Tag Archives: Movies

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 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