The traveling minister had called out of nowhere. Easy money! No projectionist to pay, no box office or concession staff, and at least a few of us “managers” could sleep late. But at 1:30, as the midnight show was winding down, our father-and-son cleaning service, tired of spilled Coke syrup and popcorn, and knowing they’d have to clean the whole place, including the balcony, resigned.
It was early in our theater enterprise, only a month since the theater’s “Grand Opening.” We had plenty of entrepreneurial energy and a brand-new Electrolux canister vacuum, I’d bought the previous year. (Nicknamed “R2D2” for its resemblance to the character in Star Wars, our vacuum was a work horse that is still in business all these years later!) We also had a broom and an endless supply of trash bags. After the last usher left, three of us — all members of “management” — climbed the steps to the balcony, lugging the vacuum behind us. We would ace this and maybe catch a nap before the sun rose.
Should’ve been a cinch in the balcony--that part of the theater was off-limits to the audience with its endless popcorn and spilled Coke. But somehow, despite our strategically placed Balc ny Closed sign on the lowest step to the Loge and a rope across the stairs at the other end of the lobby, there was more life upstairs than we thought: an empty bong, candy wrappers, a sweater, even a pair of panties! Why was I surprised? “Off-limits” means “come in” to at least a third of every population.
As for finding surprising things, I just went to a play about a small-town movie theater, The Flick whose dialogue mostly happens while staff is sweeping up after hours. Chocolate Tapioca pudding — looking suspiciously like something else — and one shoe — are among the strange items found in that fictional theater. What people leave behind in the dark should never be underestimated.
As I worked my way down the aisles with R2D2 that night (a colleague vaulting the seats just ahead of me, clearing away the bigger trash), I was ignorant of time. In a movie palace there is no daylight —that’s why pictures of half-demolished palaces, with their pierced domes, seem so shocking. Emerging sun-blind like the nocturnal cave creatures we’d become, we were stunned to learn it was seven thirty! The church people would be in the lobby in thirty minutes, to claim their temporary sanctuary.
We’d taken better than six hours to clean the place. The area near the Orchestra pit, including the pit itself, had been particularly vile--banana peels and condoms. It smelled suspiciously like a subway platform — I will not elaborate.
One of us broom-swept the stage--to which, in only a few hours, hundreds of “saved” souls would find themselves drawn, having “cast off” their crutches.
The Reverend — whose name is lost to memory — arrived on time with a crew, including one man whose job it would be to audiotape the sermons and testimonies, and make instant high-speed copies for sale in the lobby, an impressive operation.
Dean and I strode out into the light of day, looking forward to breakfast alone together at the diner down the street. It was — I forgot to mention — the morning of Dean’s 30th birthday. I seem to recall that he had an omelette.