Tuesday, February 26, 2013

My First Summer Job – La Reina Theater, Sherman Oaks, 1984


It's the Summer of 1984. The Olympics are coming to Los Angeles. I'm a gawky seventeen year old with a big afro, huge/thick engineer glasses and my pants hiked all the way up to my head (I am the polar opposite of a ‘Twilight’ kid!), and it's time for me to get my first summer job – and not because I want to work during the summer, but because, as my dad informs me, "You're seventeen. Time to go to work!" Content with sitting in my room drawing and writing stories – in fact, I will write my first feature-length screenplay when I am seventeen (it’s an awful, structureless, 180-paged mess caled "Up for Grabs," and it’s about two white teenagers who get deported to Mexico [don't ask]) – I am initially reticent to go to work, a feeling that I continue to have to this very day.

I decide that, since I would like to someday be a part of the movie business (bad call!), it will behoove me to be where the movers and shakers are. So in May of '84, I show up at the La Reina Theater on Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks, part of L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. The La Reina is one of the few remaining single-screen theaters left over from the halcyon days of Hollywood – the ornate structure was built in 1937. I am excited for my new job at a movie theater! Not only will I get to brush elbows with the people who make it all happen (union projectionists!) but, as the assistant manager Ms. Lewin (cute!) informs me during my interview, I will get to see all of the free movies I want. Of course, during the five months I work at the theater, only three movies will run, but I will get to see them over and over while I’m sweeping out the auditorium after each show. Little slice of heaven.

I am issued my requisite blue polyester blazer and my own little nametag ("Mann Theaters: Chuck") and it's official. I now get to stand by the front door, tearing tickets and watching cars drive by, from 4:00pm to midnight, five days a week, for the next few months. There’s nothing like combining a big afro and huge/thick glasses with an ill-fitting polyester jacket. Suh-weet!

Of course, being a movie theater doorman and staring out a door and watching cars drive by for eight hours a day is boring as hell. But when I think about this job now, twenty-nine years later, there are enough things about it that are fun to remember.

The Manager, Mr. Hamilton, is an affable button-down guy from Chattanooga, Tennessee. He looks like somebody's dad in a sit-com and everybody likes him. The guy appears to have no edge at all – everything about him is completely benign – until one day, I’m standing outside the theater on the terrazzo floor that circumscribes the ticket booth, when a hot lady walks by the theater. Mr. Hamilton elbows me and grins, "Wow, Chuck. I’ll tell ya, boy! I'd have my head so far up her cooch, she wouldn't be able to walk for a week!" I kind of really like this bonding activity, even though I will be troubled for decades by the image of Mr. Hamilton sticking his head up people's cooches. On the extremely rare occasion today that I get to see an actual human cooch, I live in fear that Mr. Hamilton's head will pop out of there, like Porky Pig at the end of a Looney Tune, and grin, "Th… th… th… that's all, Chuck!" I love to learn that people who look nice, clean-cut responsible citizens have awesomely creepy dark sides! I'll have more prurient stories to share with you later, but I think I am going to spread them out a little bit, because if you want the X-rated stories, you have to read some clean ones first. To paraphrase Pink Floyd, 'If you want to eat my pudding, first you have to eat my meat.' (Wait, I just read that back! That doesn't sound very nice!)

Moments like the one I have just described – “Mr. Hamilton and the Coochie Lady” – offset my boredom at having to stand by the door, waiting for customers to come in so that I can tear their tickets. Most of the customers are nice, but every once in awhile, I get a ne'er-do-well who tries to get in for free, and it's not teenagers or miscreants, as you may think. Mr. Hamilton gathers all of us employees together one day and tells us not to let anybody in for free, no matter how important he (thinks he) is, but it's hard to do this, when you get a customer like the completely unsavory Eileen Brennan, the character actress who is famous for playing the drill sergeant opposite Goldie Hawn in the 1980 comedy, "Private Benjamin." When she’s surly to Goldie Hawn, it sure is funny! When she’s surly to me, it’s not funny.

Eileen Brennan comes to the front door of the theater and I greet her.

"Welcome to Mann Theaters, ma'am. May I see your ticket?"

"You have to let me in for free. The name is Brennan."

"Ma'am, my manager informed me that I am not to let anybody in for free.

"Would you like to speak to --"

"Of course I don't want to speak to the manager. Don’t you know who I am?" "Ma'am, I'm sorry, but you'll have to buy a ticket if you want to come in and see Sheena, Queen of the Jungle."

Brennan yells at me for a few minutes, but then – I win! She storms off in a huff. As my maternal grandfather, Grandpa Carlin, used to say, “Good riddance to bad rubbish!”

But not all celebrities are mean. Another day, Dyan Cannon walks into my theater lobby, not to see Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, but only to buy popcorn. While I'm normally at the front door tearing tickets, today I'm filling in behind the candy counter, and Dyan quizzes me for about ten minutes about what movies I've seen lately that I can recommend. She's really nice, and the next night, I turn on Johnny Carson, and not only is she a guest, but she's telling Johnny about how much she loves movie theater popcorn! So when I’m watching Carson, I feel like I'm part of Dyan’s anecdote. Gee, Ms. Cannon sure is nice – and pretty, too!

A third celebrity comes in, too: During the eighties, everybody is talking about 'Luke and Laura,' a couple on the daytime drama, "General Hospital." On this particular evening, O.J. Simpson, ten years before he hacks his way through Brentwood, is running by the theater carrying the Olympic Torch. All of my fellow employees want to stand outside on the street and cheer him on and high-five him as he runs by, so they elect me to stay in the ticket booth and sell tickets, just in case anybody wants to buy one during this auspicious event. (It's the sixth week of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, which is now playing to an empty auditorium, but the studio has made a deal to keep the film going for weeks and weeks after everybody has already stopped coming.) Sure enough, I get one customer: It's Laura from "General Hospital" – her real name is Genie Francis – and I recognize her, because my mom and my two sisters watch soap operas, and they talk about soap opera characters as though they are real people. Miss Francis asks me for one ticket to Sheena, but I have no idea how to use the ticket machine. I ask her politely if she'll wait for a minute until the regular ticket kid comes back, and, like everybody, she turns around and cheers with the amassed crowd on the street as O.J. Simpson runs by carrying the Olympic torch. So I am able to meet two smiling celebrities when I work at the La Reina: Dyan Cannon and Genie Francis.

Besides celebrities, cops try to get into the movies for free, too, and Mr. Hamilton informs us not to let them in, unless they spring for full-priced tickets. In my five-or-so months working at the theater, four cops try to get in for free. I tell them that my manager won't allow it, but they're actually pretty cool about it. Instead of pressing the issue, they just buy tickets.

As I said, most of the time, I'm standing by the front door and tearing tickets, but every once in awhile, I'll fill in at the candy counter. We employees can't eat any candy or popcorn, because each night, every popcorn container, every box of candy, and every soda cup must be inventoried – but we find a way to get around this stricture. When each theater employee becomes thirsty, he takes the first soda cup off the stack, fills it up, takes a drink, and sticks the polluted cup back onto the top of the stack. Maybe seven or eight guys will drink out of the same cup, each time returning it to its rightful place at the top. What's funny about this, and what’s gross about it too, is that the first customer who comes in each night and orders a soda invariably gets his soda in a cup that eight teen-aged geeks already drank out of! This never stops being funny. The first customer every night probably needs antibiotics!

During the time I work at the La Reina theater, we show three movies. First, it’s Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan, a very good Tarzan movie directed by the Chariots of Fire guy, Hugh Hudson. (What ass did I pull that name out of? I haven't thought about that guy in years -- nor has Hollywood!) The second movie is Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, a horrible movie which, nevertheless, stars Tanya Roberts from "Charlie’s Angels" riding a horse in a bikini and speaking broken English for ninety minutes. (Today, Tanya lives two doors away from my parents’ house in Laurel Canyon, but I’ve never met her.) And the third movie is the big one: It’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Opening weekend is so big for that movie – the line is around the block – that Mr. Hamilton has me go outside with a wooden box on a strap around my neck, shilling popcorn and soda to the people in line. To this day, I have a soft spot for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, because I get to see it dozens of times while I am in the auditorium mopping up all the sticky soda. (I hope it's soda!) And even though, to this day, I have never seen an episode of "Star Trek" in my life, because I abhor science fiction, I even remember the Star Trek III: The Search for Spock movie trailer that is shown before the Indiana Jones feature, because there’s a really funny part of the trailer in which the narrator intones, “The crew of the Enterprise will now be put to the TEST?” – and when he says the word “test,” his voice goes up an octave, and he ends the sentence like he’s asking a question. It’s hilarious. The guys and I get a good laugh out of it. (“The crew of the Enterprise will now be put to the TEST?!”) It sounds like, right as the guy is saying the word 'test,' somebody in the recording booth is punching him in the balls! It’s like the narrator doesn’t know whether the crew of the Enterprise will be put to the test or not.

I get brownie points at the theater, because one day, Mr. Hamilton gathers us all in the foyer and tells us that he needs two guys to come in at five in the morning to clean the underside of all five hundred of the theater’s seats with a toothbrush. I immediately volunteer.

I told you that I would get to some more prurient stories, so here they come, and this one is plenty dirty, so I sort of apologize in advance – but since I like this story a lot, I don’t completely apologize:

One of my friends at the theater is a tall/stocky guy named Michael K., and he is, very obviously, not the sharpest tool in the shed; he is a big, good-natured oaf, a 1980s reimagination of Lenny from Of Mice and Men. (So I guess that makes me “George.”)

“Heya, Chuckah!” Michael grins once, slapping me in the back, in his goofy singsong voice, “Yuh like wimmin?”

“Sure,” I reply.

Conspiratorially, he continues: “Yuh know how to tell if a girl has VD?”

“Uh… no.” I’m seventeen. I don’t know anything about girls at all, except that, at that age, I am terribly frightened of them. (When I am sixteen and seventeen, I am so horned-up [ew!] that, some nights, I actually dream that I am in a video store, renting a VHS porno video. At the age of 17, this is about the farthest I will allow my imagination can take me. To this day, I try to keep my goals exactly this reasonable.

“Well," Michael continues, "If you want to know if a girl has VD, first you stick your finger in your ear. And you have to get a big glob of ear wax on your finger.”


“Yeah! And then you stick your finger in her p---y. And if she screams, it means that she has VD!”

This is the first and last sexual advice I will ever allow anybody to give me, and it has haunted me to this very day.

Another day, Michael tells me that after work, he is going to take me to a dance club a few blocks away from the theater, “Le Hot Club,” so that we can boogie with some girls. I am, needless to say, really excited because I am 17 and full of more hormones than a Quarter Pounder. One needs to be twenty-one to get in to Le Hot Club, but somehow, Michael is able to secure our entrance: Even though Michael is seventeen just like me, he’s six-foot-three (which used to be considered tall in 1984!) and he sports a thick mustache which makes him look like he's about thirty. So we dance with a bunch of women who look like refugees from a Nagel print (spandex hair, feathered pants.) I dance with one mid-20s girl who looks like Dale Bozzio from Missing Persons and another who bears a striking resemblance to Terri Nunn from Berlin, so I’m happy. The place, as I remember it, has the funniest paisley/pastel ‘80s vibe you’ve ever seen; it looks like the Patrick Nagel poster from my sister’s bedroom has exploded and turned into a building.

If you read my ear wax story, you might believe that some of the guys who worked at the theater with me needed some kind of sexual harassment training class – and I would concur. Another kid who works at the theater, whose name I can’t remember (but he has blonde, feathered hair and a bad attitude; he looks and acts like most of “The Bad News Bears”) continually lopes up to girl employees from behind, grabs their chests, thrusts his crotch into their butts, and brays, “Hey, Sweaty Betty Juicy Lucy!” I make a mental note that I will never try this move, nor will I ever attempt the ear wax thing.

I have lots of good buddies at the theater. Michael is dumb but fun. There is also my friend Steve, with whom I’ve recently re-connected on facebook – he’s a great guy. (When I was in high school, my friends and I used to make our own little Super 8 movies and I starred Steve in a little effort called “The Armageddon Man,” a Reagan-era nuclear thriller. We used a sound Super 8 camera to make the film, but the sound was accidentally turned off at one point, so if I ever show this film to you, I have to tell you what the characters were saying, because half of the film is, accidentally, silent.)

Another co-worker friend at the theater is a very nice girl who is the sister of a famous ‘80s movie actress – they could be identical twins, but the sister I work with has the worst acne I have ever seen, as opposed to her famous sister, who has clear, alabaster skin. (The sister I work with has so many pimples, she makes me think of the comic song I used to hear my dad sing while he was washing his car: “She has pimples on her, but[t]… I love her…”) And then there is my buddy Carlton. About 40 years old, Carlton is the smooth/groovy jazz musician who isn’t booking gigs like he used to, so he has to supplement his income by working in a movie theater. Carlton gives Yoda-like advice to us youngbloods. Once, we’re standing by the door together and we’re surveying a trio of young couples who are on their way in to the dance club across the street. Carlton sighs longingly, shakes his head, and sighs, “Chuck, my Disco Danny days are over.” I’m in my forties as I write this article, and I now understand what he is talking about. My Disco Danny days are over, too – not that I ever had any Disco Danny Days! (I never even had too many Waltz Waldo Days!)

There’s also a cute Latina ticket booth girl that all of the guys in the theater are hot for – I think she’s in her mid 20’s and has a couple of small children – and she is always very friendly to me. One night, she asks me for a ride home – she usually takes the bus – and then she asks me if I want to come up. Cripplingly shy, I say no – and, of course, I kick myself about that for years. (I will drop the ball a few times in my teens and early twenties because, at that point in my life, I am absolutely terrified of people. To this day, I think people are pretty scary sometimes! Don't you?)

Eventually, Mr. Hamilton leaves, and he is replaced by another manager, a humorless, Ernest Borgnine-looking guy who is always chewing on a toothpick, and who, reportedly, has been fired from his job at an old man steakhouse called the Lamplighter, on Van Nuys Blvd., for propositioning male employees. Once, one of my friends and I are behind the candy counter and we’re talking about one thing or another. The New Manager comes over to us and sternly admonishes, “If you got time to talk, you got time to stock.” (Meaning: If we have time to talk, our time might be better spent stocking the candy counter.) My friend leans over to me and, imitating the manager’s gruff voice, gigglingly whispers, “If ya got time to talk, ya got time to s—k c—k!” The manager spins around and bleats, “What did you two clowns just say? I heard that!” He storms off into his office, but we never get into trouble. Eventually this manager gets fired, as he had previously been fired at the Lamplighter because, as it turns out, he's also propositioning male employees in his office at the theater. (He never propositions me, though.)

Finally, near the end of my summer stint at the La Reina, this manager is replaced by a third manager, Mr. English, who is all-business. Mr. English is only 20 – he looks like a Kennedy cross-bred with a Howdy Doody puppet – and it rubs me the wrong way that he demands we call him “Mr. English,” even though he is close to our age. Today he’s probably the balding manager of a Kinko's in Bakersfield or some low-level bureaucrat in LAUSD, and he’s probably got a mousy wife and some A.D.D. kids.

During my eight hour shifts at the theater, I get a forty-five minute break, so, typically, I head out into the giant parking lot behind the theater and take a nap in the back seat of my first car, a used, purple Buick sedan that I have purchased for $500. (This car is huge – it’s like a hotel!)

The following summer – the summer after my first year of college, when I am almost 19, I will work across the street from the La Reina Theater, at Tower Video. Nothing too interesting to report from Tower Video – I just remember that I’m bored there most of the time, as I stock the shelves with VHS cassettes of Killer Klowns from Outer Space. The twentysomething manager guy wears this horrible-smelling cologne which, I find out, is called Patchouli oil, and which, as a co-worker informs me, means that the manager is gay, and that he wears this scent as some kind of mating call to other likeminded hombres who might recognize it. Every time Patchouli Manager walks by, I gag – but this just leaves more girls for me (!), because, when am working the cash register, I rent videos to Talia Shire and Courtney Cox and, at one point, I try to lamely flirt with Courtney, and she just scowls at me. (Ten years later, when I see Courtney in a bakery in Beverly Hills, she accosts me, and smiles, and says “Hi!” – so that makes up for the scowl she gave me when I was younger!) And once, on July 4, 1985 – yes, I have to work on my 19th birthday, too – all of us employees want to leave the video store so that we can go and watch fireworks. So one of my co-workers gets an impressive idea: He tells us that if we phone a bomb scare into the corporate office of Tower Video, that our store manager should let us go home. So we phone up the corporate office of Tower, and we tell the guy who answers the phone, “There’s a bomb under the Tower Video in Sherman Oaks!” The corporate guy talks to our store manager who knows we’re full of shit. So, as our punishment, Patchouli makes us close down the store. But, for our punishment, we are ordered to stand out in front of the store and accept returned VHS cassettes from customers, curbside, as fireworks from nearby Universal Studio light up the sky overhead. Even when I win, I lose.

Before long, it is time to say goodbye to the La Reina Theater, Tower Video, and working at jobs along Ventura Blvd.

In my 20s, after graduating from college, I would work for some movie producers, five years of my life which made me decide that I never wanted to work in the movie industry again. (Horrible people! I wouldn't pee on them if they were on fire!) Today, I am, very happily, a teacher, and I have been so for seventeen years -- two on the college level and fifteen on the elementary school level. (And college kids are whinier than elementary school kids.)

In 1986, two years after I finish working there, the single-screen La Reina Theater shuts down after a fifty year run, because it can't complete with the boxy multiplexes, and it is converted into a beauty supply shop for women. Today, in 2013, the theater is still standing, and it looks like it used to, but it is now the centerpiece of a block-long mini-mall that was built around the theater about ten years ago. The original theater marquee now advertises the name of the store, and the candy counter continues to exist, too – but instead of candy, it is now filled with bath beads and perfume. The doors on either side of the candy counter that used to lead to the auditorium have been sealed shut. The interior of the place has been decked out in a flowery, light blue color scheme and, in fact, the name of the place, is "Blue."

There’s nothing like your first summer job! Hey: What was your first summer job, everybody?!

PS: If you want to see the La Reina Theater in its full glory, get yourself a copy of the low-budget, and not at all horrible (Why am I making excuses? It’s hilarious!) drive-in comedy The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood (1977). The film’s finale, which features Phil Silvers and Adam West, takes place at the La Reina theater! (There’s also a Dick Tracy serial, made in the ‘40s, that shows the front of the La Reina...)

PPS: Now you can scroll down and read my really old blog entries from 2010! And at the bottom of that page, you can click on "older" entries and see my entries from 2009!