Friday, July 01, 2005


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #5: Movie Monitor

Boy, was 1985 ever a big year. Aside from getting into college and graduating high school and turning 17 (which wasn't really that big a deal. I just threw it in there), it was also the year that the film Back to the Future broke all manner of box office records.

Which I mention, because I saw the goddamn thing 37 times.

Oh, it's a fine film and cleverly done, but really not the kind of movie that holds up after three dozen separate viewings. I mean, there isn't even any geek cred to be garnered from having watched the thing 37 times, is there? Sure, if it was a Star Wars movie, or the Rocky Horror Picture Show, you've got something. But, well, I mean it's just Back to the Future.

Before you can fully form the rhetorical question (which is, of course, What the fuck were you thinking?), let me hasten to add that when it came to seeing this movie 37 times, I had no choice in the matter. It was my job. Just as it was my job to watch Prizzi's Honor (11 times), Weird Science (18 times), The Man with One Red Shoe (7 times), The Explorers (7 times), Fletch (10 times) and Cocoon (14 times).

You see, 1985 was also the year that lots of businesses got up in arms about banning smoking. Airlines and movie theaters were front-runners in this wave, and the theater chain that owned the cinema at the mall about 30 minutes from our house was no different. Actually, they were one of the first theater chains to make a big deal of the non-smoking thing, which I thought was commendable (until I learned they were being hammered by their insurance carrier to make it stick). But getting people to stop smoking in theaters was no easy task. It required constant vigilance. It required a large staff of dedicated young professionals. Actually, what it required about four times more movie ushers than normal. Which is how I came to be one (an usher, I mean. Not normal).

My mom worked in the same mall, managing a fabric store about 20 stores down. She had only recently made the fateful decision not to go to New Hampshire for the summer, which was hard to accept, but also understandable seeing as: 1. My father's full-time occupation that year was heavy drinking, meaning a paying job was a part-time thing for him. My mom therefore needed to stick with her job and 2. My father was currently in New Hampshire himself, living in the trailer where we spent summers, and neither my mom nor I were inclined to be with him, for reasons I have surely explained by now.

(As it turned out, my father ended up getting a job in Massachusetts towards the end of the summer, and we did get to spend two weeks in New Hampshire, which I thought would be a bit of a vacation before going off to college. I was wrong, of course: my uncle wangled me into two more weeks of hauling trash for him.)

So, we were staying put. Which was fine. I was dating Patty at the time, and this meant I'd get to see more of her (although it also meant we ended up driving each other nuts and breaking up sooner). But I needed a job, and didn't have a car to speak of. That's when my mom found out about the staffing up of the theater, a situation that solved a couple problems at a stroke: aside from a paying wage, I could also hitch a ride with my mom. Plus, many of my friends from high school also worked at the mall, so this would be a chance to see a few of them before we all went our separate ways for college.

I worked for a man named Mr. Shattan. I don't recall his first name, but you never forget a last name like that. Behind his back, we called him every excretory nickname you can think of: Shit-hand, Shit-hat, Shat-hat, the Shat-man, Shat, Shit-head. Oh, we were a clever bunch.

I would feel guilty about such disrespect, if it were not for the fact that Mr. Shattan lived up to every nickname we could muster. He was a demeaning, lying, opportunistic, weaselly shit-head. He was the kind of guy who would beg you to work the midnight show, promising to pay you time-and-a-half, then conveniently forget that promise when payday rolled around. He would promise to buy you lunch if you worked through your lunch break at the concession stand, but then simply invite you to help yourself to a giant bag of popcorn as your "lunch."

And if you had the temerity to call him on any of this, he would make a sour face, silently chew on the bottom of his mustache, then gaze at you over the top of his thick-framed spectacles and say, "You got that in writing?" He would say it like he was tossing off a clever one-liner and then walk away, chuckling, a big joke. But it was also his escape hatch. He hired a lot of ushers that summer, and most of them--myself included--he enticed to the job by promising that if we agreed to work three full months--basically the whole summer--we'd get a bonus. After hearing him say "you got that in writing?" to enough of my coworkers over simple things like free lunch or a little over-time pay, it dawned on me that this would be his response to anyone who actually stayed the full three months and expected their bonus. We were all just a bunch of high-school kids, or nearly so, and he made no bones about the fact that he thought we were all idiots and deserved no respect.

On the plus side, we rarely saw Mr. Shattan. His office was a windowless room around the corner from Theater #3, and he pretty much stayed locked in there all day, making phone calls and reading the paper. The day-to-day operations of the theater were left largely to Rhonda, our leggy assistant manager, who endeared herself to the ushers by regularly referring to Mr. Shattan as "Number Two" (as in "I gotta go do Number Two"), and Mike, the head usher. Mike was a junior at the local college and worked at the theater year-round. Mike was an English major and, though a few years older than I, took a liking to me. We both had grown up on juvenile detective stories and shared many other literary interests as well, so it was cool to hang out and talk books with someone.

Many of these conversations occurred as somewhat loud whispers. Mike and I were partnered to stand at the back of Theaters #1 and #2, where Back to the Future was showing on both screens, 23 minutes apart. Our job there was simple. Mike or I would stroll down the aisle just before the lights dimmed and previews rolled, telling folks that the theater was now smoke-free and that ours was the unenviable task of reminding them of same if we caught them during the show (once, some wag raised his hand and asked, "But it's still okay if my girlfriend gives me a hand-job, right?"

Then, once the film started, we'd stand and watch for signs of that telltale orange ember in the darkness (harder to spot in a largish auditorium than you might think), or patrol the aisles, sniffing for cigarette smoke. If we found someone, we'd have to tell the offending patron--and often in any given showing it was the same person, over and over--that smoking was no longer permitted in a General Cinemas theater. We'd have to stand there til they extinguished the smoke or left the theater. Then we'd resume our posts and the whole thing would start over again.

It's hard to imagine today, of course, what with public smoking areas now restricted to, I think, a square-block area somewhere in Gary, Indiana, but back then this proactive stance of the theater's caused quite a stir. A lot of smokers ignored the ushers, or swore at them, or simply refused to comply. And there, the whole construct sort of fell apart. If someone refused to stop smoking, there wasn't a lot we could do about it. We didn't even have cool, giant flashlights to wield (a fact I was sorely disappointed to discover), so there was no way most of us--certainly not me--could intimidate some fellow in need of nicotine into crushing out his smoke. In the event of "a situation," we were to go get Mr. Shattan, who would huff and sigh and make a big deal about how worthless we were as ushers and why did he bother hiring us, and then he'd throw down his paper and stomp off to the theater and basically go through the same routine, only the Shat-man would throw in a glower and some troubled chewing of his lower mustache. Often as not, as soon as he'd leave, the offending smoker would light up again. If it happened, Mike and I would let it go at that point. But some ushers took their jobs way too seriously.

In particular, I'm talking about Steve, an usher who considered it a personal affront whenever someone refused his smoking-cease-and-desist order. In fact, it was Steve who was directly responsible for the Great Popcorn Room Brawl later that summer, an event that led indirectly to my subsequent encounter with the Shat-man...


They didn't even give you flashlights?! How intimidating can you be without a flashlight to shine in someones face?

Admit it, you loved seeing Kelly LeBrock 18 times.
I don't know man. I think I could swing watching Back to the Future Atleast 15 times. I own the trilogy now. I bought the damn thing for only $20! Woo!
Back to the future ... I have personally watched it at least 20 times (those in which I count).

I only really enjoyed the first release the others were just me going to see Michael J. :) am a big fan of the little fella.

Can't wait to read about mister shatman ... :O
"If someone refused to stop smoking, there wasn't a lot we could do about it."

Squirt guns come immediately to mind... :)
I, too, worked as a theatre usher when I was 17 (but about a decade earlier than your experience). I remember my boss's name, which is curiously similar to yours. His name was Patton, and I recall his first name too: Clyde. We made lackluster attempts at calling him General Patton, but he wasn't such a bad guy, so we picked on each other instead.

A movie that probably predates your experience is Saturday Night Fever. If you ever want to be astonished at how widespread public smoking used to be, watch that flick.

Re: Back to the Future. I've always liked that film, but I'm sure it is stolen/lifted/inspired by an obscure young adult novel called It's About Time by Bernal Payne. Exactly the same plot with less of the flash of the movie. And, curiously, one of the writers of the film just happened to be spending some time in St. Louis when he had the idea for the movie. Coincidentally, the book is set in St. Louis, and Mr. Payne lives there. No attribution to him or his novel that I know of in the film.
I really liked the info on your site about stop smoking - nice work. I've just started my own stop smoking secrets blog and would really appreciate you stopping by
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