Read Old Man Scanlon

My Life in Theater

02 October 2010

In the technically truthful but deliberately misleading way that I tell people I worked on Wall Street with a stripper named Agnes—there are Wall Streets outside of New York City, and strippers who do not take off their clothes—I sometimes also tell people I was in theater when I was young. I couldn't act, sing, or dance my way out of a paper bag: I was in fact part-time janitor and gofer at the Community Theatre, a movie house on the main drag in North Attleboro, Massachusetts. I was a high school senior. It was 1968.

I've heard the Depression stories about kids scrounging up a nickel and spending never-ending Saturdays watching movies and newsreels, sometimes over and over, but I have no equivalent story of my own. Movies were a small, and, as it turns out, not particularly memorable part of my youthful entertainment (although Mary Poppins, the start of my continuing crush on Julie Andrews, remains vivid). I suspect this is typical, since by the 1960s the Community and its brethren were not doing well. Towns twice the size of North Attleboro, like those my mom and dad grew up in, supported only one theater, down from two or three in earlier decades. Television must have already been taking its toll, and the rise of malls and multiplex theaters was consigning old-style downtown theaters to the fate of their downtowns: many becoming part of bleak wastelands, some razed, a few recovering, rededicated to new purposes. Our area's first mall—the Midland Mall, in Warwick, Rhode Island—opened in 1967. I could claim that I recognized its appearance as an omen of the Great Downtown Decline, the death knell for the Community Theatre, but I'd be lying.

Though the knell had indeed sounded, someone was willing to try to make the Community a paying proposition. Harvey B. Slater, his wife, Mr. Castro, the concession lady, and URI student Pete Tancredi took over the Community's operation and hoped to duplicate their success running the Park Cinema in Cranston. I did not doubt that Mr. Slater and his crew could turn the Community around. They were old movie-theater hands, close-knit, competent, and I enjoyed working with them, but whatever it was that had worked at the Park did not work at the Community. Soon after I left—not that there was any connection—it died as a movie theater and was converted to offices.

Mr. Slater hired me to clean the Community. He called it the theAYter, accent on the lo-o-ong A, and I certainly didn't contradict him. For $1.60 an hour, the minimum wage in 1968, I strapped on a back-pack electric blower and, starting from the back of the auditorium, blew all the previous night's trash down the sloping concrete floor into the orchestra pit. The theater seated about 1400—that's several times the size of today's multiplex units, but maybe not as big as you might think, since it was built to accommodate the scrawny American buttocks of the early twentieth century. Even the nowhere near capacity crowds that we were getting pretty much laid waste to the place, forever cementing my conviction that people are goddamned pigs.

We kept the theater running like a well-oiled and exquisitely balanced, if unprofitable, machine. One of my colleagues brought in a primitive audio device, so we got to do our jobs under the never-ending spell of The Everly Brothers' greatest hits, which eventually grew old. I fetched coffee for the adults. I schlepped forgettable, freaking heavy movies from the bus stop across the street. Mr. Slater for some reason considered the pay phone in the street lobby an unacceptable public nuisance, and when he gave up on New England Telephone ever removing it he had us cut its cable. We restocked the concession counter out of giant plastic bags of popcorn from the storeroom, pre-popped and already stale. Once I climbed the ladder into the projection booth, but never, to my regret, got intimate with those amazing machines. Every week I changed the marquee. It's a law of nature that all stepladders are precarious and marquee letter sets always lack crucial letters and numbers. Each change was a life-threatening orthographic adventure.

I loved this job: my schoolwork didn't suffer, the work and people were interesting, and they gave me money. Not only that, I was the only male in my circle who entered Ladies' Rooms regularly, with impunity. Armed with muriatic acid, brush, and mop, I tried to make cracked and abused porcelain, tile, and grout gleam to its limited potential. Frequenting the Ladies' Room paid off in these early days of a man's lifetime quest to understand women, though perhaps not in the way you might think.

As a teenager I had many theories to explain women. Their unifying theme was, whether from my natural inclination or reflecting contemporary culture I don't know, along the lines of "on a pedestal, sugar and spice and everything nice." This model was of course doomed to ignominious failure, but under the gun of puberty I had to start somewhere. In school I'd heard Linda L. and Ella N. speak authoritatively, with intent and conviction, using words that I wasn't aware that girls even knew. This did not reconcile at all well with my working theories, so I was already on notice that something needed to change. But it was the wanton, disgusting vandalism in the Community's Ladies' Room, an order of magnitude worse than anything perpetrated in the Men's Room, that decisively liberated me from the notion that women were an unknowable, superior species to be worshipped. I owe to Harvey Slater the epiphany that women are completely human, with all that entails, and I raise a glass to him today, on what would have been his 99th birthday.