took a small cup, filled it with some water, and set the lip on fire. It caught easily and made a neat ring of flame around the top. And as you may have guessed it extinguished itself when the cup burned down to the level of the water. And we learned another little fact – the wax on the cup had melted and spread across the surface of the water holding it in place.

Although this was an interesting bit of information, I have yet to employ the knowledge gained in any useful way.

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.