“Maybe,” said Rick, “you could plump the numbers up, so UA and Warner an’ all the rest would wanna rent you a movie?”
“Waddaya mean, plump up the numbers?”
“Ya know, report more of the actual ticket sales. They don’ wanna bother with you, ‘cause your numbers are so low.”
“What do you mean?” asked Dean. “These are the actual numbers! What am I s’posed to do? Invent customers? I report everything...”
A brief silence, Nick whistled low.
“You mean you been tellin’ the truth all along — those were real ticket sales you reported? Nobody does that! How would you make a living?”
What Rick was talking about was the time-tested art of palming tickets, which, apparently was the norm in the business back then, rather than the exception.
I had never heard of palming until I ran a movie theater.
To understand this and other seedy practices of movie theater management, you’ll need a refresher course in “legitimate” ticket-selling :
1. The patron enters the lobby and approaches the box office window, child or adult or senior citizen.
2. If the theater owner is on the level, the customer pays and the box office worker pushes a button ejecting a ticket from a metal plate.
3. The customer proceeds to the ticket taker, usually an usher, who tears the ticket and gives the second half back to the patron, who enters the theater.
That’s how we did it at the St. George Theatre, and we were broke in a year. Some time in February of 1977, about two months before we lost our shirts entirely, we learned that the manager of a certain now-defunct Cinema on Forest Avenue and a number — if not most — of our fellow exhibitors at the time, insisted on staffing the ticket-taking station themselves. That’s because they were palming, i.e. under-reporting how many tickets were actually sold.
Ever enter a theater and give the ticket you bought to someone who simply took the ticket and never gave you anything in return? Or, another variation, the person at the door took your ticket and gave you back a half of some other ticket?
In this case:
1. The manager or somebody he is in collusion with stands at the door, does the exchange and gestures for the patron to pass inside. Almost nobody notices — most people don’t even know what they do with the torn half of their ticket, nor do they care if a half ticket they’ve been given is somebody else’s.
2. After this manager or crony has accumulated a number of untorn tickets, he (it was almost always a he) then walks into the box office and gives them back to whoever is behind the bars that night, with instructions to sell the untorn tickets a second time.
Each ticket has a number on it that has to be reported to Warner Brothers, UA or whatever distributor is renting the film to the theater. In our legitimately-run box office, at the end of the day, Brenda or Diane or Yvette reconciled receipts by taking the number of the last ticket in each category and subtracting from it the lower number of the first ticket sold, to determine how many Adults and Children had passed through our doors. Dollars were counted. If the box office was short cash, the missing money came out of the cashier’s pay. At the St. George no palming had taken place; we didn’t have a clue what that meant, or that we were playing the game straight up, while most managers were cheating.
At theaters where palming went on, there was extra money at the end of the night, so the “girl” (it was almost always a very young woman) behind the bars had to be in collusion, unless the manager had gotten around that by asking his wife or sister or assistant manager to run the box office while he raked in the untorn tickets.
Sometimes MGM and Columbia and cronies sent “checkers” on random nights, to click off on a small counting device the heads of people who entered. But they never wasted their counters on us: we were too poor and obviously honest. Ironically, since cheating was considered more or less universal, the distributors charged more of a percentage to everyone, to make up for the practice. So we paid twice: once to rent the film, and once again for our honesty — or was it naivete? In business those two things can seem identical. I am comforted by the notion that, if we had cheated, we couldn’t have hidden it from Brenda or Diane or Yvette, all young women (I would never have called them “girls”) of exceptional character.