My First Job : The Garden

I couldn’t find a picture of the theater from the 1990s. Here it is in 2010.

When I was 14 years old I applied for my first job at The Garden Cinemas in Greenfield, MA. My neighbor friends worked there and thought that the manager, Sally, would love my sense of humor. One evening, when I knew she’d be running the ticket counter, I went in to introduce myself and ask for an application. Though she let me fill out the paperwork she was hesitant to hire me as I wasn’t quite fifteen yet. Prepared for this, I assured her that I was old enough to already have an ID. She looked puzzled as I pulled out my wallet and unfolded the accordion style picture holder which displayed all the various joke IDs that I’d printed up (See the movie poster for Fletch). She laughed at the absurdity of it and said, “Alright, you’re hired.”

Sally was around sixty and was witty and surprisingly funny – however she was often moody. We soon discovered a secret that we shared with all new hires: If Sally shows up to work and her hair is still damp from the shower… brace yourself. Being a natural goofball, I was pretty good at turning her mood around. When Sally liked you, it reflected in your hours for the week. The opposite was true as well as I don’t recall anyone ever getting fired, they’d just be written out. Sally and I got along well and so I worked as much as I wanted and pretty much had the pick of the schedule.

Sally (on her birthday – in case you thought she always wore that hat) and my left arm

In the beginning I worked the concession stand. There were typically two of us on but for some of the bigger releases like Forest Gump or Titanic there might be three of us running around back there and getting in each others way. For some reason we didn’t use the velvet ropes to make a proper organized line so when we were busy there would just be people packed around the counter several deep.

We had no cash resister but rather a money tray on the counter behind us to make change. All the items were priced in increments of 25 cents to make the calculations in our head easier. No doubt we made mistakes on big orders but somehow nobody ever questioned us on the totals. The way the whole operation was run was a bit unusual. We couldn’t give away free empty cups – like for water – because we took inventory of them to check how much cash we should have from sales. One time my buddy Jason came in to apply for a job – which he easily got with my weighty endorsement. On his way out he stuck a large popcorn bucket on his head and began to dance around in a silly celebratory fashion. Then he crumpled it up and threw it away. I told him that would be three dollars.

It could get pretty hectic at the concession stand but there was one man who would occasionally come by and bring everything to a mesmerizing halt. His name was Fran Ferry and he was a local magician. He’d patiently wait his turn but the moment he stepped up to the concession stand he would begin a friendly chat with one of us workers or perhaps a customer next to him as he pulled out a section of rope and a large metal nut. Yes, even when we were busy. And just like that a show started right there at the counter and everyone fell silent, as if we all forgot where we were or what we were doing. I saw this trick many times over the years and I knew that that metal nut was going to end up sitting somewhere nearby (like the popcorn buckets, soda machine, napkin dispenser) but I could never catch him placing it. As the trick would start I would tell myself to watch his hands and to stay focused. I failed every time because he was so good at the art of distraction. His hand would be clasped around the threaded nut and someone would by tying the rope around his fist and he would go from talking about magic to pointing out some girls pretty earrings. Sure enough, we’d all start looking at the girl with the pretty earrings and then it’s back to the trick as his hand pulls out of the rope and the nut is gone. There it is…on the salt shaker! The thing is, I don’t ever recall him handing out business cards or plugging his show – it was just pure entertainment and a gift for all of us.

After Fran’s movie had finished, when I was walking around the lobby with the Hoky sweeper, picking up popcorn, he would stop and chat with me. When he learned of my desire to be a performer – and specifically an Elvis entertainer – he enthusiastically encouraged it. That became the subject of all our future talks and it was as if he was working his magical hypnosis on me to give me the confidence I needed. I can’t thank him enough for that. If I remember correctly (and I rarely do) when I was considering attempting a full show performance on the town square in town he made me a deal: He would teach me one of his magic tricks If I took the gig. This is before the Youtube years where you could easily find video tutorials on magic tricks. It was too tempting an offer to turn down and so next time you see me – and if you have two rubber bands – I’ll show you my one magic trick.

Sally’s son Charlie, in his thirties at the time, became my best friend in those days. He had two things that I envied: self-confidence and a manly mustache. Unfortunately he was just as mischievous as I was. But no matter how crazy our antics, we were “in” with the boss. We kept Sally laughing and she overlooked a lot of the stunts we pulled.

With so much free time at work…well, as the adage goes, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”. Charlie, myself and really all the employees would come up with creative ways to entertain ourselves. For instance, we would play an anagram game with the movie titles. We’d switch the letter tiles over the doors so, for instance, Armageddon would be changed to Dread Mango. The Parent Trap was Tap the Partner. We would blame it on mischievous kids on the occasion someone noticed.

1995, Prom night. I stopped by to see my buddy Charlie beforehand.

Once Charlie and I improvised a scene in front of the theater just as customers were showing up. He played the drunk projectionist showing up to work and I played the responsible manager who didn’t think he was in any state to be working. So the scene began as I brought him out the front doors of the theater onto the sidewalk and reamed him out for being drunk. I shoved him in the front seat of his car which was parked directly in front of the theater. “Stay put and sober up!” I said slamming the door and heading back toward the theater. With his natural comedic instincts, he dropped his head on the steering wheel causing the horn to blare. Now a crowd really began to form. I ran back to the car, popped the trunk, and tried to stuff him in it. Charlie left his foot sticking out so the trunk wouldn’t shut. I kept slamming down on the trunk trying to get it to shut and pretending I didn’t see his foot (all while trying not to hurt him). We continued this Three Stooges type show for several minutes before we both busted out laughing as it got too ridiculous. The crowd loved it and I recall a young woman saying to her friend, “That was the funniest thing I have ever seen”.

Now for my life changing moment: In 1993, Michael Douglas and his wife came in to catch a movie and I was chosen by the universe to handle his concessions needs. This was more than a business transaction. His words were simple but the message it conveyed was profound which shows you his true genius. “Popcorn… and butter” is what you might have heard had you been standing nearby. But what you didn’t hear was the true message. Those in the entertainment business can sense kindred spirits. He was pointing out the obvious: I was like one of the many dry pieces of corn in the bag. I hadn’t yet reached my true potential. He was trying to light the fire under me to bring that which I kept buried inside of me to the outside – like the fully popped kernel. Butter? What happens to butter neglected too long? It spoils. Butter was the metaphor for my life and the longer I stayed here the more spoiled I would become and a spoiled life – like butter – is thrown away. Using the same secret language of the thespians I thanked him for his guiding wisdom by saying, “for a dollar more you can get the large.” The lesson wasn’t over it seemed as he offered one more piece of advice which anyone can understand and live by: “Know thanks.”

My theater buddy Chris Rooney served Magician Penn Jillette years later. As I understand it the five dollars he paid for his movie ticket turned into a seven of spades when it came time to count the money at closing. Also, nobody ever saw Mr. Jillette make an exit that evening but in his seat there were three doves eating from his popcorn bucket. Teller showed up later to collect them and even he was speechless.

Serving snacks to magicians and celebrities was cool and all but it didn’t take me long to realize that the assistant managers and projectionists (like Charlie) really had it made. So I worked my way up the ladder – a tiny ladder like you’d use to change a light in the pantry where the top step warns you that its not an actual step.

Technically to be a projectionist you needed a Projectionist License or to be working under someone that has one. Yes, this license is real and for good reason. A projector can be an unstoppable death machine with mighty gears that could take hold of your tie (projectionists should always wear ties to show your status is above that of a lowly concession worker) and pull you into the machine head-first where the intense halogen lamp would rapidly sear the flesh on your face and fry your retinal tissue. We had a nickname for the projectors: meat grinders. If you don’t believe any of that then you’re probably some conspiracy theorist that suspects that the state simply brainstormed another way to generate income.

While I waited for a position to open up for assistant manager, Charlie taught me how to run the projectors. Here was the projectionist’s night: You’d show up at 6pm and load all the projectors. I did this as fast as humanly possible and would time myself for fun. So I’d be done in fifteen minutes. Then I’d stand around and distract the concession workers until 7pm when it was time to run around and start the films. Press a start button and adjust focus. By 7:15pm the movies were rolling and you were done until the second evening showings started around 8:40pm. Load ‘em up again, start ‘em and it’s free time until closing.

The films sat upon large platters and were fed through the projector to be wound up again on another platter. Sometimes there would be a malfunction and you’d have to go check on a movie that stopped. Hopefully it would be just a simple job where the film snapped and you could easily splice it back together and get things rolling again. I recall one time in a nearly packed house Saving Private Ryan had stopped playing. I was in another theater chatting up a girl that I had a crush on. It took them a while to find me and when I finally got to the projector room it was a disaster. The film somehow had begun winding itself under the platter as if it was trying to recreate the world’s largest ball of twine. It had run like that for a while because the platter feeding the film had no problems and triggered no fail-safe shutoff. It would have been easy to refund all the tickets but that was a lot of money and then I would have had to explain to Sally how I had failed to check in on the movie. People were already beginning to grumble in the theater which I could hear. The worst part was that so much of the film appeared mangled. What if it wasn’t salvageable? It was our big summer movie and hadn’t been playing but a couple weeks. Who would pay for the film if it was destroyed? My mind was racing, the sweat was pouring off of me. It was taking far too long to fix properly so I loaded the projector up again where it had stopped and rerouted it to another platter while I worked away on the mangled first quarter of the film. You don’t realize how much film is in a movie when it’s tightly rolled on a platter. But when you see it unfurled on the floor it’s incredible and overwhelming. I cut out as few frames as possible – so it was still watchable but had to leave in some questionable stretched and folded sections that down the road could have caused another mishap with the projector. I eventually managed to put it all together and nobody seemed to notice the missing bits. You can bet that until that movie left the theater I checked in on it frequently.

This will give you an idea of what I was dealing with when a portion of film was unraveled on the floor.

My final projectionist task for the evening was to shut everything down when the last customer left. Sometimes you’d get a really long film and you’d be so annoyed at the old couple that wants to sit and watch the entire credits. Before Marvel started doing end-credit scenes most people were gone before the film ended and so I’d shut the projector down early and wind up what remained of the film. I remember once being ready to leave and there was one film still playing with one person watching credits. So I slowly adjusted the film out of focus – just enough that maybe they’d think their eyes are getting tired. Naturally, my devious plan worked and they left shortly after that. Hey, I had to get home and play my Nintendo 64 with my roomies.

Sally and I had a deal worked out before long. She would put me down for a full night of concession work if I would just show up for the last hour and a half and watch things so she could go home. I was basically a useless security guard sitting around in the office while the final movies played. Nothing ever happened so we would play games, order food, make prank phone calls, draw silly cartoons, and just hang out with friends all for $4.25 an hour.

Eventually I moved up to Assistant Manager where there was slightly less time to screw around but nobody around to answer to when you did. Also, you got a key to the building. Suddenly there were midnight showings of movies with my coworkers and friends, unlimited access to all the candy (unofficially). It’s also possible that occasionally some people came late to a movie and paid with cash and we used that twenty bucks to buy us all pizza or something. I’m not saying that happened but that such a thing would have been possible and likely did happen.

During my breaks as projectionist or assistant manager, I would go down to the basement storage area and practice music. I’d bring my cheap guitar or keyboard and practice singing Elvis songs. Sometimes when I have a random nighttime cough I think back to the ancient asbestos wrappings on the pipes down there and wonder if that was a good idea.

The janitor’s name was Dennis and it turned out that he was a great guitarist that was also a huge fan of Elvis’ Sun records. So we began to get together – in that toxic basement – on our free afternoons and sing all those old Sun songs. Sometimes I wish I had a recording of that.

The theater was part of a group of theaters run by Ron Goldstein, who appeared to be running the old family business into ground. We rarely saw Mr. Goldstein but every few months he would come by and it was like Darth Vader coming to check on the Death Star’s progress. He made us all nervous though he rarely spoke to us beyond asking if Sally was in. The rumor going around was that he was taking all the profits and putting them up his nose. Whether or not that was true, he always came off as prickly and the minute someone spotted him coming in the door we’d try to look as busy as possible. I’d get that Hoky sweeper moving so fast it would smoke.

The Garden was in desperate need of repairs and upgrades and no money was getting put into it. One of our sister cinemas, First Cinema in Brattleboro, VT, closed down because of a failure to pay property taxes. Goldstein’s company eventually lost every other theater in its roster and we knew our days were numbered as well. I think it was ultimately for the best when it finally closed in 1999 – I mean this both personally and for the theater itself. The Garden Cinemas has since reopened, been refurbished and is now run by friends of mine (from waaaay back in high school) that have put their blood, sweat, tears…and money into it. It looks beautiful and is in great hands. As for the personal blessing of its closing, it was another kick in the butt for me to do something with my life. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would have stayed working there. It was easy money, easy work and a helluva good time surrounded by all the friends you got hired there. It’s hard to walk away from a job where you feel like you’re paid to goof off. Which I guess is essentially what I still do.

I miss those days at the theater and the friends I’d made there. It was a carefree time in a calmer and kinder world. I wouldn’t trade those eight years working there for anything. I believe that not only are people brought into your life for a reason but sometimes places are too.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. J

    Thanks for sharing some cool stories. Memories is all we are left with and we can only hope most of them are good. I like sitting outside and thinking about old times when life just seems simpler.

  2. robandsue

    I bet there was never a dull moment when you were around. Landing a job at 14 in a movie theatre just set the stage for your destiny to be an entertainer. You truly are the best Elvis Tribute Artist around and this new album of ‘Travis’ music will certainly pave the way for the next step in your amazing career. Keep those creative juices flowing.

Leave a Reply