Category Archives: St. Louis

Wehrenberg 6 – Antics

Striking projectionist in St. Louis

Wehrenberg union projectionists on the picket line in April 1983. The Eric identified in the Post-Dispatch photo was not the same Eric who made all the trouble. Photo restoration be Wally Beagely. In a twist of irony, the building that housed the theater in the background of this photo today is the St. Louis Laborer’s Union headquarters, Local 110.

Beginning in mid January 1983, I had resumed my work with the income tax preparation company during the day, running a small office located a few miles from the theater. Around 4:00 PM when the night tax man came on duty, I headed up to Cross Keys, usually munching a fast-food burger while I drove. Like many projectionists, I had a day job, too, at least during tax season. This was my situation when the union walked out on April 2.

The strikers unleashed an array of tactics, tricks and pranks designed to intimidate the public from attending our theaters and to frighten the theater mangers from coming to work. They called me at home at night with death threats in falsetto voices, and once, they called the gas company on my behalf at 3 A.M. to shut of the gas to my apartment building. They ordered a dozen pizzas delivered in my name to the theater one evening. And they argued with customers crossing their line and once laid roofing nails under my car’s tires. I was grateful to the usher who warned me about it.

One of the picketers told my chief usher, Mark, that he and his young colleagues would be safe during the strike. Evidently, a sane voice in the union, fearing ruinous publicity, warned the strikers to spare the high school students who worked at Wehrenberg Theaters and their families from harassment or intimidation. This measure of reasonable caution did not extend to a single mother attempting to support her children by managing the St. Charles Theater from having all four tires on her car slashed.

I changed my home phone number to avoid the harassing calls and asked the University City police to watch my apartment building at night. When the calls continued I learned that Karl, the difficult young usher, had passed my new number on to the strikers.

During the walkout, the drivers who delivered our films in heavy cans each week couldn’t cross the projectionist’s picket line so we, the managers, had to do all the film pickup and delivery in our cars at Wehrenberg’s headquarters after our theaters closed each Thursday night. Our private security guards couldn’t cross the picket line either to escort me to the bank at the other side of the Cross Keys Mall to make the nightly cash deposit, nor could the St. Louis County Police guard our theaters during a labor dispute.

One night, several of the strikers followed me in their cars as I drove to the bank. I feared that they would beat me and steal the money and my car. In truth, I was terrified, even though, looking back, I think that they only intended to intimidate. When they continued to tail me after the deposit, I altered my usual route and they fell back. I repeated my request to the police to keep an eye on my apartment.

They made several telephoned bomb threats to the theaters, usually delivered in Donald Duck or falsetto voices. Ron Krueger, the founder’s grandson and president of Wehrenberg Theaters, brought Gil Kleinknecht, Superintendent of the St. Louis County Police, to speak to a meeting of managers and assistants one afternoon at the chain’s headquarters in Des Peres. Keinknecht, who was a neighbor of Krueger’s, told us how to evacuate theaters and maintain a safe distance with our customers and employees while firefighters and police looked for explosives. He introduced Detective Randy Raines, from the St. Louis County Bomb Squad, who gave us tips on spotting bombs in trash containers and other hiding places.

One night the Donald Duck man made a theater bomb threat to the St Louis County 911 center which recorded it. Our job, Detective Raines told us, when he played the tape individually for each manager, was to identify Donald Duck, if we could. I couldn’t, but David, the drive-in manager, thought it sounded like a striker who walked the Cross Keys picket line occasionally.

In fact, this short and wiry man confronted me once with his dog. The dog growled as I crossed the picket line to enter the theater. The striker said, “He doesn’t like management.” I had to laugh. I had nothing against this man or his dog and understood that he forfeited a much larger paycheck than mine to go on strike.

The strikers donned Gandhi robes to protest the injustice of the theater chain management.

The 1983 Best Picture of the year inspired a march by striking Wehrenberg Projectionists.

About a week into the strike, a customer got into an argument with Jerrry, our regular projectionist on the picket line outside the theater. While the customer enjoyed the show, Jerry, an usher told me, went to the man’s car and bent his windshield wipers into a pretzel shape. After the show, the angry man came for me. “Why in hell can’t you provide security outside your theater so these meatheads can’t damage our cars,” he demanded. “I’m very sorry,” I told him. “All I can do now is call the police. Would you like to wait in my office?” A detective arrived to talk with him.

At Cross Keys we usually had only one or two pickets; the union saved its manpower for the drive-ins where they could harass customers by the carload as they attempted to cross their line. The I-270 Drive-in, not far from the Halls Ferry Eight, had large collection of strikers, especially on Saturday nights. One of them was Eric, my regular projectionist, who ranked second only to the Donald Duck man as a troublemaker who tormented both customers and theater managers. In fact, the detective told me, the police planned to arrest him on the I-270 picket line at a time when a large audience of other strikers was watching.

If the union had intended to gain sympathy from the public for their cause, which was to get a better contract from Wehrenberg, they may have figured out that bomb threats, harassment and intimidation weren’t helping. On April 14, 1983, the blockbuster epic “Gandhi” starring Ben Kingsley was playing at the Creve Couer Cinema in central St. Louis County. The strikers staged a march past the theater in Gandhi robes (dhotis) in an attempt to connect their plight with that of the masses of oppressed Indians whom Gandhi had freed from British rule.

“We believe that if Gandhi were alive today, he would tell the people of St. Louis not to cross our picket lines. He was a great supporter of working men and women all over the world fighting for justice everywhere. That’s all we’re asking in this strike—simple justice from Wehrenberg Theaters,” said Mark Miller, Local 143’s spokesman, according to a report in the Post Dispatch.  I don’t think that anyone was impressed by the Gandhi march; the stunt did nothing erase the bad taste in the mouths of movie patrons, Wehrenberg employees or executives from the deplorable union tactics that preceded it.

I don’t know if the police arrested Eric. I consumed every spare hour, as I had for the past three years, with the search for a real job, which materialized, at last, during the early spring of 1983. It would be an actual full-time computer programming position for a small St Louis firm which could start me as soon as it got its first check from its client, Jewish Hospital of St. Louis. Besides, the pay would be enough to get me out of debt in a two or three years.

David, who had hired me initially, finally got a real job too during the strike, with a small radio station job in central Missouri. When Julie, one of the assistants who kept up with him told us how much the radio station paid, I joked that David had left the theater business for a profession that paid even less than he earned managing the drive-in.

The St. Louis projectionist's Strike is over.

Wehrenberg Projectionist’s Strike ends in mid-June, 1983.

In the meantime, while my new employer waited for his first client payment, he let me start part-time in the mornings after I closed the tax office on April 15. I find it hard to describe the joy and relief that I felt on my first day at Jewish Hospital, to be treated like a professional who understood technology, physiology and the medical research environment—for the first time in three years. A physician who specialized in computerized measurement spent a full hour with me in a conference room explaining cardiac anatomy and the goals of our project.

In early May the client’s check came through and I visited Wehrenberg’s Manager of Operations in Des Peres to give my week’s notice. Like Paul, my district manager, this man was thoroughly decent and told me that he understood my position entirely. Then he wished me the best.

During my final week at Cross Keys, I gave the new manager, a younger man with more supervisory experience than mine, a quick orientation to the theater. As I passed Jerry, the union man on the picket line for the last time, he smiled. “Dave, I wish you the best of luck, and Eric sends his regards too.”

Driver's license photo from Janaury 1983

The drivers license photo taken during my year managing the Cross Keys theater. I had just turned 44.

Later, I learned that the strike was settled on June 11, 1983 to the detriment of the union. The 49 replacement workers were to remain and had to be admitted to the union. The 39 full and part time strikers could return to Wehrenberg only when vacancies arose. Those, like Eric, Jerry and the Donald Duck man, whose shenanigans required the police, were barred from Wehrenberg theaters for life.

The strikers accused Wehrenberg of trying to break the union, and Mark Miller, the projectionist’s spokesman said, “We had no other choice. The public didn’t back us up. We had many union people cross our picket lines to go to the movies.” As for Wehrenberg, its spokesman, labor lawyer John C. Harris told the Post-Dispatch simply that “they did it to themselves.”

A few weeks after leaving, I stopped by the Cross Keys theater to see how things were going. I asked the new manager about Karl, the troublesome usher. “I suspended him for two weeks,” he said. ”He’s fine now.” Paul, the district manager hadn’t objected one bit, contrary to the warning that Sharon, the unpleasant assistant, had given me I tried to suspend Karl several months earlier.

The recurring dreams about the Warwick Theater in  from my Marblehead childhood ended shortly after I resigned from Wehrenberg to begin my second career as a computer programmer. Would I like to manage a movie theater again? You bet I would. In spite of everything that happened, it was fun.


Wehrenberg 3 – Cross Keys

The theater that I mananged from September 1982 through May 1983

Cross Keys Cinema which operated from the mid 1970s until 1999.

The new theater had just two screens with a small concession stand and was located in a shopping mall at the intersection of New Halls Ferry Road and Lindbergh Boulevard in Florissant, Mo. Cross Keys, built in 1969, contained a number of small businesses, a popular restaurant, and a section of office space used by the McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft Company. The entrance to the theater, which Wehrenberg had acquired from the old Arthur chain, was not visible from the road but only from the rear parking lot. There was no marquee above the entrance, only two signs in the parking lot that announced the movies playing each week.

My district manager Paul, who was slender with brown hair, and about my age and height, explained some of the reasons for the daily inventories of the concession stand candy bars. He was friendly and gave me lots of tips about running a theater. “We had a manager,” he said, “who stole from the storeroom and sold the candy bars out of the trunk of his car. The daily inventories took care of him right away.” I understood that he might have been warning me against similar temptations.

I had two regular assistant managers: Joseph, a young African-American man with a recent business college degree and a young woman Sharon—short, dark-haired, and in her thirties, who had worked part-time for the theater chain for many years. Joseph was slender, maybe an inch shorter than I was, and was always in neat gray or brown suit. He seemed aloof, but was always dignified and courteous. Sharon, the other assistant, was efficient and very competent at all the theater tasks, but she wasn’t very friendly either.

Julie, in contrast, was a gracious and warm young woman who filled in at various theaters. David, the blond man who had interviewed me originally for the job, also helped out at indoor theaters during the off-season at his drive-in. He wanted to become a radio announcer. To that end he attended daytime classes at a proprietary broadcast school in Clayton, the St. Louis County seat. The school, which I walked by often had one of its studios set up behind the front window, both as an attraction for prospective students and to give the public a look inside radio broadcasting.

New movies started on Friday to capitalize on the weekend. Each Thursday before closing, we were supposed to make a recorded telephone message for the theater, listing the movies and show times for the following week. Even after rehearsing the lengthy announcement, it could be difficult to record it correctly, especially if other employees were around the office when you were trying to do it, as David explained,

Once, I was making the recording, and right near the end, I realized that I had made a mistake, but I continued speaking, filling the tape with progressively worse profanity and made-up salacious movie titles. Then I called Julie into the office to check the recording. You should have seen her face.

I quickly mastered the technicalities of running Cross Keys. I balanced the daily and weekly cash and inventories and many weeks received a twenty-five dollar bonus with my paycheck for the accuracy of my accounting. The figures were recorded by hand on a large paper form with two carbon copies required. If you made a mistake, you could erase the top copy but had to use Wite’Out® on the carbons, sometimes creating a mess. Errors crept in on busy weekends from cash register mistakes made by the girls dealing with large crowds at the concessions stand, or from miscounts in the inventories or ticket sales.

The whole system had been perfected before computers by a man named Smith in the central office who was in charge of all Wehrenberg concession stands. He was not popular with the managers because of his obsessive insistence on accuracy, but I could tell that he was very smart. He was the only person who knew how to program every type of cash register in the entire chain, entering the correct codes for the sales taxes which differed from one municipality to another. Besides, his system eliminated pilferage and till-tapping by dishonest employees.

At Cross Keys, I had several teen-age employees, most of whom were reliable and fun to work with. An exception was a young African-American usher named Karl. (His name like others in this story has been changed.) He was short and slender. One Thursday, when my chief usher Mark was off duty, I sent Karl out to the parking lot with the red plastic letters needed to change the marquee signs for the theater. The signs had back-lighted panels with narrow horizontal rods from which the letters announcing the movies were suspended. To change the letters the ushers used a long aluminum pole with a suction cup on the end to take down the departing movie titles and put up the new ones.

The sign once used to display movie title for the Cross Keys Cinema

The old Cross Keys sign announcing the 2003 renovation. Here’s where the movie titles were displayed for the cinema in back. Horizontal rods for hanging  the plastic letters were in the white section near the top. Photo taken after the theater closed.

I drove home that night without checking the signs. When came back Friday afternoon, I saw that the letters on the sign were in the wrong positions and the movie titles were misspelled. After Mark fixed the signs, I felt relieved that Karl, the errant usher, didn’t have the imagination or wit to put something malicious or obscene on our marquees.

During Karl’s shifts, his friends occasionally attended the theater. Sometimes they paid, but other times, I suspected, he let them in through the exit doors. He and his friends once sat in the back of the theater talking and disturbing paying patrons, who complained to me.

After a few of these incidents, I put him on suspension, but he said he would appeal to my district manager Paul. Karl had the backing of my assistant managers, Joseph and Sharon, who told me not to let the situation escalate to the manager’s level. Sharon, the dark-haired woman in her thirties, said, “I’ve known Paul a lot longer than you have and I know that he doesn’t want to be bothered with details like this.” I agreed, with reluctance, to drop Karl’s suspension. I learned later that Sharon was lying about Paul and, with Joseph, was trying to make trouble for me.

Why would Paul and Sharon try to undermine my authority in running the theater? There were two things, I think: Karl the usher and Joseph the assistant manager were African-Americans with whom I felt uncomfortable because they didn’t seem friendly. I never made the attempt to know them well. After all, I was their supervisor, and it didn’t seem appropriate. As an employee, Karl the usher got off on the wrong foot with me when he garbled the marquee signs in the parking lot. And, of course, there was racial unease on both sides that I didn’t feel with the friendly African-American employees and coworkers

With Joseph, the assistant manager, I overreacted in a situation and said something I shouldn’t have. My boss Paul had asked me to have a small part of the concession stand repainted. I asked to Joseph to do it. Several days passed and nothing happened. Paul could appear any day and see that it hadn’t been done and I’d be in trouble, I thought.

I grew impatient and told Joseph that if he wanted to continue working at the theater, he should get the little job done. He got angry and said that I had no right to speak to him that way. The next day he did the painting. We were both caught in a supervisory misunderstanding with racial overtones that I didn’t know how to handle.

The road sign for the Cross Keys shopping center, before its complete renovation in 2003

One of the Cross Keys road signs with mounting rods for movie titles. Photo taken after the theater closed in 1999.

With Sharon, I needed to contact her one evening from home where I didn’t have the telephone list. With no cell-phones or emails, I resorted to the phone book and found a number listed for a person with her unusual last name. I called and reached a woman who agreed to relay a message to her. The next day, she came in very angry at me and insisted that I never try to contact her through a relative. I didn’t understand that either.

I should have consulted my district manager Paul as soon as these employee problems arose, but I was afraid he’d let me go. My fear was overblown. Paul was a decent man who would have the supplied the guidance I needed.

Our theater was cleaned each morning by an elderly couple who I met only once because our shifts never overlapped, but when I arrived each afternoon the place was sparkly clean. One night driving home after a busy evening I noticed that one lens was missing from my eyeglasses. It had popped out before a few times and I had picked it up and set it back in the frame. This time I was out of luck. It was too far to drive back to the theater, turn on all the lights and do an exhaustive search while I was tired and needed sleep more than anything else. I couldn’t afford new glasses, but I could get along OK with just one lens, at least for a while. Thank God they weren’t bifocals.

Wehrenberg's up-to-date soda cup design

A Wehrenberg soda cup with contemporary design.

In the morning I called the theater hoping to catch the cleaning couple close enough to the lobby to hear the phone ring in the office. One of them answered and said they’d be on the lookout for the lens. Less than a half hour later they called back; the missing lens was on the floor at the back of one the auditoriums.

It was time to meet them in person. I jumped into my car and drove the 13 miles up the theater to thank them and to collect my lens. I popped the lens back in and, at home, added a drop of super-glue to hold it in for good.

Most of the time, the Cross Keys Theater was very quiet, even on weekends. Wehrenberg didn’t put high-grossing first-run films in an obscure, difficult-to-find backwater cinema like ours. We usually got grade-B and below pictures or popular shows nearing the ends of their runs. But there were a couple of exceptions.

Nest time – Inchon

Wehrenberg 2 – At Risk

Theater where I began my brief career in cinema management.

Wehrenberg’s Halls Ferry 14 which opened with 6 screens in the 1970s, expanded to 8 in 1982 while I worked there as an assistant manager and added 6 more screens later on. It closed in 2002 and was torn down in 2010.

There were two other assistant managers at the Halls Ferry Eight: a short, young, energetic African American woman who taught in an elementary school during the day and Ed who was there my first night at the Halls Ferry Six. He was maybe a decade older then I was and a few inches taller, but his girth, like mine, tended to obesity. His face was round and large, topped by receding brown hair with a few flecks of gray at the sides. Like most male assistant managers he wore a sport jacket with a tie and dark trousers. (Ed, and the names of several other people in these stories have been changed for obvious reasons.)

We were both bigger than Randy the manager, a compact man in his late twenties with a mustache who was a couple of inches shorter that I was.

Ed had a quick sense of humor, boundless confidence, and a commanding voice. In real life, he was associate superintendent in a near-by school district. These qualities served him well when he had recently confiscated a loaded pistol from a violent student during a fight. And he liked to tease our lead cashier, a high spirited girl—one of his former students—for being a “bimbette.” He explained why he worked at a movie theater.

I need the theater job to pay for the used Cadillac I had always wanted and to fill the weekend evenings before my drive over to East St. Louis to play cards. I have friends there. In fact, I went to high school with one of them, a guy named Red. He runs the kind of high-stakes games I like to play. He has a sign just inside the door to his place that says “NO ONE SHOULD KNOW THAT YOU’VE BEEN HERE.”

I’d already guessed that Red’s operation was well outside the law; this was the early 1980’s, a decade before Missouri or Illinois legalized casinos. And, completing his resume, Ed said, “And I just finishing writing a book—a history of my school district.” Knowing that a fellow assistant manager had an academic side, I began to feel more at ease in the theater.

One night, he called us into the tiny manager’s office. For three of us to fit, we had to drag in a third chair from the box office while Randy, the manager, squeezed in behind his desk. Given Ed’s size and mine, we could barely close the door. He wanted to tell us what had happened the previous weekend.

Last Saturday after I left here for the East Side some car ran me off the road just before the Chain of Rock Bridge over the Mississippi. I wasn’t hurt, and there was no damage, but I got a license number.

When I got to Red’s place I told him about the car running me off the road.”

Wednesday he calls me: “We had some of the guys hang out in a couple of 7-11s on your side of the river to see what they could pick up. Turned out it was a bunch of college kids on vacation from Northwest Missouri State. They were high on drugs and couldn’t remember anything. By the way, one of their houses burned down Monday night.”

Oh No! You didn’t?

“No, No,” Red assured me, “We didn’t do it; it was just a coincidence.”

St. Louis's first casino

The Casino Queen, offering the first legal gambling in the St. Louis region, opened in 1993 in East St. Louis, IL.

I was horrified by the risk that Ed was taking with his illegal gambling and acceptance of small favors from the mob. Besides, he was top official in a large school district and vulnerable to blackmail. I looked at him, tilted my head and shook it a little bit, but said nothing. With all my money problems, I could have used favors, too, but I wasn’t anywhere near willing to appeal to gangsters.  I knew someone back east who had a family connection, but I wouldn’t think of approaching him.

A few weeks later Ed had another tale about Red and his East Side mob:

My daughter is in high school at Pattonville. That’s the district where we live, not the one where I work. She broke up with her boyfriend, and about a week later, some of the boyfriend’s buddies threatened to beat her up and knocked her to the ground as she got out of her car. I called Red and he said that he would send a “unit” over to check things out. A few days later, one of the boy’s parents calls me.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, siccing gangsters on my child? These two large men knocked on our door at six A.M. and threatened our boy with broken legs if he ever went near your daughter again. Now he’s scared to leave the house at all.”

I told the parent that I’ll do anything I need to, to protect my family.

I was more appalled than before: Ed was placing his family under obligation to mobsters, too.

A Wehrenberg logo

Another version of the Wehrenberg Theaters logo. The chain’s official name is “The Fred Wehrenberg Circuit of Theaters, Inc.”

Fortunately, I didn’t have to cope with Ed’s gangster friends. Instead, in the early fall of 1982 I was promoted to manager and given a theater of my own, The Cross Keys Cinema about four miles north of the Halls Ferry Eight.


Next time – Cross Keys

Wehrenberg 1 – In Someone Else’s Skin

The crown in the Wehrenberg log originated when the chain opened the Crown Theater in 1936

The Wehrenberg logo as it appeared when I worked for the theater chain in the 1980s

I never felt so out of place, even in my own skin, as I did at age 43 in the first hours of my new job as an assistant manager at the Halls Ferry Six, one of the first multi-screen theaters in the St, Louis region. The lights were bright. The lobby was large, crowded and noisy. In a small cramped office behind the ticket booth, Randy, the young manager was explaining the inventory system for candy bars, popcorn bags and soda cups. I was dazed.

My previous job, preparing income taxes for a small St. Louis firm, had a familiar scholarly feel to it, with repeated calculations, research and paper forms but had ended for the season on April 15, 1982. Before that, I spent nine frustrating and fruitless months attempting to sell life insurance, my first stopgap attempt to support myself after losing my research position at Washington University school of Medicine in June 1980.

Near the end of the tax season, I responded to ad in the paper for a manager at a drive-in theater, The North Twin, in St. Louis County. I found David, the manager, a slender blond man in his mid-thirties painting the women’s room in preparation of the upcoming season. He explained that Wehrenberg was looking for some new assistant managers and that the work could be at his drive-in or in a conventional indoor theater. A few days later, I got the call to report to the Halls Ferry Six.

The theater was in a modest shopping mall at the northeast corner of New Halls Ferry and Dunn roads, just off Interstate 270 in an unincorporated area of North St. Louis County. Other mall occupants included a Target store, several smaller shops and a Wendy’s where we got takeout lunch once in a while. (Unlike the neat offerings from Burger King, McDonald’s and Hardee’s,  the Wendy’s burgers were drenched in a viscous dressing that splattered all over if you didn’t eat them with great caution.)

Now in my third temporary job, at the movie theater, I would have few comfortable clerical tasks. Instead, I would be supervising a large number of high school students who worked part time as ushers and concession attendants, dealing with fellow managers and union projectionists and interacting with the public. What’s more, that public might be difficult; the theater was located in an area with a crime rate well above average, as I learned from the off-duty St. Louis County policeman who Wehrenberg hired to watch over the crowd on weekend evenings. “We don’t go into that apartment complex behind the theater without backup,” he said.

Across from the office was the large concession stand which featured soda, popcorn and the usual movie theater candy: Kit Kats®, Junior Mints®, Milk Duds®, Raisinets®, Twizzlers® and Reese’s Pieces® (for the 1982 movie E.T. the Extraterrestrial in which the candy played a large product placement role.) The closer you got the concession stand, the more it smelled of buttered popcorn. (it wasn’t real butter but a vegetable oil doctored up to taste like it.)

Behind the counter was a storeroom for the popcorn and other goods. Wide corridors on each side led to three auditoriums each. A door in one of the corridors led upstairs to the projection booths. The projectionists belonged to Local 143 of the Motion Picture and Projecting Machine Operators. Their contract forbade theater managers from entering the booths or handling film, except in situations like drive-ins, where it was a long walk from the delivery points to the booth. Then, according to one of the operators, it was not in their contract to carry the heavy film cans so far. In spite of this exception, most were decent men. The manager at the drive-in where the projectionist refused to carry film got his comeback when the St. Louis Cardinals played the Milwaukee Braves in 1982 World Series. The operator wanted to bring a television set into the booth and manager said that TVs in the booth weren’t in the contract either.

Wherenberg's North Drive-in Jennings, MO on Lewis and Clark Boulevard.

The North Twin Drive-In where I interviewed for my job for Wehrenberg Theaters in April 1982. Photo from “100 Years of Reel Entertainment,” the 2006 history of the Wehrenberg theater chain.

The chain was founded in 1906 when Fred Wehrenberg converted a vacant bakery in St. Louis into a nickelodeon to draw customers for his saloon and sandwich business. From that beginning he and his descendants built several more theaters in St. Louis and expanded beyond the city limits to build drive-ins in the 1940s and 50s. The family followed with multiplex cinemas in St. Louis County and beyond. All of this history with many delightful photos and movie business insights has been chronicled by Steven DeBellis in 100 Years of Reel Entertainment: How Wehrenberg Theaters Became the Longest Running Picture Show in America

I learned the mechanics of running the theater in a couple of weeks. I could stock and inventory the concession stand, run the registers and sell tickets and popcorn, help maintain the work schedule for the teen agers, make up the weekly payroll, and balance the nightly and weekly inventories.

After the last show ended, we counted all the cash, prepared deposit slips, double checked our figures, and summoned the armed guard waiting outside in his car. After we locked the theater, he followed one of us to the bank where we placed the canvas bags in the night depository.

My workday started at four in the afternoon when another manager and I arrived, an hour before opening. Our major task was to stock and inventory the concession stand including the heated popcorn dispensers. It wasn’t popped on-site. Instead, it came from a central facility run by the theater chain and was delivered to us a couple of times a week in large plastic bags 25-50 at a time depending on the expected crowd. We hoped that the phone wouldn’t ring to interrupt our opening preparations.

When it did, it was usually one of our high school employees: “Hi, Mr. Crowley, I can’t make it in today. I have a big algebra test tomorrow and need to study. You could call Lisa. Maybe she could fill in.” Since most of the kids were grateful for extra hours, it was usually easy to find replacements at the last minute. Besides, in a pinch, two managers and the projectionists could run the theater if the crowd was light, as it often was.

The old Warwick Theater Marquee in March 1999.

The Warwick Theater in Marblehead, MA in March, 1999, several years after its conversion to twin screens.

The early 1980’s were difficult times for many people for whom a night at the movies became unaffordable. At one point, in July 1982, attendance dropped to a level where my job at the Halls Ferry Theater was cut back to quarter time, placing even more of a financial strain on me than before. At home in my little apartment in University City, I was coping with calls from creditors and for a while was unable to pay my rent. After two or three weeks at quarter time, the crowds returned and I received more hours. My landlady helped too, by granting me loans to cover my back rent.

At first, movie theater employment seemed beneath a person with my education, but the truth was that I loved working at the Halls Ferry Eight. (Two screens were added a couple of months after I started.) When it was crowded and busy, I filled in by selling tickets or soda and popcorn. I came to life and gathered energy from the people and all the activity around me. And, I loved watching movies, as I often did, during the long intervals between the breaks in shows. I saw E.T. and Sophie’s Choice dozens of times.

In fact, I dreamed about the movie theater that I frequented as a child, the Warwick, in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where I grew up. In the dream, which occurred several times, the Warwick was huge with many auditoriums in addition to the one I remembered from childhood. The extra auditoriums were offset at different levels and angles from other parts of the theater and were seldom used. The seats in the sprawling dark auditoriums were dusty, and sunlight filtered in though the open back doors.

The Marblehead theater as it looked in my childhood.

The Warwick Theater showing the single auditorium as it appeared when I was a kid. Photo courtesy of Dan Dixey’s “Historic Marblehead Images.”

The recurrent dream prompted me to call Tom McNulty, a slender bearded man about my age and height and the third generation owner of the Warwick, during a visit to my parents in Marblehead. “Sure, I’ll be glad to give you a tour,” he told me when he learned that I managed a cinema. Tom showed me all around the theater, including the vacant apartment off the projection booth on the second floor, where his grandparents had lived after opening the theater in the 1920s. They had named the Marblehead theater for Robert Warwick, a popular silent film actor of the day.

Next time: Wherenberg 2 – At Risk

Penitential Life – Part 1

A stand-in for a real insurance company

A fictional life insurance company like the real one where Dave worked in the 1980s.

In the spring of 1981 I was a year into living on credit cards and unemployment checks. My job had ended when my grant wasn’t renewed and the University had run out of funds to pay me. I still came to my office every day, trying to find another academic job and struggling to write up my last research project. Collection agencies were calling but by the grace of God my landlady had written a loan for my six-month’s back rent.

With the job search and writing going nowhere, I scanned the want ads every day. An item popped out: earning potential with steady employment. I called. The guy on the phone was a smooth talker with a nice warm voice; “Sure, come on out. Today is fine.”

It was a modern building with one of those high atrium lobbies with catwalks pinned to the wall to reach the offices. Penitential Life was on the third floor. I’m terrified of heights, but I took a deep breath and scrambled out of the elevator across the walkway and through the door. Eddie, the boss, looked to be in his late thirties. He wore a dark sharkskin suit, was maybe five foot-six and had a trim mustache. As he led me back to his office he skimmed my resume. How delighted he was to meet me and how impressed he was with my university credentials! Like me, he came from Boston. He had been in law school when an opportunity so wonderful and so unique had led him to change the course of his life.

He leaned into me across his desk. “David, the people who succeed in America are the owners. They don’t work for anyone else—they work for themselves. They help other people, people from all walks of life, to achieve financial security, and in the process they achieve it for themselves. Every time they help a family to reach its goals using one of our financial products, they take ownership in that family’s success. And every year, when that product is renewed, they—you, David, if you choose to join us—receive an income, and that income is for life!”

“Is he really offering me a job,” I wondered.

He was.

“David, I hope you’ll consider us. You must have so many good opportunities, with your wonderful qualifications”

“Is this life insurance,” I asked.

“David, it isn’t insurance, it’s protection for people’s lifetime security.”

“OK,” I said, “when do I start?”

When I headed to the elevator I didn’t notice that I was on a catwalk thirty feet above the atrium floor. I was elated to have a job, at last. The realization crept in slowly that evening as I lay in bed: The job I had accepted was commission sales with no regular salary. I had noting else. Might as well give it a try.

There were maybe 15 people at the meeting of new trainees. One was a recently fired air-traffic controller; one was a young blond woman who looked like Daisy-May from “Li’l Abner,” another had been a policemen, and another a minister.   There was coffee and two big boxes of doughnuts on a table at the back of the room. Eddie explained that we’d have to pass the Missouri Insurance Agent’s licensing exam before we could sell the company’s wonderful financial products. In the meantime we’d be in class with Sam, our licensing instructor, or in the field with an experienced agent, learning the ropes.

Sam turned out to be a marvelous teacher, and drilled us on the ins and outs of insurance theory and of Missouri Law. It made perfect sense: people banded together to share the risk of unforeseen events, like accidents, fires and illness. Death was foreseen, but its time was not. I passed the exam with no trouble, but in my cynical mind I concluded that each provision of the law had resulted from some egregious fraud, probably perpetrated by some sleazy insurance company on its gullible customers. I kept this reservation to myself.

I trained with Johnny, Ben and Thomas. Ben had been hog farmer and truck-stop owner. He was large in both dimensions, friendly and direct. “OK That’s good,” he said after hearing my recitation of our standard presentation that we called a “Pre.” “And you have to listen to people, too, to gain their trust,” he added, ‘”but sometime you gotta bullshit ‘em. It’s just part of the business.”

Johnny had a deck of yellow cards on the seat between us as we drove. Each had the name and address of a potential customer, someone who had bought a kind of accident insurance called “Instant Issue.” Teams of agents went door-to-door selling these policies from a large pad for thirty-five dollars. They promised to pay a fixed amount for every day the person was confined at home or in the hospital after an injury that required a doctor’s care. A computer at the home office generated the cards and sent a new batch to the local agency every week.

Several months after the initial sale, we went back to the Instant Issue customers and pitched our life insurance as a beneficial upgrade to the accident policy they already had. The qualifications for selling Instant Issue seemed to be youth and high energy. After all, they were cold-calling. For us, on the life insurance side, the requirements were grey hair and the appearance of wisdom and compassion. I was forty-two and had enough grey to qualify.

With my agent’s license and yellow cards in my new folder, I went out on my own for the first time. The cards took me to a lower middle-class neighborhood in north St. Louis County where I knocked on several doors and found a couple of single mothers at home. We were supposed to make appointments for the evening to meet with both husband and wife. The ideal was to provoke tears in the wife by projecting dismal images of destitute widows and orphans. “It usually brings the checkbook out,” Ben assured me.

Next week – More shenanigans at Penetential Life.