At the Grand Opening of Westlane Auto Movie, customers received a complimentary box of Cracker Jack and a 45rpm record from Sacramento Country radio station KRAK where the disk jockeys were collectively known as the “KRAKer Jacks”. Obviously, this was a tie-in with Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964), the film biography of Hank Williams, starring George Hamilton which was one of the first films to grace the wide outdoor screen designed to play 35millimeter films in scope or flat depending on which lens a movie required. The projectors in 1964 still operated on a carbon arc system. Two projectors alternated one reel at a time, requiring a change over every twenty minutes. Between change overs, a projectionist had to rewind reels, and monitor the image and sound. I was not present for the Grand Opening, but I found a box of leftover 45s in the stockroom. I listened to a few, but they were mostly mediocre cuts the radio station didn’t want.
When I arrived at Westlane, there were still several cases of Cracker Jack piled up in the stockroom cubbies that were used to segregate inventory items. These were not full-sized boxes of Cracker Jack like we sold in the Snack Bar. They were smaller, but still contained the famed candy-coated peanuts, popcorn, and a prize. They remained in inventory for almost 2 years past their expiration date. When I learned that they were supposed to be thrown out, I made it my duty to open every single package and rescue the prize from the already hardening gunk inside. There were puzzles, tops, trinkets, and charms, but the best prize of all was a flat plastic Cracker Jack whistle.
When I finished going through something like 300 Cracker Jack boxes, there were more prizes than I ever wanted. I set aside the ones that I found appealing and decided that I would share the wealth. The first batch of prizes that I took to school created a feeding frenzy. The bag full of loot was immediately filled with hands grasping for treasure as soon as I offered its contents. It was before class while students were accessing their lockers. The attack on the bag was surprisingly ravenous, and I was inspired to toss the contents into the air. As soon as the prizes hit the ground, a pack of kids was down on their knees. Every prize was gathered up. The bell rang. There was not a single prize left behind in the dimly lit hallway.
I still had a batch prizes left, so the next day, I announced that there were still more prizes available, but to avoid another greedy mob, I immediately tossed all the prizes into the air. To my surprise, not a single student fell to their knees. I had completely misjudged my audience. The novelty had passed in a day. The bell rang. While everyone else in the hall was rushing to class, I was on my knees gathering up the unwanted prizes that were so popular the previous day. The audience is unpredictable.
The Snack Bar at Westlane Auto Movie was designed to handle two lines, one on either side, leading to a cash register. During the time that I lived on the drive-in, I remember that only one line was in use most of the time, and one register. My mother was the person responsible for most of the monetary transactions. To expedite the sale of items during Intermission, packages were staged so that customers could grab them as they moved down the line buffet style. Cracker Jack boxes were usually on top of the counter lined up in three or four rows.
When I was asked to put out the Cracker Jacks, I would sometimes break up the monotony by creating patterns like an overhead shot in a Busby Berkeley movie. Most of the time people grabbed their box and moved on down the line, not really paying any attention to the way the product was being displayed. One day, after doing my Geometry homework, I thought it would be fun to write the formula for circumference of a circle in Cracker Jack boxes. It was easy to spell out “C=2 X π X R” and frame it within the remaining boxes.
On this particular night, a customer came in soon after I had done my arrangement. He stood there for some time trying to make sense of the unfamiliar pattern of boxes. After deliberating for a few minutes, he asked my mother what the formula meant. Her response was “I don’t know. You will have to ask my son.” She nodded in my direction and he glanced at me briefly before turning back to the Cracker Jack equation. He had no intention of asking anyone what the formula meant. He immediately got to work rearranging the boxes into the usual military rank and file. Taking the long way out to avoid me, he bypassed the register without purchasing a single item. From this random incident, I came to an important conclusion about human nature. If a person is faced with a pattern that does not make sense to them, they will rearrange it into a pattern that does. I dubbed this principal “Cracker Jack Logic”.
Mike Maginot is a writer and photographer. His books, Auteurs, Adaptations, and Outsiders and Belevedere Street are available from Amazon. Belvedere Street can also be ordered from your local independent bookseller.