In the concession-stand closet of our lovely old 2672-seat movie palace, we found, on the day we moved in, a large stack of dirty popcorn cups. Why hadn’t the previous exhibitor just thrown them away? This remained a mystery for some time, though it was hardly first on our minds, consumed as we were with running a huge business already heavily in the red. It took only about two months for us to feel how cash poor we really were. How to pay for movies so we could show them? Like Michael Anthony of The Millionaire, that TV fable of our youth, a well-dressed man named Phil showed up in the lobby one afternoon, just as I was pining away for a few thousand to put down on the next week’s double feature. His company — I forget the name now — was headquartered out of upstate NY, and offered us a whopping $10,000 — interest free and instantaneous — for the “temporary” rights to our candy stand. We grabbed for this oar with nary a thought.
Ever heard the song lyric “I owe my soul to the company store”? The terms were simple: Phil leased the stand until that halcyon day when we would ostensibly have paid off the ten thousand dollar loan. We supposedly split the gross income of the stand 50/50, but while the loan was in effect, our 50% went to pay it off. Phil’s company got the other fifty percent, and he paid for all the candy, cups, popcorn, hotdogs, soda. It was a slippery slope. We’d begin to pay the loan off, then need to borrow more to get film from Warner Brothers or MGM or another one of the big guy distributors. The only real profitable aspect of our aging movie palace was the candy stand, and we’d sold that off to keep movies on-screen.
Here’s a trivia question: A large soft drink in 1976 went for 75 cents; how much did it cost Uncle Phil to put sixteen ounces of Coke, Sprite, Tab or Root Beer in a cup on the counter? Two and a half cents. It’s like the restaurant business: the profit is in the bar — and in popcorn, of course.
Twice a month, Uncle Phil, as we liked to call him, sent a representative to the theater, to spend a morning counting everything in the concession stand: each bar of candy, hot dog, bun, or cup of ice cream. Popcorn and soda, however, sold by the ounce in a cup or a bucket, is only quantifiable by counting containers. It was our unspoken rule that staff could have unlimited supplies of popcorn and soda so long as they brought their own personal cups. Paulie’s soda cup, which stood at the ready for him on a low shelf in the stand, sported a giant painted PAULIE. He was fond of filling it to the brim with his own “private mix” of Root beer, Sprite and Coca Cola. “Swamp Water,” he called it. Some staff were really fond of popcorn, so they brought plastic soup containers from home.
Which brings me back to the subject of those greasy used popcorn cups we found in the back of the closet when we first moved in. Our predecessor — that early believer in recycling — had figured a way to make some hidden money on popcorn from Uncle Phil, or some other guy he was indentured to.
In my July 21 blog post on the long-closed-down Victory Theater in Holyoke MA, you’ll find a picture Robin Locke Monda took of a tall stack of ancient, probably used, popcorn cups left behind who knows how many decades before?
Note to self: Look at your popcorn cup when you go to the movies! Did it come from a virgin stack?