This article is about “first jobs”. Do you remember yours? Did you get fired? I’ll admit it if you admit it. You probably did. Ok, I did…but not because I wasn’t doing my job.
My very first job was as an usher at the world famous Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California. Yes, that Chinese Theatre! And yes, that Hollywood! I got the job in the summer between my junior and senior year in high school. My friend Jaime got me the job. He started working there just a couple of months before I did. He convinced me to apply after telling me that he escorted Prince to his seat during the Purple Rain premier. Yes, that Prince, and yes, that movie! It was 1984, and I remember it like it was yesterday…
My very first day was a total eye opener. We wore Chinese outfits. The guys wore red jackets with high collars, always zipped-up, black pants, and white, cotton gloves. The ladies wore tight short-sleeved long dresses with Chinese art prints, usually dragons. Their outfits matched our red jackets. Some of the girls wore black instead of red. We all wore what I would definitely call a “uniform bordering on costume.”I remember our salary. Are you ready for this? $3.40 per hour. One of the other ushers used to say: “Do they think we’re stupid? That’s just five cents above minimum wage! So we can’t complain about getting paid minimum wage?” And yes, the manager at the time actually told us: “We pay above minimum wage, not like most theatres!” I didn’t care. I was there to meet celebrities like Prince!
I remember the meetings. Prior to starting the shift, we always had an “assignment meeting.” We would line up by the stairs of the Twin Theatres, where everyone ordering food or going in the theatres would stare at us. Actually, this only happened prior to the evening shift. For the morning and afternoon shift, you just had to look at the assignment wall for your assignment. The assignments included “usher”, where you stood by the doors and took tickets and say that famous line “enjoy the show!” Or “sweeper,” where you basically walk around the theatre grounds sweeping the floor for trash, usually cigarette butts. Guess which assignment everyone frowned upon? Yes, because everyone would rather stand by the door all night and be “on display.”The “concession people” weren’t as cool as the ushers. They were mostly people who got hired without connections, and that’s why they had to handle foods! In typical connection-politics fashion, you only got the usher position because someone recommended you. Because of my friend Jaime, I moved straight to usher. Wanna know how much the concessionaires got paid? Exactly the same as the ushers!
The Chinese Theatre had a total of three theatres at the time. The main theatre, where they held all the premieres and has in the foreground the hand and footprints of famous celebrities, and the two smaller theatres they called the Twins. I still remember the numbers. There were fourteen hundred ninety two seats (1492) for the main theatre and four hundred (400) for each of the twin theatres. The smell of popcorn and nachos always lingered in and out of the theatre. It would be at least five years until I can tolerate the smell of popcorn again!
I remember meeting all sorts of celebrities. Bob Hope, Kelly Le Brock, Eddie Murphy, and Pierce Brosnan to name a few. I met Pierce Brosnan before he was famous as James Bond. He had just started Remington Steele, and he had a free day, so he went to the Chinese Theatre to see what it was all about. I was lucky enough to be the one to show him around. I met Eddie Murphy during the premiere of Beverly Hills Cop. I remember a rainy midnight showing of that movie. In between the theatre and fifteen hundred drenched people anxiously waiting to get in, it was I and another usher at the door. It was total chaos. They had problems with the projector, and all the tickets were already sold out. So we had to stall the crowd and make sure the projector was fixed before we could start letting people in. I was scared for my life!
So let’s go back to my first day. I reported that Sunday morning at about 9:00 a.m. The first showing on weekends is usually 10:00 or 10:30 a.m., so a fellow usher was showing me where everything is. Upstairs in the locker rooms, there was graffiti written on the ceiling. It had “sharks” and “jets” written on it in big black spray paint. Apparently from the time when West Side Story was playing live on stage at one point. He showed me the Twin Theatres, and then walked me around the main theatre, including the men and women’s restrooms. The women’s restrooms are very impressive, with lots of couches and mirrors, and plenty of room to roam around in. The men’s restroom? Not even close. Pretty typical. I guess in the old days, women really dressed up to see movies and plays at this theatre, so they needed more freshening-up room! I was pretty young, and somewhat nervous on my first day. We went out to the front door of the Chinese Theatre and he explained to me that my shift that day would entail just tearing tickets and standing guard at the door. Apparently, on everyone’s first day, they didn’t make anyone clean the theatre for trash in between shows. I guess it was so you’d come back the next day!
So there we stood at the door of the Chinese Theatre, looking at the people (mostly tourists) of the world. They were taking pictures, looking down and reading the messages, and fitting their hands and feet on celebrities’ cement imprints. He then tells me that he has to leave me here for a while to go and meet another new guy. He said that I would have to stay here all day. Then he gave me the most incredible instructions that I’ve ever heard of in my life. Instructions that I will never forget as long as I live. Right before he ran off, he said: “Ok, Robert remember three things: First, this is not a Chinese theatre. We only show English speaking movies here. Second, Marilyn Monroe is over there!” He points to the right of the entrance, facing the street. Then he says: “Third, John Wayne is over on the other side,” pointing just to the left of the entrance. Before I can say anything, he says: “Just remember those three things, and you’ll be alright!”
So for the next six hours or so, of my very first shift, on my very first job, only besides tearing tickets to let the patrons in for the show, I stood in front of the most famous Chinese theatre in America, on display and ready to help. Countless tourists would come up to me and ask: “Do they show only Chinese movies here?” My answer: “No, only English speaking movies.”
“Where’s Marilyn Monroe?” I would get asked. I would point to the right side. Another tourist asks: “Where’s John Wayne?” Point to the left. All day, point left, point right, English only.
Unfortunately, I only worked for Mann’s Chinese Theatre no more than seven months. I was actually ready to quit after the summer, but they let me work on Sundays only, as long as it was an eight-hour shift. I stayed because I was able to let family and friends watch movies for free, pretty much any day I could take them. On Sundays, it seemed like everyone I knew would show up for a free movie during my shift. This lasted only a couple of months, before the management caught on and fired me.
Like I said, they didn’t fire me because I wasn’t doing my job!