Reel to Real: My Days As A Movie Theater Usher

This piece about my time working at a movie theater for my first job back during high school and my flat-out love for the cinema originally appeared on my dear friend's Craig and Becca's movie blog over at This Cinematic Life.  I thought, since Matt and I are gearing up to produce and film our first feature, this blog entry would be appropriate.  Enjoy, kids and cadets:

"Anyone who knows me knows how much I love movies.  My childhood was a splendid mixture of Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Woody Allen, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Last Starfighter, Willow, Raising Arizona, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and a million other titles.  Growing up in the 1980’s and 90’s my family had cable but my heart always beat for the massive collection of videocassettes and laserdiscs we owned (that’s right, we owned laserdiscs, what are you gonna do about it?).  I can still remember how giddy I was just to watch the television commercials for movies like The Rocketeer, let alone see the film itself.  When Dick Tracy came out, I owned the wristwatch and had the movie practically memorized.  1989’s Batman was like a religion and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were my saviors.

            Weekends, while my mom was at work, my dad would babysit my sister and me.  On those magical days, the three of us feasted on 7-11 hotdogs, Cheetos, Mountain Dew, and a steady stream of movies.  Most kids my age grew up watching Stallone or Schwarzenegger blow people away, I grew up with America’s favorite neurotic Jew or the lads of Monty Python yucking it up.  Hell, sex and nudity to my kid brain seemed to be the norm while ultra-violent action films came off as alien and forbidden; a cinematic fruit I would later get to indulge in and enjoy.

            Knowing a bit of my history, it seemed only natural that my first job would be working at a movie theater.  It was my junior year in high school and I had just turned 16.  Without a lick of experience in the working world to call my own, I found myself being turned down for jobs left and right.  A new massive shopping center had just opened up down the road from where my family lived.  A few of my friends worked at the various businesses there, but most of them worked at the new multiplex, AMC 30.

            I had to have that job.

            I interviewed there twice before I finally landed a position.  In those days, the theater was still coming into its own.  With thirty screens, four of which were quite massive, the place showed a few big releases but mainly independent films.  I was shocked to learn that we were to be one of the few mega-theaters around not showing Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace on opening day (a good move, in hindsight).  I had to trek two towns over with my friends and coworkers to watch that stinking shit-fest before opening day.  But none of that mattered, I had made it; I was working in a movie theater.  Now I knew how Catholic Priests working in the Vatican felt.

            For a time, the job felt like just that, a job; I punched in, sold hot dogs and candy to morbidly obese moviegoers, and cleaned up their filth.  On occasion I even sold tickets to the drooling masses.  Don’t get me wrong, I liked the job — I was good at it and it helped me pay for a bike and a three-week choir trip to Europe — but I didn’t love it or appreciate it.  I’ve got to say though, as far as first jobs go it was pretty good.  Sure, I got covered in sticky goo whenever I took the garbage out; of course I was called a Mormon and taunted by drivers as I rode solo to work in my white shirt and black slacks (I eventually pinned a sign to my bike that told people ever-so-eloquently, “FUCK OFF, I’M NOT A MORMON”) but those were minor quibbles.

            The job came with some spiffy perks such as dollar hot dogs and free movies on my days off, but it was one of my tasks that made me reevaluate what I was doing there at the theater and ultimately my role in all of this.  On occasion management would ask for volunteers to sit and screen new movies before the release date to make sure the prints were good and clean and to take notes.  Of course I wanted to get paid to watch movies all night long; I was the first to sign up.  I can recall the moment I had an epiphany about the significance of where I worked and what I was doing: I was screening a copy of Disney’s god-awful Dinosaur, a movie no one but me dared to touch, when it hit me.  Sitting alone in a massive theater, clipboard in hand, I took in my surroundings and breathed in deep, the lingering scent of the countless buckets of popcorn and heated, flickering films that had come before had an intoxicating effect on me.  Suddenly everything clicked and I realized that I wasn’t just working at some job.  In that moment, I realized that I was an important part of the industry that I loved so much.

            This is how I saw it; those who work in a movie theater in any capacity are part of the end product of a massive, multi-billion dollar industry. I suppose it’s not really the “end” anymore thanks to DVDs and Blu-Ray sales, but it is the first stop once the film is finished. When I sold popcorn, I wasn’t just selling overpriced food; I was selling a part of a collective experience.  Every ticket I sold was a boarding pass to another world.  Every theater I cleaned, I cleaned for those lovers of film such as myself.

            We had a homeless man who came in occasionally on weekdays when the theater was nothing more than a ghost town.  While my heart always went out to the poor vagrant, I took some small comfort in the fact that rather than drown his sorrows in booze or drugs he chose to escape into movies.  My fellow employees complained about the smell, but I never did.  He always picked a movie no one else was going to so he had a theater all to himself.  Knowing how I felt about cinema and the experience of seeing those 24 frames flash by on the big screen, I knew exactly why someone like that would choose to escape in such a fashion.  Sure, I wasn’t poor and living on the streets, but when you’re a skinny, nerdy teenager who can’t even get a date, you tend to escape a lot into whatever medium is at hand. I chose and still do choose to escape in the same fashion from time to time.

            The other lesson I took away from my time at the theater was that movies are a special kind of collective experience.  Sure, the individual can enjoy them, but that is the magic of a movie theater; for an hour and a half or more, we are all smelling the same popcorn, laughing or crying together, and watching the same story on the same screen.  While the delivery system has changed over the centuries from stage to screen, the gathering of people to watch a played out spectacle is as ancient as the first stories told on the walls of caves with pigments and charcoal.  While we may have traded firelight for the flicker of a projector, in that moment, we are all prehistoric, we are Greeks, we are Groundlings; we are an audience.

            Sometimes I miss working at that theater.  I miss endless Friday night premiers and sweeping up deserted theaters while dancing to the in-theater radio station.  I miss these things but at the same time I don’t.  I’ve moved on in life.  The lessons I learned at the theater I’ve taken with me out into the great, wide world and beyond.  I suppose what I miss more than anything is being part of the film industry, the last, little cog in a great, big machine; part of something I love on a personal level.  We are all part of the audience, but only a select few of us will ever be a part of the industry, no matter how small a part. 

            I’ll be honest with you, every time I hand my ticket to an usher to be torn and given permission to enter the domain of silver screen, I hope deep down inside that like 16-year-old me, they don’t just look at their job as being nothing more than minimum wage, I hope they see themselves as I once saw myself when I was proud to work at a movie theater — ambassadors of the cinematic world."

- Colin Walker (Writer and Producer)