Between 1997 and 2000 I worked for a combined total of 20 months at three different movie theaters across Florida. For quite a while I have been meaning to write about my experiences at these hellholes, and I feel that since I have no other ideas this week it's a good a time as any to spread the misery, which is more or less what this site is all about anyways.
Now I don't care what anybody tells you; Being employed by a large multiplex is one of the quickest ways around to cultivate an undying hatred for the human race. Sure you get all the popcorn and free movies you want and you can watch Starship Troopers while you're on your lunch break, but overall I would rank the experience somewhere between eating cabbage and getting kicked in the balls by an ostrich on the list of ways I would want to spend a Saturday night.
The only good thing that came out of my experience at those hellholes was that I was able to perfect my skills at The Star Wars Trilogy Arcade Game. At one point, I had it so that I could clock out, get changed, hit up the machine, play the entire game through without using a single continue, change back, clock in, and return to my shift with 2 minutes to spare of my hour-long break. I was the master of that fucking game. We had this awesome security guard who used to watch me play it through sometimes, and whenever he would see anyone playing it and doing poorly he would come up to them and tell them how awesome I was at it. This was especially rad when I would work the concession stand, because he would usually point me out to the people he was talking to.
The only highlight of the job.
The Concession Stand
Working concessions at a movie theater is sort of like running the only ice cream stand in Hell. You're working in a fiendish workspace surrounded by a teeming throng of angry, miserable, impatient people all bent on getting their overpriced food from you as quickly as possible so that they don't miss any of their oh-so-precious movie previews.
To start with, the conditions behind the counter are absolutely fucking miserable. While I was always told that there were these phantom illusory "cleaning guys" who theoretically sauntered into the building between the hours of 2AM and 8AM for the purposes of tidying up, I never saw any sort of concrete evidence that these mythical creatures were anything other than the idealistic conjecture of the delusional. For every time that I arrived at my loathsome station, I was inevitably standing ankle-deep in a disgusting buttery sludge which ruined whatever shoes I was wearing and gelled into a consistency not unlike motor oil. This foul concoction would coat the entire floor of the stand, making it virtually impossible to take a single step without slipping and sliding on a nasty grease slick. This can (and has) result in more than one n00b employee face-planting the yellow-stained tile and getting a couple globules of reconstituted movie theater butter lodged into his or her hair. However, despite the fact that this golden ooze is one of the most disgusting things I have ever encountered, capable of making anything you wear to the theater reek of stale popcorn butter for the next seven years, veteran employees adapt. If you want proof, try this: The next time you go to a movie theater and order food from the stand, watch carefully when the employee goes and gets your popcorn. They don't walk over to the popcorn stand and fill your order. Instead, they push off with one foot and glide across the cushion of grease like an Olympic figure skater in some sick buttery nightmare. A good employee can work their way around the bar without ever lifting a foot off the tile. Disgusting, but true.
But that's not the only thing that makes the stand miserable. There's also the fucking heat. It is hot as balls behind the stand, especially if you accidentally set the popcorn on fire or something. Then there's the smell. And the motherfucking hot oil. Here's a true story: Back in 1997 I was working at the theater and we were having a completely insane crowd to see a new release by the name of Titanic. Well one of the poppers had recently broke when earlier that day one of my co-workers had forgotten to turn it off. Actually, it was pretty sweet -- the dude opened the popper lid and these huge foot-long flames shot out of it and the entire lobby of the theater was full of thick black smoke within seconds -- but that's besides the point. Anyways the oil pump wasn't working on our back-up popper, so we were taking the scalding hot oil from the broken popper, putting it in a cup, and pouring the cup and the seeds into the back-up popper. Easy enough. Well in the heat of the rush, my fucking manager suddenly revealed himself as the total fucking toolshed idiot he was and accidentally dumped the goddamned hot oil all down my arms while I was reaching for an empty popcorn bag. Within minutes both my arms were bright red and covered with little boils, but the fucking manager said we were so "slammed" that he wouldn't let me off my shift to go to the motherfucking hospital. So I worked the rest of my shift, running into the back room between customers so I could jam both of my arms into the ice machine. Yeah, that's right. I'm disgusting. If you were at the theater that day and you bought a soda, you had ice that I rubbed on my nasty third-degree-burned arms. Booya.
Welcome to Hell.
Even worse than working in an inferno constantly reeking of burned corn kernels and charred pig fat, however, was dealing with the unwashed customers. Now granted, I understand that they've been waiting in line for like fifteen minutes and their movie is getting ready to start at any moment, but these cockhuffers need to find a better way to vent their frustration than taking it out on the poor bastard behind the counter. Trust me when I say that the folks with the nametags are doing their best to get through the line as quickly as possible, mostly because we fucking hate dealing with you just as much (maybe even more) than you hate waiting in line. So for you to come up there and be a bitch to us makes about as much sense and yelling at a silver medalist for not coming in first place. You're only acting out of your own impotence, and only serving to piss us off. I mean, you wouldn't believe some of the shit people say to you when they get to the front of the line. I even saw one angry old man literally THROW a bag of popcorn in a girl's face because he didn't think she got it "quickly enough" for his liking. Um, we're not exactly saving lives here, fucktard. We're fetching low-quality junk food and helping your arteries get psyched-up for your next major heart attack. Take out your fucking pent-up rage on someone who deserves it.
And now you see why movie theater employees always turn their backs to you when they get your popcorn out of the popper... it makes it a heck of a lot easier for us low-bloods to surreptitiously expectorate into your snacks. Sure I can only recall two spit-corns I ever served up in my two-year career, but if you perfect the technique of shielding the bag from the customer's eyes, it makes it a lot easier to sneak a loog in there one day without looking overly conspicuous.
In addition to the general bitching about wait times, I really love hearing wiseass customers gripe about food prices eight hundred times a day. It never ceases to amuse me, in the same sort of way that being bashed in the face with a rubber mallet would amuse me. Some fuckburger always tries to be Captain Hilarious when he forks over his money, saying something incredulous like, "Jeez I thought the ticket was expensive, but now I've got to pay $800 for a stinking bag of popcorn! Yowzers!"
Ok, jackass. Before you even got in line you should have looked up at the gigantic lit-up board above my head that indicates very clearly that a large soda costs $11.99. If you aren't willing to pay that (and if you were a sane individual you wouldn't - you'd just sneak a can of Coke in your pocket like everyone else), go somewhere else. You sure as shit aren't doing me any favors by waiting in the concession line, that's for damn sure. Secondly, you need to realize who you're bitching to here. I'm a fucking douchebag 17 year-old high school student who works part-time on the weekends for about five bucks an hour. My chief responsibilities in this dump are to take your money and give you your food while constantly resisting the overwhelming urge to reach across the counter and choke you senseless with my crappy polyester vest. I rank somewhere between an empty soda cup and a box of Raisinettes in the movie theater hierarchy, and have about as much chance of getting the company to change their price points as I have of being elected the President of Burundi. You aren't funny. You aren't even likeable. You're just some wild craptasm holding up my line and pissing me off. Now stop wasting my time and get the fuck out of my face before I pull the hot butter machine out of the wall and shoot you in the eye with it.
I guess there are some advantages to working the stand, though I wouldn't say for one second that they outweigh the drawbacks. For starters, when the theater is dead you can pop a batch of popcorn and eat it as it comes out of the popper. There are few things better than a piece of movie theater popcorn that was popped less than two seconds ago. Also, you can steal nachos from behind the counter, get all the free soda you want (provided you bring a cup), and at the end of the day you can throw all the leftover popcorn into a giant trash bag and bring it back to your dorm room to share it with your roommates. While you can feel free to enjoy this cornucopia of cholesterol, please remember this piece of advice: Whatever you do, DO NOT drink the concentrated syrup straight out of the soda line. I did that once and I couldn't even look at a Coke without retching for like an entire month.
In some ways the Box Office is better than the Concession Stand. It doesn't reek, you don't have to handle food, and the customers are generally a little more well-behaved because the transaction time is significantly shorter. You also get to bust underage kids trying to sneak into R-rated movies, which is fun as hell.  You can go to work drunk if you want because nobody can smell your breath back there. The down side is that you handle about five times the number of orders you do behind the counter.
My biggest pet peeve working the Box was when people would stand at my window and stare absently at the Big Board of Movie Times with their mouths hanging open like a mentally-challenged heifer with partial facial paralysis. These are the fucking jackasses who have come to the movie theater but have no goddamned clue what movie they're actually there to see. Are you fucking kidding me?! Who does that?! I mean, you've got the newspaper, the telephone... sure the internet wasn't big-time back in 1997, but you still had fucking options. Coming to the theater without looking at the paper first is like going to war and leaving your bullets at home - sure, you might get lucky, but it really helps to be prepared.
But OK, maybe you don't know what you want. Or maybe you knew what you wanted when you left the house but you suffered some sort of severe head trauma on your way to the theater and caught temporary amnesia. I guess I can understand. Whatever the case may be, if you don't know what you're going to be buying a ticket for then don't get in my fucking line and waste my time. It's not enjoyable for me to sit there and look into your open mouth while you drool on yourself and make everybody behind you hate me. If you are so fucking brain-dead that you have no clue what is going on, then let me just print any random ticket for you, because you are too goddamn stupid to understand what's going on anyways. It's all the same.
I am not amused.
Ushering and working the door can be pretty sweet, because it's completely low-stress and mindless. You stand at the podium, tear the tickets, and point. A fucking vest-wearing monkey could do it. After the films end, you go in there with a broom and a dustpan and sweep up. Yeah, that sucks, but at least you don't have to deal with customers. Plus it's fucking easy.
One of the other perks is that you get to bust kids who are fucking off and you can chuck the big-time douchebags out of the theater, which is probably the best job in the entire industry. Plus, if you're lucky, you can catch kids doing it in the theater. Check out this true exchange between some random 15 year-old girl and this sort-of irritating thug guy I used to work with.
Girl 1: Um, these two people are... well, they're not "doing it", but she's...
Girl 1: No, she's not smoking... she's...
Co-Worker (nodding head): Smoking?
(Co-Worker gives the internationally-recognized pantomime for 'blowjob')
Girl 1 (horrified): Um, yeah.
My co-worker than fucking vaulted over the wall partition and ran into the theater at top speed to see what was up. I followed, but we apparently got there too late because they weren't doing anything by the time we arrived. Here's a little known rule about misbehaving Alanis Morisette-style in a movie theater: If a theater employee doesn't physically see it happen, theater management can't do anything about it. They can't even kick you out. So you just keep that in mind.
This isn't to say that ushering is all just fun and voyeurism. The real shitty part of running with an ushering crew is that you find some fucking disgusting shit in theaters and it's your job to clean it up. Sure, there's the empty sodas and the half-eaten popcorns, which is manageable for the most part (unless it's after a kids movie, because fucking kids throw shit all goddamn movie so when you hit the theater it looks like a goddamn candy factory exploded in there), but there are some really bizarre things that I've been tasked with cleaning up. Here's a short list of the stuff I can remember.
- An empty wine bottle and two used wine glasses
- A half-eaten pan of lasagna
- A used condom
- A nearly-full carton of Virginia Slims 100 cigarettes
- An almost-empty bottle of Tequila
- Women's underwear
- Men's underwear
- Feminine hygiene products
- A well-worn copy of The Catcher in the Rye
- A black Swingline stapler
- A claw hammer
- A ukulele (WTF?!)
- Various umbrellas, earrings, purses, lighters, sunglasses, keys, and shoes
No smoking, please.
Projection is the sweetest gig in the joint, because you don't do shit. You don't deal with customers, you don't handle any sort of disgusting material, and you don't have any managers looking over your shoulder constantly. You just start the movies, sit back, and kick it until either something goes horribly wrong or it's time to start the next movies.
The interesting thing about projection however is that it seems like it takes a certain kind of person to do it, and I don't necessarily mean that in a good way. From my experience at the three theaters I worked at, it seems that projection guys are sort of like those sort of Obi-Wan Kenobi-style eccentric hermits who may or may not have special powers. None of the regular rank-and-file employees ever actually even see the projection guy, but he is often the subject of myth and legend. Sometimes he's a talented classical musician who has mastered some obscure instrument like the pan flute but who completely lost his mind and now spends his time playing eerie tunes late at night after everyone has left the building. Sometimes he's a career college student who uses his spare time to study occult texts in the projection booth, working towards his life goal of transcribing the Necronomicron into Pig Latin. Each theater has a different folk tale about their resident projectionist - that he's seven feet tall, or he's married to a camel, or that he used to be a well-known porn movie director - but generally speaking he is more of a fable than a man. He is not often spoken about by the grunts, but when they mention his name it is generally with an air of reverential mystery and awe.
Very bizarre stuff, if you ask me.
A projection guy doing something weird.
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