Dad and the Duke

Dad and the Duke

One of the perks of working in the theater business, besides watching films for free during the run, is to be invited to its premiere before it opens. Oftentimes they are a gala events with celebrities in attendance, be it the mayor or governor etc. But the ones that are really interesting to go to are those with celebrities from the film itself.

One of the more memorable events of this sort, at least for my Father and I, was one that was set for February 1974 at the 7th Avenue Theater in Seattle. The 7th Avenue was one of the old movie palaces in town, having opened in 1929. It was originally going to be called the Mayflower with decor to match, but the property was sold to another concern before it was finished and they did it over in Spanish Baroque (however they kept the Mayflower-like ship’s prows on either side of the auditorium that covered the organ pipes).

The event for which we were all gathered was the Northwest Premiere of the John Wayne film McQ.

The year before Duke had spent the summer of 1973 in Seattle (and the Washington coast) shooting exteriors for the film. He was all over the local news. Seattle Mayor Uhlman had declared the second week in that month John Wayne week, and the governor got into the act too by extending that honor throughout the state.

Little tidbits would pop up in the press about him, other cast members and the crew. Such as, during production Wayne was living on his yacht The Wild Goose which he kept at the Seattle Yacht Club and that he had brought his own chef along. Car ads popped up touting vehicles for sale that had been used in the film itself. And a flurry of stories swirled around the date of June 14, 1973. That was the date that his studio Warner Brothers had selected to hold the World Premiere of another Wayne film “Cahill US Marshal.” Also at the 7th Avenue Theater. We did not make this shindig, but it would have been really interesting if we had. Not only was the cast and crew of McQ on hand, but also those from “Cahill.”

[Aside – in attendance (besides the Duke) were Diana Muldaur, Eddie Albert, Robert Duvall, Clay O’Brien, Michael Wayne, Andrew McLaglen, Marie Windsor, and Jackie Coogan. Members of a third film dropped in too. James Caan and Marsha Mason from Cinderella Liberty were also shooting in Seattle at that time. Their director Mark Rydell came too, and for good reason. He had directed another recent Wayne film “The Cowboys”].

But at this World Premiere for “Cahill” some uninvited guests showed up. The tragic events at Wounded Knee were just two months old, fresh in everyone’s mind. And the American Indian community wanted it to remain there, so they rolled into town to protest this injustice by picketing the film and John Wayne himself, calling him the No 1 Indian killer.

At the time of the McQ premiere I was no longer at the Cinerama, but had switched over to the United Artists Cinemas 150 and 70, moving up to assistant manager. How I ever got a Saturday night off, I do not know, but I was there. I was on the left side section towards the back. My Dad had chosen a seat on the aisle that ran right next to the wall. I don’t recall if there were any other celebrities there that night, I had my eye on one only. And there was no mistaking that six foot four frame and the lumbering gait as John Wayne ambled down that very same aisle. Just before he came abreast of where my Dad was seated, Dad got to his feet and extended his hand to shake his. He was thrilled to have the Duke shake his hand. He had admired his films ever since ushering at the Paramount Theater in Salem, Massachusetts, and saw the likes of The Wake of the Red Witch and The Sands of Iwo Jima.

I asked my Dad about it afterwards. All he said was: “He had one helluva grip!”

The Seat Hopper

The Seat Hopper

As I’ve mentioned one of the jobs of an usher is to periodically check the auditoriums. Usually this would be some time after the feature started. You wanted to be sure that nothing was going on that shouldn’t be. You would enter one aisle, check the screen to make sure there was a picture up there, – that it was in focus etc., check the thermostat, spot any smokers and ask them either to go out to the lobby or to put it out. You then would exit out and go over to the other aisle, check the same things there (and to confirm that anyone you had had to talk to was complying with your request).
Once on one of these forays I ran into a little situation. I had just come in to the small side – Cinema II, and paused to get my bearings – sometimes you had to acclimate your eyes to the light, especially if the scene then on was a night time shot. It was a matinee and the auditorium was sparsely populated. A family had just entered, a mom and her kids. The mom chose to sit in the back, and her three kids raced down to the front of the auditorium and plunked down somewhere in the first five rows.
I was about to leave when I noticed someone sitting on the side section, get up and walk to a seat on the same side further down and across from the children. I had an uncomfortable feeling. I decided to stay.
He then got up and moved to the center section in the row behind them. We had a term for people that behaved in this manner – a seat hopper. They weren’t just trying to find a better view from which to watch the film, they wanted to offer a view of themselves, or worse. My father had told me about an incident with one back in Peabody, MA. Now it looked to me like we had one here in Renton, WA.
I strode down the aisle, and entered the row with the kids. I told them that they would need to move back with their mother. They didn’t want to leave, but reluctantly preceeded me up the aisle. I felt satified that any potential problem was nipped in the bud. The kids were out of harm’s way, and the “hopper” knew he was being watched.
However, the mother came out of her row and met me on the aisle. She upbraided me in a torrent of words, unintelligible to me – for you see, she could not speak a word of English. But I could tell, in her mind I was the villain that had chased her children away from where they had wanted to sit. I couldn’t explain my action. I could only stand there and take her villification.
Having said her piece, she gathered her brood around her and sat down.
I headed out with the words from that old saw nagging in my brain – “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Swiss Family Critic

Swiss Family Critic

Disney, through Buena Vista, their distribution arm, had a strategy in place since the fifties. You never saw their animation or live action features on the small box. After its release, they were locked up in their vault, only to be released after seven years had passed, the theory being that they would have a whole new generation to which to market it. And it worked. (And still does – since they do something similar with their DVD releases).
Now, in January of 1969, it was Swiss Family Robinson’s turn. I had seen it for the first time when my folks took us to see it at a drive-in theater in Spokane, Washington. I actually enjoyed it more than the playground down in front of the big screen. So I was excited to be able to see it again after seven years.
Things that you are enthousiastic about you like to share. And I was looking forward to the “usher” version of that – slipping into the theater for a favorite scene and experiencing it again with the audience – their first time, and my someteenth, enjoying their surprise or other type reaction to it.
Always a favorite was the pirate attack at the end. It was a heady concoction of action, suspense and comedy. Knowing that pirates were in their vicinity, the Swiss Family had made contingency plans to protect themselves: by building a redoubt on some high ground; putting together some coconut hand grenades; and placing logs and boulders at strategic places to roll down upon their attackers, and a personal favorite, the device rigged by Kevin Corcoran to warn of their enemies approach if they chose to scale the cliff at the back of their fort. Repeated viewings did reveal some of the secrets behind the movie magic. Everything happens at a break-neck pace, so the first time you see the rolling palm tree logs, chances are you didn’t notice one log with a pirate on each end that bowed severely in the middle when they all rolled across the top of a third, and rather plump pirate.
I was in a good frame of mind as I worked broom and dust pan, sweeping up spilled popcorn and wrappers in the entrance way to the theater that was playing Swiss Family. A thirtyish gentleman was standing there outside the closed door. I made the assumption that he had just seen the show and was waiting for the rest of his party before leaving. So I asked him how he had liked the show, assuming he had to have liked it. He rapidly disenchanted me of that notion.
From his snobbish height he looked down his nose upon my impertinence, and let me know in no uncertain terms that this film was nothing, nothing at all compared to the version he had seen in his youth. I was flumoxed. I’d never heard of another film based on the Wyss story. I thought perhaps he was confused and was actually remembering the first release of this version. When I put forth that interpretation, I offended him the more. He replied that his version had been made in the 1940s, and was in every way superior to this modern day interloper. He left me standing there, feeling no bigger than the popcorn kernel I was trying to sweep up.

(I wouldn’t learn until years later that there had been other versions. There was no IMDB in those days. There were some Film year books but I had no access to them. The version that he had no doubt seen was the 1940 RKO one starring Thomas Mitchell).

The Ushers Nightmare

The Ushers Nightmare

 

Out of the fullness of our days our dreams speak.

We spend a lot of time on our jobs. And a lot of thought is invested in how we go about what we do. It is true for any job. It is true for that of the usher.

Sure, our main responsibility was to seat people. On a rare occasion we had the privilege of helping a celebrity, like, once in Brockton, Al Hirt, the jazz trumpet player came in. He was in the middle of an engagement at the local fair. We seated him and made sure that no one bothered him.

On a regular schedule we would make the rounds and check the temperature in each auditorium, making sure that it was set in a comfortable range. We also had police type duties. We made sure no one was smoking inside. Obviously it was easy to tell it was going on either because of the smell or the smoke itself.  But sometimes it would not be clear as to who was doing it, especially if there were a number of people in the suspect area, for the perps knew this and would be on the lookout for those trying to stop them.

We also looked to the care of the seats, asking those who had their feet up on the back of the seat in front of them to please remove them. Often they were the same ones that were smoking, (and hopefully not that other bane of theater seats, the slasher).  And then there were the seat hoppers, but I’ll save that for another day and post.

Lastly there was that great danger to the order of society, those that would buy a ticket and when once in the auditorium and the coast clear would make a beeline to the exit door and open it to their non-paying friends. It was best to catch them in the act and eject them all from the exit door by which they entered. All of them. Even the one who had paid, despite his demands for a refund. He had forfeited that right. So  it is little wonder that in the wake of those times of guarding the exit doors, dreams ensued.

Or as in this one case, a nightmare. There is something about the image of standing across from an open exit door, with a crowd spilling in and mingling with the paying audience.  Dread and horror. And it came with an overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of anarchy and chaos. They appeared to my dreaming mind like respondents to a freaky casting call – the Village People, if you will, a full ten years before they existed. All I could think to do was to rush forward, shouting at the top of my lungs that they show their ticket stubs, and that anyone without one was going to be thrown out.

Where was Bruce Willis when you needed him?

(I know,  he was probably only 12 at the time and living in New Jersey).

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.