Working in the Movie Theaters


I’ve had many jobs over the years. My first “real” job was working in movie theaters. It was good work and I learned a great deal about myself and about working life. My time as a theater worker covers about 3 years’ time from late High School 1988 to middle college 1991.

How it all began: The Polar Tri

During my senior year of high school, I had some time to burn so I went looking for a job. I ended up landing a job at the Polar-Tri theater in Anchorage Alaska. Even at the time, the Polar Tri was a bit of a dump. It had three screens in an age of big multiplexes and it mostly showed films that had already been in the larger theaters. At the time it was owned by Luxury Theaters.

I’d done some work prior to this but it was all essentially short term gig work rather than an actual job. Working in a theater, there are three main jobs you can do as a new employee: Usher/Doorman, Box Office, and Concessions. Typically you learn all three and are assigned to them on an as-needed basis. The Concessions is the most involved but all the jobs are fairly simple.

Working in the theaters has nice fringe benefits. You get to watch movies for free and you can generally have free popcorn and fountain drinks when you are not in public view. The work is a bit boring when the theater has a slow day, and a bit hectic when it’s really busy. The pay is almost always the minimum wage.

I don’t remember a lot of detail from this first gig, but I recall that I learned the job well and was a generally good employee. I remember my boss was a bit crazy. One time he took me to the bank after work for a night deposit. He had an older model truck with a smooth dash. A pistol sat on the dash and slid back and forth as he made turns. It struck me as not the wisest way to store a firearm and at the same time, it was very Alaskan.

I worked hard and learned the ropes in each of the three positions we had at the time. For nearly the entire time I was there, we had Rodger Rabbit playing at our theater. The closing theme song was seared into my brain by the time I was ready to leave and go off to college in Seattle, Washington.

The Alderwood Cinemas
A fuzzy photo of the Alderwood Cinemas, or as we called it Alderwood Enemas.

Rising up: Alderwood Cinemas

Fast forward a few months and I’m in Seattle Washington attending college. I’m paying my own way for the first two years so I’ve got no choice but to keep a job. I managed to get myself hired on the spot at a theater about a half hours bike ride from my place; the Alderwood Cinemas. It was owned by the company; Act III.

The manager was an older gentleman, possibly named Bill. He wore 1970’s style suits with wide padded ties and complained about his wife and mistress to me while we counted the money at tonight. His almost non-existent hairline, lack of style, and bulging belly made me wonder what sort of a mistress he’d attracted.

The vast majority of the employees at a movie theater are young people in their first job. That was me. Sometimes you had retirees making some extra money and a few folks that had made a sort of career of working in theaters. The latter tended to be the managers and projectionists.

I tended to work very hard at my job there and I was very good with customers. I did my work cheerfully, efficiently, and with a bit of style. That’s not the norm. It took just a couple months before I was promoted to “Head of Concessions”. That’s basically a lead in that area and comes with a minuscule pay increase if you are lucky. I wasn’t lucky.

Not too long after that, I got promoted to assistant manager. An assistant manager wears a suit instead of a shirt and bow tie and they roam around making sure everything is happening the way it’s supposed to, answering customer complaints, and they can open and close the Theater, count money up at night and so on. Honestly, it’s probably the most fun job at a Theater. Lovingly referred to as an Ass Manager.

I also took some time as an Assistant Manager to learn the ropes in the projection booth. Most theater workers aspire to work projection. You don’t have much supervision and you don’t have to deal with customers or do clean up. But, it is a more technical job and you can’t do it without a fair bit of training. Learning projection is a common reward for being a good employee. Most don’t move into the job, but if the old projectionist leaves, it sometimes happens.

Around this time Bill “retired” and was replaced with a younger fellow. When this happens they do an audit of inventory and it appeared Bill had cooked the books for a long time and embezzled from the company for a goodly sum, at least by movie theater standards. Managers aren’t paid all that much either, but much closer to a living wage.

The new manager and I got along quite well, and honestly, he was a much better manager who took an active roll in running and improving the theater’s operations. I learned a fair bit from him and he was the first one I’d worked for that I’d describe as remotely professional. His second in command, also my fellow Ass Manager, was a gent by the name of Brian. He went on to make something of a career of working for the company and was probably the best theater Manager I’d known in my short career.

Coming soon: Wild tales of the Alderwood Cinemas

My big break: Polar-Tri part two

At this time, my father and stepmother lived in Alaska and my mother in Seattle. During the first two years of college, I’d fly up to Alaska for the summer. While I’d been working at the Alderwood Cinemas the company that owned them, Act III had bought out my old theater’s company; Luxury Theaters. This made it easy to take an open position at one of the local Alaskan theaters.

I met the regional manager and he took me on to work at the theater he was the general manager for. In a small region, it’s sometimes a dual-position. After about two weeks of being an assistant manager here, I was called to the office. The regional manager thought I was a decent guy and seemed to know what I was doing so he offered to make me a temporary general manager for the summer season. The theater in question, my old stomping grounds; the Polar-Tri.

Keep in mind, at this point I was 19 years old. I’d been working in the theaters for about 16 months at this point. It was a temporary gig but I was given responsibility for running the show there and responsible for all its current employees, a staff of around 15 or so, all part-time employees. I’d spend three days with the current manager and then I’d be all on my own, sink or swim. I believe I was offered the epic sum of $7.50 an hour.

I was there for four months and boy was it an adventure. I did so much wrong and made a huge number of rather embarrassing mistakes. I was not a good manager. That said, I also had some crazy challenges that I overcame and considering the circumstances I was not a bad manager either. I kept the customers mostly happy, I made a lot of improvements while I was there, and I managed to groom one of my employees to take over upon my departure.

My tenure would have ended on a good note overall, but it was marred by a minor scandal that reminded me of old Bill. An audit of the theater revealed that one bank drop of nightly revenue had been missed. It was on the night just before I’d taken over management of the theater, but it was also the first night I’d been tasked with making the drop. It was only a few hundred bucks, and I certainly didn’t take the money, and since I wasn’t in charge I wasn’t technically responsible, but I felt bad that somehow that money didn’t get where it should have gone. It left a small question mark on my otherwise good reputation with the company.

Coming Soon: How to learn management skills the hard way at the Polar Tri

The twilight days: Cinema 12

After returning from my stint as a GM, I worked for a short time at the Alderwood Cinemas once more. My manager had been promoted in the meantime to Regional Manager and Brian, my fellow Assistant Manager had stepped into his shoes. Brian, like his mentor, was a good manager. They also didn’t need an Assistant Manager so I was basically just a regular employee again. That was a little hard to accept.

I decided to shop around and see if I could get a better gig elsewhere. I landed a job at the nearby Metro Cinema 12. This was a one-dollar cinema pretty close by Alderwood Cinemas. I had the job for about 6 months and this was a different company, the name of which I’ve forgotten. I worked both as an assistant manager and as a projectionist here. It was my first time actually working as a projectionist. With 12 screens to run it was quite a hectic gig. At this point, I’d done every job there is to do at a movie theater.

The only interesting thing that happened at the Metro Cinema was a teenage gang banger threatening to kill me for not letting him see a $1 movie for free. I figured if he didn’t have $1, he wasn’t much of a threat.

This was my last theater job. At this point, I was attending the University of Washington which was located far away from where I’d been working. The much longer commute to school meant that working at the Theater was pretty tough to do. I set about finding work closer to my new school.


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