Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Day "At the Door"

This is a fictionalized account of one day in a manager's life running a small moving picture house, which includes some details about musicians.
A Day "At the Door"
By Hugh King Harris

LET us stand, if you will, for a moment in the place of the manager of the motion-picture theater, in the average town, and watch, for a day the different phases of the business. It is a most interesting proposition as viewed from various angles. If I burlesque some points a trifle, keep in mind that what I say is founded on actual occurences [sic] related by managers of various houses, on facts, not fancy.

The house is to open at ten o'clock A. M., the film is to come in by express, and there has been a wreck on the road, the feature has been billed heavily. The posters have been up and folks are looking toward seeing something worth while. Jacks, the manager, phones the express office. "Hello, that film in yet? What, a wreck on the P. & O.? The deuce! How soon do you expect it? By noon sure! Say, man, we open at 10, the thing's billed and we stand to lose a nice bunch of money."

He turns from the phone perplexed, the films of the day before are boxed ready for shipment out, on the train that the feature was to come in on. Morning business is always good here; to wait two mortal hours without films is to face a loss of the real profits of the day. But such is life. Just then the phone rings. "Hello, yes, this is Jacks; what, Mary sick, won't be down today? All right, I'll see what I can do."

More bad news, the cashier sick, some one must be pressed into service at once to handle the box office. It is close to ten and folks have already paused, lounging about the lobby, real money is waiting to be taken. Jacks scowls, a hurry call and he locates a girl he knows will be O. K. He is about to call the express office again but feels that will be useless, they know his plight and will send the film as soon as it comes.

Now a shrill whistle from the speaking tube to the operating booth gives promise of more trouble, and sure enough, the operator finds the projecting machine has a broken sprocket and it will take some time to fix it.

"Everything in bunches," mutters Jacks and tells the musicians who are waiting that nothing will be doing until noon. But as gloom is settling thick and fast the express wagon dashes up, and lo and behold, the unexpected has occurred, the film has arrived, twenty-five minutes late, yes, but that's a small matter under the circumstances. A sharp blow on the speaking tube whistle and the operator "thinks" ten minutes more will fix her. So finally all is ready and Jacks takes up his station at the ticket box. A well advertised feature has brought out a good crowd and soon the tickets are dropping merrily into the box.

The speaking tube whistle blows, it is another bit of trouble, possibly ten minutes or so. Instructions are sent down to the orchestra and the singer is forced into quick
action and by strenuous musical stunts the original ten minutes, stretched to half an hour, is passed.

"Gee, mister, I can't hang around here all morning; I came to see a show, not to hear a cheap concert.” It is a red-faced, portly man speaking. His nickel is returned without question. But the next party who departs snorts something about blanked fakes anyway, these snide cheap theaters. Jacks takes it all coolly. It is part of the daily grind.

Now all is going smoothly, it is some feature all right, folks commence to applaud and Jacks knows he has the crowd with him at last. As the audience departs comments of Bully," "Some class" or "It was awfully interesting, don't you think," take the sting out of the episode of the disgruntled folks who left earlier in the morning.

Noon comes; with the regular cashier off duty, Jacks eats a hasty bite and is soon back on duty. Here comes a big lady, loaded with bundles, a weazened little fellow, with sparse gray whiskers trails along meekly, in the rear.

He carries a tin pail with a card board cover tied on it, it seems very precious. The fat lady gurgles. "Oh say, mister ticket man, would you oblige a lady by taking care of the pail while we see the pictures? It is a present for Susan Ann, that's my husband's cousin. Gold fish, yes, she dotes on gold fish. But do be careful and don't set them so near the register, you will kill them; and do keep them out of the draft; don't spill the water. There's a good man, ever so much obliged, we won't be in long, come along Jasper" and she stalks down the aisle, Jasper following in the rear with never a word. Jacks heaves a sigh of relief and rapidly gathers in the pasteboards of the crowd who has had to wait for the fat lady to get rid of her burden and her tale of woe.

"Three men sat on a dead man's chest, yo heave ho"—bang, and the doors fly open, a whiff of onions and whiskey strikes Jacks' nostrils. A burly sailor, three sheets to the wind comes stalking in, bumps against the ticket box and leers cunningly at Jacks, who sees trouble in sight, right there.

"Say, old sport, shiver my timbers, let a man cast anchor, will you?"

Jacks none too gently shoves the sailor out the door, but just outside the entrance (Jacks is very glad it is outside), the sailor turns with an oath and raises a wicked slug shot; Jacks ducks, and luckily the officer passing is on time, the sailor is hauled away and Jacks resumes his duties.

"Mister, does the show run all day for a nickel?" it is a little old woman who asks the question. Jacks sizes up the rusty bonnet, the thin face and eager eyes. The gloves have no tips. "Someone from' God knows where, no money and wants to fill in time." Jacks sizes up things in a hurry. Kindly he explains that one may stay as long as one likes and she goes on in, and Jacks pretends not to notice the lack of a ticket.

Out in front, the big frame with the actors and actresses of the feature company is standing. A rural couple stroll up, gaze at the photos of the players and Hiram remarks in a loud nasal twang, "Guess, Marthy, that curly headed lad must be some good tenor singer. Let's go in and hear the concert." And in they enter, believing the place a regular theater and the players musical artists.

A smart young fellow comes in and leans against the back seat rail. He is one of the floaters and pretends to be so very much of the world. Suddenly on the street is the clang of the fire bells, the department is rushing by.

"Gee, there's a fire," the wise boy calls loudly to Jacks and dashes hastily out the door. Jacks scowls as he sees several patrons in the rear seats shift nervously.

"The fool," mutters the manager, "it takes less than that to start a panic, at times," he saunters carelessly down into the aisle and the folks keep their eyes on him, but his manner reassures them and no trouble comes of the incident.

Now the fat lady of the gold fish comes out and suspiciously inspects the gold fish with a sniff and no thanks to Jacks goes out.

"No dogs allowed in here, madam," this to a flashily dressed young woman who has a big bull terrier on the end of a chain.

"Well, you have a nerve. I have him chained and can sit in the rear." Her voice rises shrill and Jacks calms her as best he can, but she makes a nasty scene before she leaves and Jacks wishes she and her dog in most any place at all, so long as it is away from him.

The day goes on and many fool questions are asked and answered, a fight in the lobby is stopped, a "rough neck" in the audience subdued and ejected.

A short time for supper, and the night doorman comes on. Jacks has a bit of time to himself, but the singer, a young tenor, gets mixed up with some friends and doesn't show up for evening service on time. The extra singer is hastily secured, after a deal of grumbling, and goes on.

The advertising for the next day and the day after is gone over, the janitor makes a "touch," on the plea of illness, a new part is ordered for the machine, and many other duties are disposed of.

It is pretty late when Jacks gets to bed, tired, with some important matters to call him out early the next morning. He has had a "full day" surely, yet some folks sigh with envy at the manager's "job," a bed of roses, maybe, but every rose has its thorns, and every manager can point out a whole lot of these same thorns if you will but ask him.

Source: Hugh King Harris, “A Day ‘At the Door,’” Moving Picture World 19 April 1913, 270.