The time I almost killed [name redacted] with a Gandalf toy
February 9, 2020 12:12 PM   Subscribe

Sex, drugs and Gandalf: Confessions of a movie theater employee [SB Nation]
“There I was, making the cones, while my coworker Justin popped popcorn. Then, the dares started. “Make the next batch of popcorn with double salt,” I’d say. “Quadruple-dip the next cone,” he’d retort. Then it got bad. “Put that plastic Gandalf figurine in the cone,” Justin said, gesturing to a toy that came with the kids meal he had for lunch. Trying to maintain my composure while laughing, I crafted the scoop of ice cream around the 1.5-inch Gandalf. I dipped it, wrapped it, dropped it in the deep freeze and didn’t think about it again.”
Some jobs immediately ingratiate you to anyone who has a shared experience. Working at a movie theater is one of them. I worked at movie theaters from age 14 until I left college, starting as a lowly usher in Sydney, Australia, and ending up as the senior manager of a theater in North Carolina. The settings couldn’t be further apart, but they shared something in common: Movie theaters are weird-ass places.
posted by Fizz (20 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
My first job in High School (and continuing over summer/winter breaks in college) was at a little 4 screen "art house" theater. We had our busy periods (I remember insane sell out weekends for "The English Patient") but usually just drew in the college student/senior citizen crowd. Because we were part of a chain (Hoyts originally) we had to be open in the summer when school was out (even though we maybe got 1 kids movie a year) so there was usually plenty of time to goof off. I remember one summer watching from the box office as the manager for the day decided to take her frustrations out on some cardboard standee that was headed for the dumpster, she jumped up in the air with both feet off the ground to give it a good stomp and promptly landed flat on her back there in the parking lot. Good times!
posted by Captain_Science at 12:30 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]

I worked at our local multiplex for four or five summers; can't say anything like his stories ever happened. The only stories I have is how every so often one of us would be sent back to a back room to pre-pop a shit-ton of popcorn (it was a coveted job because you could take off the dippy suit jacket that was part of your uniform) or how the concession stand workers quickly learned how to respond when people unthinkingly ordered an extra-large soda or popcorn (hold up the bucket to show them and say "okay, THIS is an extra-large. Just checking if this is really what you want?" Invariably they'd say "wow. Uh, lemme downsize....").

I had someone once ask me if the fake butter topping for the popcorn was polyunsaturated fat and I didn't know how to answer.

We had a guy who came to every 2 pm Saturday matinee when the Tim Burton BATMAN was in the theater; he actually WOULD order the extra large soda and popcorn, and then always lean in towards us conspiratorially and make the same joke: "I've been coming to see this movie every Saturday, and I'm going to keep coming every Saturday until the Joker Wins!" We would just laugh politely and he would happily be on his way.

Our manager required the ushers to do a theater check every fifteen minutes - and we were required to walk the full length of the theater, down to the front, and then turn around and walk back, so we were highly visible. When I was an usher the year that TERMINATOR 2 was out, I always timed my walks so that I caught the scene where Schwarzenegger was in that biker bar and later walks out to the tune of "Bad To the Bone."

Speaking of TERMINATOR - one night when that was there, we had some idiot park in the fire lane, and a passing cop told us we had to find the dude who did that and order him to move. The only thing we could do was send someone into each of the theaters and announce that the owner of the white car with license blah blah blah, you have to move it now. This task fell to me. I went into each of the theaters and made my announcement, sticking to script until I got to TERMINATOR. For that, I walked to the front of the theater and declaimed:

"Attention! We are looking for the owner of a white car, with license plate [blahblahblah]. Your car is parked in the fire lane, and is in danger of being towed. We urge you to move it now....or I'll be back!"

That last bit, of course, delivered in as close to a Schwarzenegger imitation that a 17-year-old rural Connecticut girl could achieve. But I walked out to the sound of audience laughter and applause, followed by the owner of the car scrambling out of his seat to find a new parking spot.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:38 PM on February 9 [45 favorites]

It is possible that after-hours staff parties included taking the lid off the Hawaiian Punch dispenser and pouring in a couple fifths of vodka for instant killer cocktails. Parties that didn't start until after the midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show. Hopefully we would remember to empty and clean the dispenser before the hungover shift for the 10 a.m. Sunday morning Spanish language films.

Oh, I have stories.
posted by rekrap at 4:20 PM on February 9 [7 favorites]

I've been at both tiers (worked one summer as a usher at a 12-plex, then was an "assistant manager" as a small 2-plex), and I can't say that we had anything wild happen either. At the 12-plex, it was a pretty simple job I was working over summer break waiting to head back to college - about the most "exciting" it got was being asked to do the stocking in the main storage room (the 'advantage' of being 19 in a job mostly filled by high schoolers). Being a manager, I got to watch a bonfire of a company (the late, unlamented Carmike Cinemas) get mismanaged - the theaters here were old and badly equipped, with projectors that would eat movies (we managed to destroy a print of Pirates of the Carribean during its initial run, to give you an idea of how bad things were) and other dated equipment. It was unsurprising that when real competition came into town (a "town center" mixed use development anchored itself with a Cinemark theater), Carmike pretty much took their ball home.

The theater I "managed" is now an empty lot.
posted by NoxAeternum at 4:57 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]

This is how bread ties end up in the onion ring batter.
posted by clavdivs at 8:11 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]

I was the head projectionist at a 8 screen 2K seat theater in Eugene for a few years. The day shift was mostly people I lived with that were from the punk scene. We were very lenient about tickets during the day. We didn't care. The theater was close to the river where homeless people would camp so it just became known that anyone that needed a warm place to hang out could come in and we would look the other way. As long as they bailed before 6PM when the general manager came in.

And we inventoried everything.. Except the nachos and popcorn. So if you brought in your own containers we would hook you up. And you might think this resulted in a lot of people. But only about 30 daily people came and nearly all were regulars.

And the day shifts were so incredibly boring it was fun to chat with everyone. The theater is where I learned empathy. I was just a 18 year old kid that had been in a bubble.
posted by johnpowell at 8:35 PM on February 9 [19 favorites]

y'all ever noticed that with the lights out theaters are completely deadass blackout

the kind of dark you don't get anywhere but a sealed room

it's a good place to play hide and go seek... FOR BLOOD

too bad I learned from a young age my fucking knees crack every god damn time I bend all the way down. otherwise I am a ninja.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:58 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]

We used corded leaf blowers to clean theaters between showings? People left so much trash in theaters we had to haul in leaf blowers to clean things up. And this wasn't a end of the night thing. This was between each showing if the theater was more than 25% full.

The routine was to leave 50 gallon garbage cans in front of the normal garbage cans outside the theater doors. If it was busy we would leave four. Popcorn tubs take up a lot of space.

Once people exiting thinned out we would go in with more wheeled cans to clean up tubs and soda cups. Then once the stage lights came on we would plug in leaf blowers and work from the back and blow all the garbage down to the front where we would sweep it up and put it in more big cans. We had the "scrounger". Their job was to look for half eaten boxes of candy and bills/change that fell out of pockets. And yeah, it was totally normal for us to eat the rest of your Sour Patch Kids and Red Vines. And the dollars that fall out of your pockets nearly doubled our hourly wage. I was making 4.25 a hour as a usher. It was pretty common to find a random 20 in a theater. And lets just say there are a lot of wallets and purses that are left behind that get stripped of cash and tossed in the compactor before people even notice they are missing.

If we we busy we just tossed to bags out the back exits and we would collect them later and put them in the compactor. Everyone wanted to collect bags since we would go out back and spend a hour smoking and killing a beer and management thought we were working.

Same with "theater checks". We were supposed to walk up and down each aisle every 15 minutes but everyone just walked right out the exit in the theater and sat behind the building getting drunk or high and came back in a hour later. It was a job of timing. Be there when you were needed (barely ever) and nobody noticed.

I have cleaned thousands of theaters and there is still one thing that sticks out. Jungle 2 Jungle with Tim Allen. For some reason that movie resulted in theaters that were 4 times as dirty as any other movie. Every showing was amazingly trashed. I still don't know why.

Oh.. The English Patient was probably my most amusing theater cleaning. It was a morning showing and it was in 120 seat theater and there were only a few people in there. The credits lasted for hours and I walked in and swept up a little pile of popcorn and tried to exit. On my way out a lady pushed me up against the wall and started saying "it isn't over until it is over". She held me neck and kept repeating that and I had to push her away to get out. I ran to the manager and told him what happened. Then she asked for a manager, it was the same manager and he said "you assaulted a employee and the cops are on their way". She quickly left.

That reminds me.. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. First Friday morning showing and Chris (I had just started working in the booth), had built the print the night before but didn't screen it. He made a major error. There are tiny strips of foil tape you put on film to signify events. Like switching audio formats or changing lights. He botched a cue to dim lights and instead sent the end of film cue. Which shut the dowser and pretty much acted like the movie ended. So after the trailers the light shut off and the auditorium lights came up.

The movie kept playing but nobody could see anything. And here is the thing. You can't really rewind film on platters. It turned into one guy getting real violent about me not being able to rewind the movie and the cops came.

I really want to stop typing but now I am reminded of Anthony. The movie was Scream 2 and it was in a 480 seat theater on a Friday night. I was one of the ushers. Anthony lost his shit and got naked and ran in front of the screen and started screaming and threatening to kill people. Keep in mind all of us made 4.25 a hour. Projectionist stopped the movie which made him lose his shit even more. It would be learned that this guy was a wrestler for a major university in Washington.

It was funny since once the guy was out in the hallway there were about six ushers just standing there in awe (myself included) and the general manager said we should do something about the guy. Not happening.

It took the cops a hour and about a football field worth of parking lot to subdue the guy.

I have about a bazzilion theater stories. Those aren't even the best ones.
posted by johnpowell at 11:51 PM on February 9 [21 favorites]

Grabs popcorn...

Go on ?
posted by Pendragon at 1:56 AM on February 10 [1 favorite]

I worked in a movie theater for 7ish years, between high school and during breaks from college. My favorite gig was switching out the movie posters and times in the window displays on Thursday nights -- it gave me first shot at taking whatever posters I wanted.

We gave free refills on all sizes of popcorn and drinks, and not infrequently, there'd be aromatic evidence of people spiking their soda. Nobody cared, we'd just leave them a little room at the top.

Our largest theater had a little balcony, only accessible via the projection area. Lots and lots of conjugal coworker co-mingling happened up there. There was overall a lot of coworker hookups and dating at the movie theater, more than any other place I've worked.

One time the FBI chose our theater to do a "To Catch a Predator" arrest. They came in , adjusted our cameras as they saw fit, had agents all over the place disguised as workers , customers, whoever, and had someone dressed as a young boy to meet this guy. It all went down without a hitch, and, of course, my shift started about 3 hours after they were all gone and I missed all of it. We also had someone thrown through one of our huge plate glass windows, which happened when I was an usher and was walking through a theater.

I really enjoyed my time there, and I keep suggesting it to people whose teenage kids are looking for their first gig.
posted by Sparky Buttons at 4:57 AM on February 10 [4 favorites]

My second job was at a three-screen joint in a county seat in WY, and boy do I have some stories.
Although most of them just involve OTC ephedrine, fun with spare trailers on the makeup table, and making dubious art out of standies. Did have a literal truckload of rednecks show up wanting to kick my ass once. And I once spray-painted all the napkin holders, after my manager jokingly told me I should paint all the sanitary napkin holders if I was looking for something to do (I had no idea what that was).
posted by aspersioncast at 5:19 AM on February 10

Did the rednecks have a good reason for wanting to kick your ass?
posted by tobascodagama at 5:57 AM on February 10

See also: The Flick
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:27 AM on February 10

I worked at a movie theater in high school, and it was the best possible job for me at the time. I've got a bunch of stories, but two stand out.

All our projectors were old and just barely keeping it together. One of them started eating film. You had to sit there and manually feed it a little extra slack to keep the film from breaking. It took two weeks for the repairman to get the replacement part to our rural town. That's how I ended up watching Roadhouse three times a day for two weeks.

The second story is one of my favorite filmgoing experiences of all time. They Live had a pretty dismal opening weekend. I'm a big John Carpenter fan, but was working, so I didn't get to see it. On Tuesday night, I was behind the concession stand, and only one couple came in to see it. My boss knew I wanted to watch it, so he let me off early. It was just me and the couple in the theater. I think the guy saw that Rowdy Roddy Piper was the star and wanted to see him do his wrestling schtick. But if you've seen the movie, you know the first part is mostly Piper as a homeless man walking silently and dejectedly through Los Angeles, trying to find food, work, and shelter. The wrestling fans were not down for this non-action, so they walked out in loud disgust. I was alone in the theater when Piper put on the sunglasses and saw the aliens for the first time. It was like the movie had said, "Those chumps left, now we can get down to the real business." The rest of the film felt like a secret message aimed at me. It's still one of my all-time favorites.
posted by vibrotronica at 9:07 AM on February 10 [17 favorites]

johnpowell: And lets just say there are a lot of wallets and purses that are left behind that get stripped of cash and tossed in the compactor before people even notice they are missing.

Wow, that's seriously dickish. Most of the rest seems totally fair, but at best it's annoying to replace all your ids and cards, and in some cases it can fuck up someone's life.
posted by tavella at 9:31 AM on February 10 [6 favorites]

I appreciate that, mate, but you should really tell your managers this is a crap idea. I almost choked on the bloody thing. Could have killed me.

Sounds exactly like something Russell Crowe would say, although I don't know what he would be doing at a Lord of the Rings premiere, since he wasn't in any of them.
posted by e1c at 10:16 AM on February 10

It's common at Broadway openings for celebrities to be invited so there's more star power on the red carpet. I don't see why a film opening would be any different in this regard, as long as the theater has enough seats. And he's from NZ, so has that tenuous connection to LotR.
posted by grae at 12:00 PM on February 10 [1 favorite]

I have cleaned thousands of theaters and there is still one thing that sticks out. Jungle 2 Jungle with Tim Allen. For some reason that movie resulted in theaters that were 4 times as dirty as any other movie. Every showing was amazingly trashed. I still don't know why.

johnpowell, I worked at a video store when Jungle 2 Jungle came out on VHS. The promotional cardboard standee was Tim Allen wearing a crown made of real feathers. Approximately 10,000 feathers came out of that damned crown each day and we had to run the stupid carpet cleaner (not a vacuum, one of those roller things) over each feather like 5 times. And our boss liked that standee so we had to keep it all summer.

What I'm saying is, Jungle 2 Jungle: clearly, the messiest movie ever.
posted by holyrood at 6:10 PM on February 10 [4 favorites]

My first adult job was as a projectionist at the 8th street playhouse in NYC. In 1985//86. This is where the Rocky Horror Picture show fad began. And it's true: projectionists are all just a bit crazy. Spending that much time in a tiny room, doing the same thing over and over, watching the same movies repeatedly, was...altering.

I projected Brazil for 7 months and watched it at least once per day. Loved it every time. At least once per show for the entire run, some man walked out in the middle of the film, enraged by the film.

Sat through After Hours at least 20 times.

The 8th street was the first movie theater built architecturally for sound. I used to put on a record of U2 singing the live version of BAD at a high volume.

The boss used to test your assiduousness at threading and checking your projectors that every now and then he'd loosen the catch on the bottom 60 minute spool. Once I started projector for the show and after about 45 seconds heard a huge clatter. I glanced out into the theater but the image was fine, being projected without incident. In the booth however it was chaos. The bottom reel had fallen off and film was spewing out onto the floor at a rapid pace, sixteen frames per foot, and 24 frames per second. I learned that to rescue this situation you need to quickly manually split and retape the film coming out of the machine. It's terrifying. Once I had it fixed the boss was outside the room laughing.

The job was awful. The job was amazing. The people. Evie. Mandy. Ian. Sean. Sarah. Jennifer. Sal. Oh man. The memories shape me. I was coldcocked by a shitbag and lost my memory for 12 hours. I saw John Waters laughing at Rocky Horror and smoking in the back row (we were the last movie theater that allowed smoking in NYC). I babysat the boss as he died of aids, and later went to visit his grave on Long Island with the rest of the staff after a 3 hour drive. I sold a pair of tickets to Wallace Shawn and Linda Hunt and I squeed right at them at how much I loved them.

I was told by a manager at a competing theater up the street how he and his staff robbed the theatre BLIND every week, by holding back tickets and reselling them. Not only had it never occurred to any of us at the 8th street to do such a thing, after we found out how lucrative it was it STILL didn't occur to us.

The 8th street was right in the same building as Hendrix Electric Ladyland recording studio. The recording studio is still there, the theater is now a CVS I think. Sad. We used to be able to sit in the coat closet upstairs and hear Rick Ocasic or Debbie Harry laying down tracks. Weirdest time of my life. Weirdest bunch of misfits I've ever had the privilege to work with. After the original owner died we were bought by a chain and it got unbearable. My girlfriend revealed to my slow mind that I could quit a bad job and my life has never been the same.

Fave thing we did as a staff: stood in the back of the auditorium during scary movies (HOUSE!) and scream in unison during the jump scares. Time it right and you can levitate a sold-out crowd.

The weird was amazing. Perfect first real job.
posted by asavage at 10:14 PM on February 10 [19 favorites]

....Alright, asavage, I'm curious now: Did 8th Street Theater use this particular kind of seasoning on the popcorn?

The theater I worked at did - I was there just a couple years after your theater stint, and this was a key element of any of the corn-popping we had to do. The last time we had a movie-theater-worker-related thread on the blue someone linked to that listing on Amazon and I had such an intense Proust's-madeleine moment at the sight of that orange carton that I ordered some, and still use it to this day.

Problem is that the stuff is probably about 60% MSG and 40% crack, because it was INSANELY addictive. Us concession workers would regularly bust out into rants about how much we hated the popcorn, all while standing directly next to the popcorn bin and reaching in to grab handfuls.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:08 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]

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