Category Archives: Unemployed

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 2

Dave tries commsion sales for Penitential Life

A fictional insurance company like the one Dave worked for

The most successful agents had histrionic skills adequate to this task but I didn’t, I realized about a month into the work. Nor was I willing resort to crass manipulations or outright lies, the bullshit part, that my bosses urged on me when my sales were slack, as they usually were.   My strong point was listening.

Each week we had a meeting at the office. I got used to the catwalk three stories up; I focused my mind on the doughnuts at the back of the room. Eddie tried to pump us up by congratulating the most successful salespeople for the week. For the rest, he urged us on. “Never go home for the night on a ‘No’, always on a ‘Yes’,” he admonished one day. And then, “Go buy a new car or a new house. The debt will be a great motivator. It worked wonders for me.”

“But not for me,” I thought to myself. What about the six-month’s back rent that I owed and the collection agencies that kept calling?

After the meeting I went back to Ben’s office and picked up my new deck of yellow cards. The addresses were in Lincoln County around Troy and Elsbury, Missouri. Some of the people were farmers and some were workers laid-off from factory jobs in St. Louis—The country was in recession. One man, a machinist, was cutting firewood in the forest to support his family. Another had been a boxing champion in the Army years before but had suffered many concussions. We sat in his barn while I listened and he talked and cried.

Some people had problems with their Instant Issue accident policies. When it came to paying claims; confinement at home turned out to be hard to define. We were told just to listen and let the office handle these cases.

I kept a tally of the unemployed among my customers: ten percent just like the country then. Another man, in a trailer park, looked and walked like Toulouse-Lautrec, the artist. He had no legs below the knees from an auto accident in the Navy. Some invited me for dinner. Almost all were warm and welcoming.

As I drove home at night down US 61, I’d turn my dash lights way down and soak in the dark countryside as it sped past. I was at peace, for a while. I had sold a couple of policies but I didn’t feel right about it. I liked these people, and I felt sick when I took their money.

After two months in Lincoln County, the yellow cards led me back to St. Louis. My two small commission checks were nowhere near enough to cover my expenses. In desperation I plunged ahead in spite of the manipulative and dishonest work that I was supposed to be doing. My bosses said that my job was to create the need for our marvelous products, but these people didn’t need life insurance. They needed compassion which I tried to supply in my brief meetings with them.

The card named a single man, but a middle aged couple met me at the door of the house in a St. Louis County neighborhood. He was their son, now in his mid thirties. At age six, they told me, he and a friend had been playing with a gun. The bullet shattered his lower spine and they had cared for him ever since. He wasn’t home that afternoon, but at work. They saw the question in my eyes and explained: He has a wheel-chair equipped van that he drives to his business a few blocks away. He repairs sound equipment for musical groups. They gave me an address.

I found the building, a brick single-family home with bars on all the windows and the shades drawn. I knocked but no one answered. No answer again when I checked back later that day, and again the next. After a week there was a car parked in back and a young man answered the door. He was the business partner of my customer, he said, and offered to show me around. “We’ve had break-ins; that’s why the bars and shades. Druggies like to steal audio stuff.” There were some loudspeakers and amplifiers on the floor of one room, and a small electronics work-bench in another. All the walls in the house were painted black and the other rooms were empty. “He’s not here but you might try his parent’s house again.” I knew that he wouldn’t be an easy sale, but I was determined to track him down anyway. The mother told me to come back the next morning at eleven; her son should be out of the shower by then.

His special van was parked in the driveway when I got there. “He’s in his room dressing but he doesn’t want anyone to see him,” the mother said. “You might talk with him through the door.” I had burned almost two weeks trying to find this guy, so I knocked. “Yeah, who is it?” I introduced myself and gave him the canned sales pitch through the closed door. “No, I don’t need anything like that,” the voice came back. My job was done.

I made a couple of sales calls in Valley Park a few days before Christmas, 1981 and one or two afterwards. I went to Thomas, my boss, and said that I was quitting. “We were thinking that it might be a good idea, too,” he said. He wished me good luck.

A year later I was managing a movie theater in a St. Louis suburb, one of the Wehrenberg chain, with two screens. I didn’t get to choose the movies that we ran; booking was done by the central office. So when my boss told me that we would be showing “Bloodsucking Freaks,” I asked him to repeat the title. We both laughed, but I knew better than to question this choice. Maybe some other theater would get the next turkey that our chain had to take in its booking package. “Freaks” was a grade-D movie that belonged in a porn house or in a rural drive-in somewhere. Maybe eight people bought tickets to see this deplorable epic during the week that we had it. I watched about five minutes: several naked women were cannibalizing some guy in a prison cell. That was all I could take.

I came out of the storeroom one evening and thought I saw the back of a motorized wheel chair disappearing into the “Freaks” side of the house. I had a hunch and sat in my office until the show started. Then I took a tour of the parking lot and there it was: the wheel-chair van that I had spent two weeks pursuing when I was trying to sell life insurance.

I was busy counting receipts so I didn’t him leave the theater.   A week or two later, I saw on the news that he and his partner had been arrested for selling drugs, big-time, out of his business and from the van. The news showed a shot of the house with the barred windows. No wonder he didn’t want to meet me. I could have been a cop.

About four years after I quit Penitential Life, I talked with a man I’d met a couple of times. He was a salesman who had sold everything from encyclopedias to Fuller brushes, all door-to-door cold calling.

“Yeah, I worked there too,” he said, when I mentioned my adventure in life insurance sales. We talked about Sam, the licensing teacher and how good he was. I asked about Eddie, the boss at the agency. “His wife got sick and you know he had their health insurance with Penitential Life.”

“Of course, who else?”

“Guess what? They reneged on his claim. Just about tore Eddie up. A few months later, he’s dead from a heart attack. Not even forty-five.”

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.