Sunday, October 01, 2006

Memories: Vomit Bags For Everyone!

Here is a picture of the Vilma Theater on Belair Road in Baltimore. It may well be the only picture I could find of the original marquee as it once existed. The Vilma closed down in late 1973 or early 1974. In 1972, I got a job as an usher at this theater. At the time it was owned by JF Theatres. I had to wear a red usher's vest and a tie. I remember the man who hired me.....he was the district manager and his name was Harry Siegel (sp?). He was quite a character. He always seemed like an angry old man to most people, but I managed to get him to hire me. He said to me, "You are skinny. How are you going to throw people out of the theater?" I smiled and said "I would hope people would get to know me and respect me." I think he must have liked my answer. I was 16 years first legitimate job. I was paid only $1.10 per hour. In 1972, minimum wage was something like $2.10 per hour. There was a few exceptions to that wage. If you were employed in a job where you could recieve tips, the minimum wage for you would be $1.10 per hour. As it was back then, ushers used to actually assist people in finding a seat and they would recieve a tip in return. The Vilma was rarely ever so busy that it would be hard to find a seat.....therefore......I never got a tip......ever.

Ole Harry Siegel would, in a short period of time, come to respect me and realize that I was one that could be counted on for various tasks. I would pester Harry that I needed to make more money, so he would have me put in extra hours painting the back exit hallways and doors. He would also send me off on loan to other nearby theaters in the chain such as the Earle Theater. Harry once asked me "Can you do any re-upholstery?" Of course I responded with "Sure I can, if somebody can show me how to do it once." He must have liked that answer too. I found myself putting in extra time recovering the seat cushions at the Vilma before business hours. One day Harry took me and two rolls of velvet seat material to the other side of the city. I couldn't drive back then so I really hadn't much exposure to the part of town he took me to. There was this theater on Park Heights Avenue called the Uptown Theater. It was alot bigger than the Vilma. Initially, I was impressed. I thought that these extra work hours could be a good thing.

The Uptown Theater was situated in a neighborhood that was infected with crime. What was once a proud thriving community nearby to Pimlico Race Track, home of the Preakness, was now a danger zone. That really didn't bother me. I have always felt safe wherever I go, regardless. Harry dropped me off by myself with the two rolls of material , a heavy duty staple gun, , a pair of scissors, and a supply of staples. There I was.......alone, in a strange place. Harry never showed me around the place, he just simply dropped me off. There I was, ready to get busy. I walked through the lobby and stopped to look at the concession counter. I could not believe what I saw. They had an Orange Crush machine! The Vilma didn't have one of those. But I looked carefully at the machine and noticed about a five inch thick level of fungal scum floating on top of the orange crush! Ewwww! I had no idea what I would see as I would get past the concession stand.
As I recall, I discovered that about HALF of the seats in the theater were either ripped to shreds or unbolted from their frames and laying on the floor. There was no way I would get this job done in one day with only two rolls of material but I went ahead and started working. About two hours into the job, something moved. I passed it off as just one of the seat cushions falling over. A few minutes pass and something moves again. "Okay, Okay.......I am the only one in here." I pretended I didn't hear it and continued working and then I finally saw what I was sitting amongst. Rats!...Big field mice for this place......huge rats and dozens of them!
Needless to say, I left the stapler, the staples, the scissors, and the material right there in the aisle and headed for the front door. I caught a bus and went home. I gave Harry all sorts of hell on the phone. He apologized for setting me up in that situation. The next day, the Uptown Theater was back to business as usual. If I remember correctly, the marquee spelled out "Now Playing","Shaft" and "The Mack", a double feature.

This is a more recent picture I found of the now defunct Vilma Theater.

At the Vilma, we had projectionists that would work on different days. There was one I can remember vividly, his name was Bill Nottingham. I remember Bill Nottingham because you could always see him on top of the marquee watching the women walk by. The more memorable thing about him was he looked exactly like Vincent Price! One week the movie Vanishing Point was playing. Nottingham had not noticed that he had the sound turned down so low that people could not enjoy the movie. I had a buzzer nearby that I would use to get the projectionist's attention if ever there was a problem with the picture such as a blank screen or misalignment of frames. I had buzzed Nottingham about four times to get his attention and apparently he just thought we were playing around with him. I went up the steps to the projection booth and told Nottingham I had been buzzing because the sound was too low and people were complaining. Behind the big screen at the Vilma were these gigantic Altec-Lansing Voice of the Theater speaker systems. The movie, Vanishing Point, had just begun the part where the soundtrack was Mississippi Queen by the rock group Mountain.....and Nottingham cranked the system to the MAXIMUM! Whoa! The front doors of the place were blowing open from it. People were leaving too. Nottingham only left it loud for that one song. As I think about it, that was the best song from the soundtrack to choose. Mississippi Queen should be played loud and proud.
Two weeks into my job at the Vilma, they were showing a new release. This was rare for the Vilma. I was informed to expect heavy crowds as this movie was controversial. The movie was "banned in 13 countries" and "rated V for Violence", "the most horrifying film ever made", it was going to make people sick. Quite a marketing ploy it was. We had cases and cases of screen printed vomit bags which I would be required to hand out to each person with a ticket. By today's standards, this movie was rather tame. Aside from witch burnings and dunkings, there were torture scenes, one where a woman's tongue was ripped from her mouth. As expected, the film brought in the money. The following week, the Vilma returned to old Disney flicks and assorted "B" movies. It took almost a year for us to show The Godfather.

Some Of The Movies That I Remember Were Shown At The Vilma While I Was Usher:

Mark Of The Devil


Paul & Michelle

Billy Jack

Vanishing Point

Terror In The Wax Museum

The Godfather

Valachi Papers


Concert For Bangladesh




No comments:

Post a Comment