Monday, February 15, 2021

Marboro Memories: Ushering in the Crazy, in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn

Marboro Memories: Ushering in the Crazy, in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn

 Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2021
Images from the Internet

Anyone who has worked in retail or has been a service provider knows that you have stories of dealing with the public. There are lots of “Karen” videos out there on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc., but even before and beyond that, dealing with both a public and oft times fellow staff members, can be a challenge, to put it mildly. Here are some stories of working as an Usher at the Marboro Theater, in southern Brooklyn. The theater, I should add, had been torn down and is now a CVS chain pharmacy.

It was a big, single screen theater at the time (it would be broken into four separate theaters after I left). My job of Usher was to mostly stand in a particular spot in the inner theater lobby by the water fountain on the left side. Because I was positioned inside, I saw films many times. I didn’t often count, but I do know that I saw American Graffiti about 160 times, and The Sting about 140. The average film though, was probably about 40 times. I did get to see a lot of what is now considered classics, such as O! Lucky Man, Jesus Christ Superstar, Billy Jack (the second crowded run after all the ads; the first showing held the record for the least amount of people in a week at the Marboro of 14 paid tickets before I started working there), and Smoky and the Bandit.

Being an Usher, as well as with many other front-line employees, as is making the news lately, are usually paid minimum wage, and know they are easily replaceable. Not only that, because we wear the “uniform,” be it the company apron, a certain color shirt, or in my case a red jacket of questionable material, a white shirt, black pants and shoes, and a clip-on bowtie, we “represent” the company and any resentments were sure to come our way. Our Usher slogan for the insanity was: “The Masses are Asses.”

* * *

My memories of being hired are a bit murky, but I do believe I was recommended at a time when they were short of ushers, by my friend David who worked there, albeit our time did not overlap for long as he left shortly thereafter. I was seventeen years old in 1972, and a mere 110 pounds of skin and bones (as I would remain for the next two decades). The problem was, I was hired by an assistant manager while the manager, Mr. T_____, was on vacation. He came back to a new employee that he had no say on hiring. When he returned, he was not happy with me being there, not to mention I would find that he really did not care for Jews. When David left shortly after, I was the only Jew on staff during his tenure until 1975.

When I met Mr. T_____, I introduced myself as Robert. Instantly, he started calling me Bobby. He didn’t ask, he just did. Soon, all of the staff were calling me that. I didn’t complain because, as I said, I was easily replaceable, even though it seemed like I was the only one who swept up the popcorn from the lobby floor. So Bobby I was, and then for some reason a couple of months later, to my face, he started calling me Stanley. I was confused: on my paycheck, it said Robert; in front of the other Ushers, he would call me Bobby; but when it was just the two of us, he called me Stanley. I think there was someone in his life named Stanley he didn’t like, possibly another Jew back in his home state of Minnesota, that he associated with me. He was not a good person, and after some embarrassment that I don’t remember exactly what, I put some sugar in his gas tank on my way out before heading home for the night.

* * *

Bensonhurst was largely Italian back then, especially the neighboring area around the theater, so it was natural to pick of a smattering of the language. I probably know about 10 phrases and a bunch of words. One evening I was walking through the lobby, sweeping as usual, when a gent who was probably in his 60s came over to me and said something in Italian. I smiled at him and said, “Non capisce Italiano.” Next thing I know, he is screaming at me, in Italian. I’m baffled, so I repeat, “Signore, non capisce Italiano.” He became even redder in the face, getting angrier. My look of confusion was lost on him.

He was creating such a ruckus, one of the older Ushers, Manny – who was Italian (as was most of the staff) – quickly came over to find out what was going on. I shrugged my shoulders to indicate I had no idea, and he turn to the gent and, in Italian, asked a question. The man was vigorously and repeatedly pointing his finger at me, yelling. Manny broke out into a big laugh, which made the man even angrier. Manny calming talked to the guy, pointing at me occasionally, and the man huffed, and walked away. He then explain what happened:

The man had recently come from Italy and was embarrassed that he did not understand English. Being in Bensonhurst, he assumed that everyone who worked there must be (a) Italian and (b) speak Italian. Why he would come to an English language film, I don’t know, but there you go. Manny said that he needed to use the washroom and asked me where it was, and when I said that I didn’t understand, apparently my little Italian was so good, he thought I was mocking him, hence the anger.

* * *

The Marx Brothers’ film Animal Crackers (1930) was a “lost” film due to a copyright fight, for over forty years, and was finally reissued to theaters in 1974, including at the Marboro, to my delight. One night, I was by the water fountain getting a drink, and when I looked up, I saw a shadow on the wall. I turned around and I was surrounded by a guy. Yes, one guy. He was huge, with slicked back hair, a pencil thin moustache, his polyester shirt open to mid-chest, and his medallions stuck in the hairs of his chest. The first thing he says to me is, “I’m gonna punch yer fuckin’ head in.”

Thinking fast, I looked him right in the eyes, and said, “Hunh?!” with a crackling voice.

“I’m gonna punch yer head in. Whatcha gonna do about it?”
Still looking at him in the face with my head tilted up at a 45-degree angle, I said, “I’m gonna hit you on the side of your head with my flashlight.”
He replied, “Oh, yeah?” and proceed to measuredly cock his fist back, slow but sure. Now, in my belt, I had my flashlight. It was one of those two-D battery heavy black plastic ones with the red tip by the light. I quickly pulled it out and backhanded him with it across his head. Hard. So hard, the flashlight broke, the cap popped off and one of the batteries went flying, the lens was cracked, and my hand was numb. His reaction? His head moved about an inch to the side, and came back, looming over me.

I thought to myself in a brief second, “Well, that is it; that was my best shot. I’m dead. It was a good life.”

His response? His fist came down, he smiled, and he patted my shoulder, “I just wanted to see if you could protect yourself.” And he walked away.

I walked over to Mr. T______’s office. The door was closed, which meant he was counting the money (remember, it was only cash back then), and it was forbidden to enter on threat of being fired. I swung the door wide open.

On his desk were stacks of money. He turned bright red as I sat down in the chair next to his desk, inches from the stacks. “Stanley, what the hell do you think you’re doing!?!?” Then I started to shake uncontrollably as the adrenaline caught up. He became so worried (probably how it would reflect on the theater), he asked what happened. I told him the story, and asked him to call the police. What was his response? That I should hide in the balcony (which was closed except for busy shows and for the other Usher to bring their conquests) until the show was over and the behemoth had left. Thank you Mr. T______, for your support. At least I kept my job right then.

* * *

The other Ushers scored a lot, heading off to the balcony for a quickie tryst. Honestly, the women that they hooked up with were certainly not interested in a thin-as-a-rail, shy guy like me, though I actually found it all amusing, except when I had to do the other Usher’s job because they were literally screwing around.

One night, a woman about my age walked up to me, wearing a pair of teeny shorts up to almost nothing, a tight top with cleavage for miles, a short fuzzy jacket, hair the size of Texas, enough make-up to keep Max Factor going for a year, 6-inch stiletto heels, chewing gum, and holding a clutch bag. She said, “Where’s da bah’troom,” with a smug sense of privilege.

I pointed it out to her, and she turned around without a thank you, and started walking way. I said, behind her, “You’re welcome, mister.” I walked away as fast as possible, counting down from five. Almost on cue, I heard a screech as it finally reached her brain: “Mistah?!” 

* * *

Nearly all of the Ushers had day jobs in the construction field. Because I was the only Usher who was attending or had attended any post high school education, sometimes the other Ushers would occasionally call me “Doc.” One day one of them, who was still in high school, brought one of his friends in. “I hear your smart. Oh, yeah? What’s the square root of [whatever number he gave me]?”

I smiled at him and said, “You just learned that in school, right? I haven’t been to high school in years. Name five parts of the paramecium. Can you?” He didn’t see that I turned it around on him, because I was terrible in math. It was my shining Good Will Hunting moment.

* * *

Some of the Ushers had a con going, which I honestly didn’t participate, because I did not want to go to jail, get fired, or lose a possible recommendation. It was a co-conspiracy between the cashier, the doorman and the Usher (although not all of them were doing it). It went as follows: the cashier would sell the ticket (remember, it was cash only). The doorman would rip the ticket. The customer often would throw the stub on the lobby floor. The Usher would pick up the stub and give it to the doorman. When another customer came in, he would pretend to rip the ticket and palm the whole one, and then give the used stub to the customer. He would then give the unripped ticket to the cashier to resell. They would then split the money three ways. They were making on average $50 to $100 a night when it was busy. I was told that most of them spent it on food or pot. None of it was saved apparently, and in my years there, no one was ever caught, either.

* * *

During one of the local elections, a neighborhood Assemblyman for the 47th District named Frank Barbaro (pronounced BAR-ba-ro; d. 2016) was up for re-election. He held a fundraiser at the Marboro, and I took the tickets. The special guests were husband-and-wife acting team of Joseph Bologna (d. 2017) and Renée Taylor. Before the show, Frank came in with his wife, Mary (though she was called Patty) and Mr. T______ and went to pin a button on the lapel of my flammable red jacket. I said, “No thank you.” Confused, he asked why not.

I explained, “You are my Assemblyman, and I don’t vote for you because you are often absent for votes.” His wife, in anger (and my boss was not pleased either, I could easily tell), said, “That’s because he was in court defending a tenant’s rights!”

My response was, “Even so, any lawyer could represent a client in court, but only you can vote, which affects more people than a court case with a single client.” At that moment I thought, well, this was a good job…”

Instead, to his credit, Frank laughed out loud, shook my hand, and said he respected that I said that, and turned to Mr. T______ and said, “I like this guy. Don’t let him lose his job over this.” And I didn’t…over that.

I took pictures of the show, but my camera was new and I didn’t have a flash, so the pictures all came out too dark and blurry, sadly. Barbaro was re-elected and served until 1996, and still remained absent where he was needed most. I never did vote for him, including when he ran for mayor against Ed Koch.

* * *

When Jaws (1975) played, it was huge, and the theater was pretty consistently packed. Let me give a quick logistical aside so this makes sense: the cashiers booth was inside the outer lobby of the theater. The Theater was on Bay Parkway, a four-lane street that was extremely busy. Most of the time, when people lined up, if the line went out the doors, the queue continued along the side of the building and down the block. But not for one Saturday afternoon of Jaws.

As the people lined up and it went out the doors, rather than turning and hugging the building along the sidewalk, they went straight out into the middle of the street. When I first saw this, they were about a car’s length into the road, and shortly the line made it out past the yellow line road separator. Buses and cars were having to go into the opposite lane to get around them. They honked their horns, but no one would move because keeping their place in line was more important than safety. Kind of the same mentality of those who will not wear masks during a pandemic. I stood there and watched, amused to see what would happen, wondering if anyone would catch on.

At this point, Mr. T______ came out the door and I sprung into action, shepherding the people to line up along the storefronts. Calamity was saved, but I wonder how long they would have kept lining up into the street.

* * *

Jaws was also a turning point in when I started to get fired, and I got fired a lot from the Marboro. The first time was during Jaws, in 1975.

During the film showing, they issued special Jaws-designed cups that sold for a dollar extra as souvenirs. Basically they were harder plastic with the Jaws poster on them. We were told by Mr. T______ that someone was taking them out of the stock room, and it had to stop. I was fairly sure I knew who was taking them, but had no proof.

One day, I was in the balcony during my break, and I saw five or six sleeves of the cups tucked away among the seats. I went down and told Mr. T______ about it, and said, “If you keep your eye on them, you can catch whoever is taking them.” I thought that might put me in some better graces with the curmudgeon. Two days later, I get a phone call with him accusing me of taking them, and he fired me.

A few months later, I got a phone call from the new manager. Apparently, Mr. T_____ got into an altercation with some people trying to sneak into the theater and had his hand broken when the thugs slammed one of the exit doors on it. He retired, and the other Ushers urged the new manager – he had a long Italian name that I no longer recall, but everyone called him Mr. D – to rehire me since I had also been doing their chore of cleaning, and he asked me if I wanted the job back. And I did. We got along pretty well.

A few months later, Mr. D was having a conversation in the lobby of the theater with the district manager (DM). The DM said he wanted Mr. D. to hire his nephew as an Usher. Mr. D explained that there was no room for anyone else on the schedule. “Just get rid of someone,” pressed the DM. “And who am I supposed to fire for no reason?”
At that moment, I came into the lobby with the broom to do the cleaning, and the DM pointed to me and said, “Him.” Fired a second time. Two weeks later, when the nephew was caught with his hands literally in the till, he was gone and I was back.

A year or so later, I walked through the lobby near the end of the evening and saw the elderly woman behind the candy counter cleaning out the popcorn bin with the broom I had just used to sweep the floor. Yecch is right. I was upset and explained to her about how unsanitary and disgusting that was. I should have thought first, because she was the assistant manager’s wife. Let go for the third time. Thing is though, they were in their later ‘70s or early ‘80s, and I was their ride home (they gave me two bucks to drive them, though I offered to do it for free, but it would have been $5 or more for car service) in the late hour, and they did not feel safe waiting on the street for the car, so they had me hired back.

Finally, a few weeks later, Mr. D took me aside and explained that it was embarrassing to the company that I kept being fired and rehired, so he was having me transferred to another theater in the Bay Ridge neighborhood, called The Alpine. I said my farewells and moved on to the new theater in 1978, where I worked for another 3 years or so.

* * *

Some of my adventures at the Alpine are HERE.



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