Movie Theatre Theater: Roasts, film edits, and the widow maker

TJ Wolf

Movie Theatre Theater: Roasts, film edits, and the widow maker

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About Me

I worked for a Movie Theatre (yes, it's spelled Theatre when it's the movies) chain in New Jersey from 1994 to 2001. Now I write articles about some of the characters and crazy situations I encountered while working at the theatre. Usually, when I tell these stories, my friends and colleagues laugh. They also think I make up the stories or I exaggerate for comedy purposes. I can assure you that I don't. Anyone who has worked a job with the general public in large numbers knows that life is really this absurd. So if you need a laugh or perhaps a sense of shock, proceed reading and enjoy the show!

Box Office Roast

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Box Office window...

"Hi and welcome to Cinema 6, which movie would you like to see this evening?"

Pretty easy, straightforward, and usually followed by...

  • "Ok, 2 for Lassie Blown Away at 7:00 PM. That's $15."
  • "Okay, out of $20 dollars. $5 is your change. I hope you enjoy your show."

Well, all of the above and more when "Sparky" was working the box office.

I'll call him "Sparky" versus his actual chosen nickname. He went by a nickname because his real full name was apparently a source of comedy roast fodder that can best be equated to Harry Hotdog in order to keep things clean.

Sparky was a retired senior citizen who worked the box office during the weekdays to make some extra money. He was a very kind man that would go out of his way to help and support others. But he was also a tough senior who had survived the Pacific Theater of World War II. He would tell me how he was a gunner on a destroyer that was sunk in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, was wounded by shrapnel, lost one eye, and spent 3 days in the water bleeding until rescue. He'd been through quite a bit in his life already. So when one of his favorite activities was calling his bookie from the box office phone, no one said a peep. At this point of his life he didn't really care what we thought nor would he take crap from anyone.

When you worked the box window, the customers on the outside could not hear what you were saying unless you spoke directly in front of this small slot. The slot was where you accepted cash and gave the tickets. There was a microphone system that died long ago, but the home office had no appetite to budget money for a replacement at such an old theatre.

So when Sparky was working the box office and a customer approached rudely, yelling, or with a snotty attitude, a sort of roast of the customer ensued behind soundproof glass.

One of the all-time classics...

  • Customer angrily: "Fine, fine. Just give me 2 tickets for that film Heavyweights" after angrily yelling at her son and blaming him for making her late.
  • Sparky: "Sure you don't 4 tickets so your fat ass can sit in three seats?"
  • Me: "Sparky you can't say that!"
  • Sparky: "Tommy you worry too much. She can't hear me."
  • Customer: "What did you say?"
  • Sparky leaning toward the open slot 'Ma'am I said, "Be sure to check the snack counter so your son can get some sweets"'
  • Customer: "Oh, okay then."
  • Sparky leaning back slowly while speaking, "Enjoy your show...and don't eat all the kids sweets you corpulent sow."

On another occasion, Sparky and I met early at the theatre after 2 days of emergency blizzard conditions. We met up early so we could shovel out the building entrances, fire exits, and walks in order to safely open for the business that evening. I brought my Dad's electric snow thrower from home to help with the removal process. Sparky grabbed that and I started shoveling.

As I was shoveling a giant SUV comes barreling into the unplowed parking lot of the mall and drives straight toward me. Sliding and spraying my pants with slush, it pulls up next to me. The passenger window rolls down, and after confirming to the driver that I was a manager, I am lit ablaze with complaints because she drove out to the theatre during the blizzard to come to watch movies. I apologized for her inconvenience that the theatre was closed for the blizzard. She demanded that she be compensated with free tickets for all 6 movies we are showing, multiplied by 4 for each member of her family. So 24 free passes. With slush and water now dripping down my work slacks, I tried to rationalize that the State of NJ declared an emergency for the blizzard, which meant that only emergency vehicles were permitted on the roadways that day, and no one could go to the movies. She wanted nothing of that explanation.

Ordinarily, we gave passes to make complaints go away, but come on...blizzard...plus she just soaked my pants with slush and water. Her barrage intensifies and his joined by someone who seems to be her mother in the backseat. "Mom" has now rolled down her window too. Sparky, seeing my predicament, now begins to head towards me with the electric snow thrower. The snow thrower noise is loud to the point the customer can't hear me nor can I hear her. Her screaming intensifies even more now and is coupled with a pounding of fists on the steering wheel like a temper tantrum. Her mother keeps pointing a crooked arthritic finger at me and looks like she is mouthing some kind of curse on me. Fortunately, I can't hear what she is saying. And then the moment of rescue arrives.

First, it was me being pelted in the head and back with snow.

"Sparky!!! Stop! You are spraying snow this way!"

Sparky continues his path. Next, the inside of the SUV is being pelted by the snow thrower including both the tantrum lady and her finger-pointing mother. Power windows roll up quickly and the SUV slides and fishtails away from the theatre at high speed. I turn around in shock, wet pants in the front and now snow in my hair, neck, and back of my jacket. Sparky turns off the electric snow thrower.

"Sorry, Tommy. Didn't see you there."

Then he grins, winks at me, and starts up the snow thrower again.

Creative Film Editing

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Occasionally the timing on the projector gears would be off due to repeat usage or vibrations. This could result in the sprocket teeth chewing up and damaging the edges of the 35mm film. Sometimes entire sections of the film would be badly mangled. Of course, customers don't enjoy a film that suddenly vibrates on-screen, jumps out of frame (like where a person's head appears at the bottom of the screen and his or her body at the top), or causes the scene to jump around like a comedy of bad sci-fi film because it's been spliced so many times. Well, I always dreamt of being a director of a famous science fiction film franchise...

Back in the 1990s, that dream came true and no one knows of my artistry until now. We had just received a copy of the 35mm print for a film from our sister theatre in the area. I'm going to call the film "Space Travel - The Cooking Captains". The print was a disaster. Entire lengths of the film were shredded. It was so bad that we usually had to station a red-shirted usher next to the projector with a hand on the framing knob to keep fixing it. Every time we showed the print, we had to give passes or refunds. And since we didn't expect to have it more than 2 weeks (we were a second run theatre), a replacement print would not arrive in time.

So after being taken to task by a yelling fan who was still irate after a refund, a pass, and possibly my not knowing the combination to the Captain's safe after he left his quarters in the last episode of the TV show, I decided to become a miracle worker and take action.

So I stayed late and my editing career began.

For example, two people on horseback that keep popping back and forth on the screen like some kind of matter transport device gone haywire, well that's cut.

Only took a few hours, many snips with the splicer, some splicing tape here and there, and a trash can of remnants.

Fixed! The Allan Smithee version of the film was born!

The remainder of the booking time had happy and satisfied customers who knew nothing otherwise. Well, maybe at least until they saw the home version later and wondered where the horses came from.

Oh, one exception, the irate fan came to watch it again (he knew it was damaged...so why?) with the free pass from the last debacle.

So he got another pass and I told him I heard the Captain's safe combination was THX1138.

Death Defying Light Bulb Changing Act

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The Cinema 6 I worked at was a very old original theatre that had undergone multiple renovations to split and expand the number of auditoriums over the course of maybe 40 years. The original theatre was a single auditorium, extremely tall (about 4 stories tall), and had a sloping floor that dipped about 10 feet underground. I was told it was designed this way to optimize cooling in the summer months in the years before more efficient air conditioning. So tall ceiling for the heat to rise and the sloped underground for cooling in the summer (like a basement).

So of course there were 4 recessed lights up in the 4 stories high ceiling. And the bulbs were not centered with the main aisle. This was because the original theatre was split into 2 theatres with a wall down the middle when it became a "twin" cinema. This also was before common LED usage, so each bulb was incandescent and burned out frequently. We had no ladders tall enough. Trying to use the light bulb pole with these old fixtures would always result in more broken bulbs than successful changes or the classic potato trick to get the broken remnants out of the socket. We did not have the budget for a scissor lift or scaffolding.

Enter "Smitty".

Of course, the company maintenance guy's name was "Smitty", right?

Just because it has to be something like Smitty.

When the position opened and he applied with just "Smitty" written in the box for first, middle, and last name, I'm certain the hiring person was like "No questions sir, your name precedes itself in building maintenance. Welcome aboard." I never heard his real full name to know if he went by Smitty instead of Lucius Bottoms or something, as Sparky did.

So back to the light bulb changing. Smitty and his two cohorts arrive after I put in a faxed work order about the bulbs. Instead, they arrived in the theatre company version of the A-Team van with an old and rickety wooden ladder strapped to the side. The ladder seemed like it would have a name like "Widow Maker".

In comes the Widow Maker while I hold the door and watch. They set up the ladder over the seats and at a slant. At first, it seems like it is only a 20 some foot "A-frame" ladder. So that's short by about halfway. But then they bring another 20-foot piece that attaches to the top of the A-frame. I'm scared for these guys as I look at this old wooden thing. It's like some kind of high dive act. I wonder if I should fill a popcorn bucket with water and place it at the base of the ladder-like they did in old cartoons as a gag.

Smitty taps the youngest cohort to go up the A-frame, and then up the straight extension. So this guy is like 40 feet in the air on an old wooden ladder, positioned at an angle over rows of seats, swaying back and forth, and creaking. He grabs the recessed portion of the ceiling with one hand to stop the swaying. Then removes the dead bulb and tosses it down. I actually catch it, sweaty palms and all from watching this circus act. Then he pulls the new bulb from his pocket and changes it. They repeat the process.

Finally, in a flash, they are gone like a fixer team in a mob or spy movie.

I'm typing this almost 30 years later and my hands still get sweaty thinking about the memory.

More Movie Theatre Theater to come! Follow Me to see my future articles.

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My primary mission is to spread awareness about the disease Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) and many of its comorbidities. Given most physical activities cause me pain nowadays, I've taken on writing as a new hobby, form of therapy, and method to interact with others. You will find I also experiment with articles related to business and careers.

Atlanta, GA
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