Category Archives: Stopgap Jobs

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 5 – Strike

The Alton Twin which opened in 1976 and closed in 1998

Wehrenberg’s Alton Twin Cinema opened in 1976 and closed in 1998.

Sometime in the fall of 1982 the Wehrenberg management began to prepare its managers and assistants for the possibility of a projectionists’ strike. The old contract had expired on August 31, 1982 and Wehrenberg wanted to reduce the projectionists’ minimum shift from 5 to 4 hours and allow its managers to run the projectors after end of the union worker’s shifts, according to a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.The hard line taken by the chain in its negotiations with the union was solidified by problems like the disaster on September 17, 1982 when the hiring hall sent an untrained substitute to my theater for the showing of Inchon and E.T. resulting in the refund to almost 800 tickets to angry customers, in cash.

We managers and assistants would have to learn to run the projectors ourselves if the projectionists struck. We couldn’t practice in union theaters on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River, but we could learn in Alton, Illinois, where Wehrenberg had a dual-screen non-union theater.

Since the Alton Cinema was open to the public only in the evening, we trained in the afternoon. We rotated through the projection booth, learning first how to deal with the traditional film reels and dual projectors, and later with the platter projection systems that were used in most of Wehrenberg’s Missouri cinemas, but were not installed in Alton until the winter of 1983.

These platters were identical to those in Cross Keys, the theater I managed in Florissant and if we were weren’t careful we’d wind up with hundreds of feet of film on the floor, and refunds too.

My two regular projectionists at Cross Keys, Jerry and Eric, seemed friendly enough and hoped that a strike wouldn’t happen. Like most movie projectionists in St. Louis, Jerry and Eric were part-timers with other jobs. Eric, for instance, worked in a large postal sorting facility during the day.

I learned from another manager that negotiations were breaking down, and that there would be a strike vote after the theaters closed on March 8, 1983. The projectionists voted 66 to 4 to authorize the strike, according to  the Post-Dispatch. Mediation failed and the union called for the walkout to begin on Saturday April 2.

Friday evening my district manager Paul waited with me at the theater. Eric, the projectionist on duty, closed the booth and headed for the door, I thanked him for his work, as I did all employees when they left—a practice I learned from Randy, my first manager at the Halls Ferry Eight. Worried that the strike might bring violence, Paul brought along his son’s baseball bat as possible protection. At around one in the morning, he and I closed the theater and headed for home.

At the ten the next morning my phone rang. It was David, the drive-in manager: “You’d better get up here to Cross Keys. There’s a picket line, but we’re going to open tonight and show the films ourselves. We need to practice in this booth.” I got to the theater and David and I, with help from Paul, began to load and unload the platters, making sure that we could project the movies and that the film would feed smoothly from one platter to the next as intended.

Crossing the picket line was uncomfortable for me because I believed in the union movement. As a manager I made less money per hour than they did, and I knew about the striker’s day jobs. But it was my job to be in the theater. A couple of strikers waved at me and laughed.

The strike vote, we learned, had passed only on the condition that the other chain in St. Louis, AMC, and few independent theaters, not be struck—only Wehrenberg. The majority authorizing the strike included many projectionists who wouldn’t be forfeiting their own paychecks.

The theaters ran reasonably well for a few days with managers and assistants in the projection booths. The picket lines had the beneficial effect for us of keeping the audiences small as we were getting used to the equipment. But, late Sunday night, a projector lamp burned out in one my two auditoriums. Fortunately, no one was in the theater. It seemed that Eric, before he left to go on strike, had cranked up the lamp voltage to maximum, to ensure that it would burn out quickly. He was on the picket line laughing when I entered the theater the next day with the two new lamps that I picked up at Wehrenberg headquarters.

The chain’s management knew that we couldn’t operate for very long with managers in the booths, and towards the end of the first week of the strike they placed ads for substitutes, or scabs. With unemployment around 10 percent in the St. Louis region, many qualified men with good mechanical abilities came forward.

Projection's 1983 Strike Vote

The March 8, 1983 vote to authorize a strike of Wehrenberg Theaters by union projectionists, as reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

One was a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer and skilled hydraulic technician, a pleasant man in his early forties who had been laid off from his union job in an industrial control factory. He didn’t like crossing the picket line any more than I did, but he had an answer for the striking projectionists who harassed him for disloyalty. “I told them,” he said, “that my old union wasn’t putting any food on my family’s table and that Wehrenberg was.”

Next time – Antics

Wehrenberg 4 – Inchon

Platter system for projecting movies replaced the old reel system requiring two projectors for each screen

Movie projection platter system with two films ready to show. The individual reels have been spliced end-to-end. The film feeds through the projector via a complex systems of pulleys, springs and electric motors

If anything qualifies as a contraption, it’s got to be the system of platters, pulleys and electric motors now used in movie theaters, instead of reels, to feed film to and from the projectors. Setting up platters is tricky and takes practice, as I learned when I managed the Cross Keys Cinema.

Once in a while we got a first run movie at Cross Keys instead of the usual grade-B and end-of-the-run leftovers that comprised the bottom end of the Wehrenberg chain’s booking package.

Weeks of pre-release publicity and a contest preceded the arrival on our screen, on Friday September 17, 1982, of Inchon, a Korean War epic about General Douglas MacArthur’s amphibious invasion north of Seoul. God, according to the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, inspired his Unification Church to finance the film that took five years and $46 million to produce. Contest enthusiasts called the theater asking for blocks of entry forms and one even stopped by to regale me at length with his plans for spending his winnings.

In the end, Inchon bombed at the box office and earned the Golden Raspberry Worst Picture of 1982 award and, for Laurence Olivier who played MacArthur, the only Golden Raspberry Worst Actor award of his career. I have no idea who, if anyone, won the contest intended to promote this film.

General McCarthur's 1950 Korean War invasion as pictured by Hollywood

Promo poster for the 1981 film starring Laurence Olivier & Jacqueline Bisset.

On Inchon’s opening night, a with ET in the other auditorium, we had almost eight hundred people in the theater, a first for me as manager. Jerry, the projectionist, was taking the night off to go out with his wife, and the union had supplied a substitute, a short, stocky man with sandy hair. This new projectionist was not one of the regular guys I recognized, but a man from a rural area outside St. Louis.

Twenty minutes after the films started both screens went dark. I buzzed the booth on the intercom. “It’ll be just a minute or two,” the substitute said and I reassured the customers who were now streaming out of both theaters to complain.

The screens stayed dark and continued to stay dark. I sprinted upstairs to the booth, and found several hundred feet of film on the floor. The new man had no idea what to do, and neither did I. I ran back to the office and called Jerry at home, catching him in the shower. I pleaded and he agreed to come in. I assured the customers that the regular man was on the way.

A slender guy in a green sweater and slacks from the Inchon audience confronted me beside the concession stand.

What’s so hard about running a movie projector? I show home movies all the time. Your projectionist must be stupid. Let me go up there and I’ll fix it if he can’t!

The projectors are fed by a complex platter system, not ordinary reels,” I told him, “and I can’t let you into the booth.

Feel-good film of the decade!

Steven Spielberg’s 1982 blockbuster with score by John Williams that won four Oscars

He did not seem to like my answer and turned away. Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jerry come in the front door and head upstairs to the booth. “Dave,” he told me after one look at the film on the floor, “it would take me a couple of hours to untangle all of this. Maybe you’d better start refunding.”

I reached my district manager, Paul at another theater to get authorization to refund 800 movie tickets in cash. “I’ll be right there,” he said. I was busy refunding when Paul arrived to take over dealing with the angry customers who by then had decided that the entire debacle was my fault.  “This manager,” Paul told them, “does not hire the projectionists. We have to take whoever the union sends, but the contract requires that substitutes know the equipment.”

The man who was such an expert at showing home movies confronted Paul.

Why did you hire this idiot?” he demanded, pointing at me. “I run the main St Louis office of the Missouri Division of Employment Security on Washington Avenue and we wouldn’t recommend him for anything.

I reacted without thinking:

I’m not taking any more shit from you!

Dave, why don’t you wait in the office for a minute, Paul suggested quietly.

Paul  continued to talk with the guy from the employment office while I worked with the refunds. Eventually the lobby emptied and the angry man left.

“I’m calling my lawyer, and we’re going to sue you,” were his parting words.

Jerry, a muscular bearded man who stood over six feet tall, had been watching the whole episode with the irate customer from a position at the side of the lobby, and told me, “Dave, if he had laid a hand on you, I would have taken him out.”

I didn’t sleep at all that night, wracked with worry that I’d be fired. I talked with Paul in the morning and he assured that everything would be OK. The catastrophe of the previous evening wasn’t my fault and the upper management understood.

A few days later, when the fill-in projectionist came by to get paid for his one evening’s work, he carried a baby with him, perhaps, I thought, to shield him from a violent confrontation with Jerry, whose night off with his wife had been ruined, or possibly with me. He needn’t have worried; Jerry wasn’t at the theater and I was only relieved to have kept my job.

Platter systems for movie projection can be tricky

A Platter mishap in the projection booth that a good projectionist might have fixed in 20 minutes

Just for fun, I estimated the amount of film that could have lain tangled on the floor of the projection booth at Cross Keys that disastrous night in 1982. Inchon, the box-office catastrophe, ran 105 minutes consuming 9,450 feet of regular 35-mm movie film. E.T. The Extraterrestrial, the Spielberg blockbuster, ran 115 minutes and required 10,350 feet of film. Add another 1000 feet for trailers and previews, and you get a total of 20,800 feet; that’s almost four miles of film for both features. If just half of it lay sprawled and tangled all over the floor of our booth that would be two miles, which even the most experienced projectionist couldn’t sort out in under an hour.

By the way, the angry man from the employment office never sued, and within a year I found better work without his help.

Next time – Strike


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