Thursday, June 1, 2017

Riske Business: I Hated Working at a Movie Theater

by Adam Riske
“I have dreamed a dream…but now that dream is gone from me.”
- Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), The Matrix Reloaded

What are my hours?

I worked at a local mall theater when I was 16 years old for two days. I didn’t know my hours yet so my manager told me to show up at 5pm on Friday, May 29th. The year was 1998. Here’s how the conversation went.

Me: What time do I work until?
Theater Manager: Until close.
Me: When is that?
TM: Why?
Me: Because my dad has to pick me up. I don’t have a license.
TM: You can call him when we’re done.
Me: I can’t go back to the car and tell him that. People have lives.
TM: 10pm.
Me: What are my hours tomorrow? The calendar just says “11.”
TM: 11am to close.
Me: What? Like 11 hours? I’m 16. We’re not supposed to work that many hours.
TM: What do you want me to say?
Me: It says “11” on the calendar by my name for Sunday, too.
TM: Till close!

My Coworkers
My manager told me I’d be working at the concession stand my first night. There was no training. I was sent straight to the battlefield with only my wits. There were two other teens working at the stand, too. I don’t remember their names, so we’ll call them Jack and Jill. Here’s how that went.

Me: (Extends hand for handshake) Hi, I’m Adam. What’s your name?
Jack: Hey new guy…if life hands you lemons…
Me (confused): Make lemonade?
Jack: Give ‘em butter flavored toppings!
(Jack and Jill laugh like douches and then ignore me for 30 minutes)
Me (in my head): I’m trying to just do an honest job.

Later in the night

Me: Hey Jill, did you see Godzilla? (Note: It was not playing at our theater but was at the nicer, newer theater five minutes away)
Jill: What? You have a customer.
Me (in my head): These people are dispassionate about film.

The Concession Stand
If I might be so bold, working at a concession stand is not where you put a talent like me. I would later get a 26 on my ACT; smart, but not showing off. I’m much more box office or management material. Alas, I was stuck at the stand both that Friday and Saturday. I had some problems.

• The public soured me quickly. I was pouring some old guy his pop and I must have spaced out because he said to me “Earth to kid!” This is demeaning. He broke a social contract and made it personal.

• Then because I was flustered I got pop on my shirt sleeve, so I had to work in this wet long sleeved, vertical striped dress shirt the rest of the day. You can’t work in wet sleeves!

• I also messed up and tore one of the popcorn bags and went to go throw it out. Jack suddenly cares and is all “You can’t throw away bags!” I’m like “Why? It’s a paper bag.” He goes “Inventory!” I said “Whatever,” and threw it out because fuck him and fuck inventory. They can take it out of my minimum wage. It’s a bag, man. It’s just a bag. I was never trained.

• On Saturday, Jack and Jill both took their lunch break at the same time and left me at the concession stand by myself and I was FREAKING OUT because right when they left…guess what…a rush. Of course. A bunch of kids and their parents were going to see Paulie and, let me tell you, there were lines. Every one of these people wanted kid combos. I had to ring and make the kid combos and then check in and see two dozen disappointed parrot heads looking at me with judgmental eyes. “Isn’t there anyone else working here?” one parent called out. “Is there a manager?” another said. “I don’t know where she is. I’m here. We’ll get through this!” was the gist of my reply back. Then, just as I’m almost done with this long line, a woman comes back and says “This Diet Coke tastes funny. Like bad.” I was all “What? Here’s another one.” “Still bad” she said. “How about a bottle of water?” I asked. “Do you need to ring me up for the exchange?” She inquired. “Take it! I’ll figure it out later.” I said, nervously trying to help the next customer.

The line ends and my manager walks over.

TM: “How are things going?”
Me: “Ok. I mean I was left up here in a rush with no training while everyone went on break and the pop tasted funny and I had to give a woman a bottled water instead, but otherwise fine.”
TM: Did you ring up the exchange?
Me: There wasn’t time for that!
TM: Where’s the soda cup?
Me: I threw it away.
TM: But that’s inventory.
Me: I’m sorry.
TM: Did you change the syrup?
Me: What? There’s syrup?
TM: Yeah for the pop.
Me: No one trained me on any of this!

The Movies Sucked
Granted it was just one weekend, but my theater was playing mostly terrible options like Almost Heroes, Bulworth, Deep Impact and Paulie. When I went on break, I didn’t go get dinner. I just went into the theater of the Chris Farley-Matthew Perry vehicle and had an anxiety attack as I dreaded returning to the concession stand more and more with each passing minute. I saw the part where Chris Farley fought off an eagle, in case you were wondering.
Closing Time

On the first night, I was not a big hit with my coworkers because at 10pm they’re like “Hey, you ready to clean with us?” and I was all “No can do, my good man and good woman. I’m out of here at 10pm. Cleared it with management. I’m 16 and ready to leave. Cheerio!” Maybe that’s why they ditched me during a rush on Saturday???

The Final Chapter

I was pretty sad and anxious after my second night. I knew I never wanted to go back to work at that theater. It was a crushing realization because this was my favorite theater throughout my boyhood. And now I had a negative association with it. I didn’t want to hate going there.

On Sunday morning, I arrived to work just before 11. I got to the box office and knocked on the window. My manager didn’t come out. I waited a couple of minutes and said fuck it to myself and shoved the uniform and my name badge into the box office. Seeing this, my manager rushed out. I said “I quit.” She looked at me puzzled. “You have to give two weeks notice,” she replied. “I can’t. I just can’t,” I declared and I left.

The theater closed about a year or so later. I went back a handful of times as customer. Each time, I had a queasy feeling in my stomach that almost prevented me from going at all. I got made fun of when I did go there by Jack and Jill. I never got concessions because I was trying to avoid them. It was rough. Try watching Small Soldiers sans snacks. See? You can’t!

In the end, I made the right decision. I took a job at Office Depot three months later. I look back on those two days working at a movie theater every once in a while. I’ll be in a meeting, in the car, or on a date and I’ll look off to the side for a moment, smile and reflect on what could have been.

I knock and my manager greets me. She opens the gate to the theater and lets me in. I head behind the concession stand and check inventory. You’ve never changed syrup in the soda fountain, have you? It’s beautiful when it’s done correctly. Better than any can of soda. Popcorn, pop, kid combos, candy, nachos…I sold them all that summer. I earned some cash, just enough for lunch, a magazine, some arcade games but enough to get by. I find peace, I find religion, I find purpose. Maybe one day I come into work and learn from the general manager that an assistant manager spot opened up. I fill out the application, writing slow, letting the moment linger. I make the most of the opportunity as assistant manager. I make a new home at that mall theater; working hard, talking movies. I have movies in my bones, that won’t change. I forget my old life, drop out of high school, never go to college, never looking back. I make a new life for myself and I live it, living it the way it should have been. Maybe in a few months I make a pass at Jill, she smiles and we have intercourse right on that concession stand and have a child out of wedlock. We raise this new family right and give them a good life with kid combos and nachos at an employee discount – sometimes hers, sometimes mine. Jill has a son and I name him Paulie after the parrot movie. Then one day when I’m old and the theater is dead and gone, I gather Paulie and his children and my great-grandchildren and, of course, Jill. I tell them the whole story – the wet sleeves, the lack of training, my temptation to shove my shirt into the box office window and quit. Then I ask them if they know how lucky they are to be here. It almost never happened. Adam Riske could have been working at Office Depot and they would not exist.


  1. I'm still trying to figure out Jack's "if life hands you lemons" joke.

    1. I think it's a subtle meditation on the obesity epidemic in America.

    2. The punchline is that the system was rigged and I never had a chance at the Town & Country 6

    3. Oh wow, I worked at Town and Country for about a year (at the Waldenbooks that was in the wing that lead towards Old Country Buffet). That mall was a slow death-march toward oblivion.

    4. Joseph "Jack" Finn? Is it you?

    5. @Joseph - I used to think it was so funny that the windows of OCB made it so you could watch people working out at the gym across the hall as you ate cinnamon rolls.

  2. Idk why, but a theater employee complaining about inventory really irritates me. First, everyone knows you throw everything out so it's easier to steal the stuff you want. "Spillage, eh Jack?" Seconditively, you're a high schooler working at a movie theater. Shut up. I can see why this theater went under.

    1. Oh man, my first job was at a big grocery store and the amount of "tacitly-sanctioned-by-supervisors box-cutter slippage" was epic. Especially on the night shift. I mean, it's hard to get into a case of Oreos or Doritos without slashing a package or two open, right? And we were like Freddy Krueger at a Prom Party when we worked the backshift. Never seemed to happen with inedible/not-tasty stuff though!

  3. I like Paulie. The scene - SPOILERS - at the end where he's reunited with "Ma-wrie" and soars up into the air in joy always has me in tears. I'm filling up now just thinking about it.

    Matthew Perry really looks like Kim Coates in that picture.

    Fu~k Jack and Jill; the Adam Sandler movie, the James Patterson book, and these two arseholes.

    1. Thanks! I was saving Paulie for Animals day :-(

  4. "Earth to kid" is a great line. I mean, yeah, the guy was being an asshole, but I feel like he had a flare for cinematic living. "Earth to kid" has a sorta Spielbergian ring to it.

    Very funny and you know, if you're a subscriber to Multiverse Theory that epilogue is almost certainly playing out in one of them.

    1. Yeah, what a shame for this guy that the Algonquin Round Table no longer existed in 1998. Those guys would have snapped him up like a shot.

      "Earth to stupid guy" is a line from the Treehouse of Horror VIII episode of The Simpsons that aired in 1997. This rude prick probably saw it.

    2. I'm down for Multiverse subscribing!

  5. Wow. That conversation about hours was hilarious!

    1. It's insane. Just write when you want people to work until and follow hourly laws for teenagers. It's not rocket science.

  6. I briefly considered starting an argument about Almost Heroes, but the worst Christopher Guest movie isn't worth fighting over. It was a staple of early teenage years and I have affection for it.

    1. It's one of the better Chris Farley movies though.

  7. "These people are dispassionate about film." Ha! hilarious, loved this article. good work Adam.

    oh dreaded inventory, a pain in the ass when manager breathe down your neck about it and an all together different, probably worse pain in the ass when you find you ARE the manager and now must track all the paper products and stay on your employees to do the same to keep inventory!!!
    It's awful on both sides.

    1. I'm sure a debate has been made at some point that concession prices have risen because of rising paper costs for popcorn bags.

  8. Don't be so harsh. I like Bulworth I guess. My friend told me that working at a theatre would suck so I avoided. Ruining the theatre by working there would suck so I decided to work at McDonalds, which already ruined itself.

  9. Oh man, this was a great article Adam, I laughed out loud a few times, and for some reason "You can't work in wet sleeves!" really got me haha. I always wanted to work at even a theater or a blockbuster/Hollywood video in high school, but never got the chance. Honestly though, working concessions at a movie theater does seem like a nightmare.

    1. Can you imagine having to work at a theme park? I don't know how anyone does it.

  10. Heartbreaking.

    R.I.P. Paulie Riske. We hardly knew yee.

    1. He was going to be the first in Jill's family to go to college.

  11. To think, this whole situation would possibly have been at least a little better if the theater just had a better training policy. I'm guessing by their closure a short time later that they never improved on that policy.

    1. There was like a 15 minute video about not pulling down each others pants and "Welcome to Hollywood" but nothing that would help me do my actual job.

  12. Michael GiammarinoJune 2, 2017 at 8:20 AM

    I didn't have all of the experiences you describe at my theater job, but some, yes, some. I worked at two theaters in my life. The second time around, I even got to be an assistant manager. That position had its own particular negatives.

  13. What you described is me at my first and only day working at a Subway sandwiches.

    I'm bummed you didn't have a good movie theater working experience. I worked at a few different movie theaters throughout college, and I loved it. I got to see free movies, and my coworkers were other people who loved movies as much as I did.

    1. If it makes you feel better, occasionally customers would yell at me because ticket prices were so expensive at $5.50 a ticket.

    2. I don't want people to yell at you.

    3. I guess I thought most people who worked in a movie theater did so because they really loved movies, but I guess that's not the case. For some folks it's just a job.