5 Strange Things I Learned Working in Movie Theaters

When I was much younger, I spent a couple of years working at two different movie theaters, and the experiences I had in those jobs have stuck with me. For the record, this was a long time ago, in an era when it was still cool to profess a love of the band Poison without that being a joke, and Nirvana was still playing clubs and mostly unknown. I wasn't even old enough to drink legally, but I was in that awkward "no longer living at home, and having to work low-paying jobs" phase that many young people flounder through before (hopefully) they figure out a viable plan to get a better-paying gig that doesn't involve wearing an ill-fitting polyester vest. The theaters I worked in were interesting, in that both played foreign and independent films, and because my co-workers were mostly unconventional people around my age, so fast times were a part of the work culture.

Things have probably changed in the years following my departure from a career of tearing tickets, but I bet some of these still apply today.

Here are a few things working in movie theaters taught me.

5. Movie Theaters Make Most of Their Money at the Concession Stand.

This is one of those factoids most theatergoers have heard a few times, usually while they shake their heads and mutter angrily about the "robbery" involved in selling a bucket of popcorn for $8. It's true today, just as it was true almost three decades ago when I was working in theaters, but the food and drinks sold at the movies seem ridiculously expensive. The reason for that is the often-referenced fact that theaters make most of their profits from selling junk food to their patrons, and not from the cost of the ticket to see a film. Most of the revenue from that is used to pay the movie studios for the rental of their product, so in a very real way, most movie houses are in the business of selling snacks to their patrons, and the films they play are just the bait to get the patrons to pass by the concession stand.

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4. There Were Weird Concession Stand Rules and Perks.

I still remember the corporate policy one of those theaters (which played art-house films but was owned by a standard national theater chain) had about its hot dogs. Because the theater played non-mainstream films, many days almost no one came to see a movie. I was told that the only reason our location could stay afloat was that our mother company liked to have a handful of art theaters open to brag about its cultural contributions to society. Perhaps because of our small audiences, or because folks who want to watch a depressing three-hour French film have appetites different from those of other people, our hot dog carousel would usually go ignored for days at a time. Those glistening red sausages would rotate on their metal racks for an entire day, rarely attracting any interest from anyone on the paying side of our concession counter, and the official policy was to pack any unsold franks into a metal container that we then filled with a liquid oil, before refrigerating the whole thing. The next day, whoever had the opening shift would pry the dogs loose from their solidified grease casket, and then would put them back on the rotating rack while spraying them with another oil. They'd start out a scary green-gray before being resuscitated by the reheating and the spray oil back to an appealing reddish hot dog color.

After three days, we were allowed to discard any that hadn't been sold, but only with our manager's permission, and he always looked like we were telling him a close friend of his had died when the bell tolled for those hot dogs. It was like burning money to him.

One nice aspect of working the concession stand, which was otherwise the worst theater position, was that after the place closed, we were allowed to take home any unsold popcorn. That sounds like a lame perk, until one realizes that we were getting paid about $3.35 an hour, and a garbage bag full of semi-stale popcorn was a welcome relief from the ramen noodles many of us were living on at the time.

Just your typical post-"Steel Magnolias" find
Just your typical post-"Steel Magnolias" find

3. People Sneaked in a Lot of Stuff They Weren't Supposed to.

After being promoted from the concession area, I ascended to the position of ticket tearer and usher, a big improvement if for no other reason than that I didn't finish each shift completely coated in a slick of the atomized popcorn oil which seemed to linger like a fog behind the snack counter. One of the main duties a theater usher has is to quickly clean the theater after it empties between viewings, and it was during those sweeps that we'd discover the evidence of some of our patrons' non-theater-approved movie-time activities. Small, empty bottles of liquor or beers were common, and occasionally one of us would find something unpleasant such as a discarded condom. I once found a very large pair of women's underwear stuffed between seats, hanging like a pink and black flag someone had planted to indicate that person had conquered a territory. It quickly became clear that quite a few folks would indulge in forms of entertainment that weren't included with the standard price of a ticket. Strangely enough, other than not wanting to touch anything gross people left behind, those discoveries weren't the worst part of being an usher. It was far more soul crushing to have to see the very beginning and end of the same movies over and over. I probably saw the end credits of Steel Magnolias at least 100 times. Stuff like that can scar a person for years.

Not the types of movies we showed...
Not the types of movies we showed...

2. Perverted Creeps Would Occasionally Cause Problems.

Not all creeps are perverts, and not all perverts are creeps, but men who go to regular films to masturbate are both. I'm sure actual porno theaters are full of public self-pleasure, or at least that would make sense in a twisted, peepshow kind of way, but when some twitchy weirdo would approach the ticket booth at one of the theaters I worked at, and would seriously ask, "Which movie has the most nudity" (yes, really), we knew we had to watch them. I still remember one of our managers, who was only 19 or 20 himself, having to confront a theater masturbator after we'd received a couple of complaints about his activities. I recall the creep's defiant attitude, while he attempted to argue with that manager, who'd caught the guy in the act. Note to aspiring perverted creeps:

When someone catches you with your dong in your hand and asks you to leave the premises, you should just leave. Arguing with that person isn't going to work in your favor.

Theater carpet: Hiding the residue of humanity in its garish designEXPAND
Theater carpet: Hiding the residue of humanity in its garish design

1. I Learned a Lot of Random Stuff About People That Stuck With Me.

Those early movie house jobs taught me a lot about human nature, and also about the challenges any business that serves the public faces. Movie theater carpeting is jarringly garish for a reason — All the bright colors and strange designs camouflage nasty stains ranging from "soda spill" or "vomit" all the way to "you don't want to know." Anyplace human beings flock to for entertainment purposes has its dark side, and I found myself confronted with it almost daily. People would try to change baby diapers on our concession stand counter, and then act indignant when we told them they couldn't. Once someone apparently shit his pants, and then tried to handle the situation by attempting to flush those pants down a theater toilet, flooding the restroom. How this presumably pants-less man escaped the building undetected is still a mystery to me. I once witnessed a frat-boy type go from smiling to screaming that a female coworker was a "bitch" in about two seconds, and without any apparent provocation. People are often gross, and they're strange, and movie theaters seem to bring those things out in many of them.

But I had a lot of fun back then, too, and I wouldn't hesitate to do it all again...You know, if I could still survive on a popcorn-heavy diet making $3.35 an hour.


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