My father was a theater manager. It wasn’t what he wanted to be, but it is how he will be remembered. He went to a trade school to become a traffic manager. In the years after World War II, dealing with freight, by truck and train, must have seemed like a safe career option for a guy who enjoyed books, movies, and going to Light Operas at the Curran and other San Francisco venues. He once told me that he would have preferred managing theatrical houses to movie theaters. He also told me that he would like to go to New York City and see a Broadway show, but that never happened either.
My father had fond memories of a piano bar where the pianist would play “Manhattan” whenever he came in the door. I think it was the same nightclub where they had a microphone in the bathroom. Unsuspecting customer’s had their bathroom activities amplified as part of the evening’s entertainment. The bathroom antics would give way to risqué parodies of popular songs.
Before I was born, my father had collected a substantial amount of books and records, 78s and LPs. His taste went from the classical to the comedic. He liked everything from Tchaikovsky to Big Band Swing, but he wasn’t really hep on rock and roll.
He had 78s of Stan Freberg’s Dragnet satires and Mel Blanc doing his Warner Brothers cartoon characters. I accidently broke his copy of “Tweet, Tweet, Tweety” and “Yosemite Sam” which was a major disappointment for both of us. I listened over and over to his comedy LPs, “My Son the Folk Singer” by Allen Sherman, “The First Family” by Vaughn Meader, and “Inside Shelley Berman”. When I was older, he let me listen to his Nipsey Russell and Rusty Warren albums. I in turn, shared my copy of “It’s a Gas”, torn from the pages of Mad magazine. I built my own record collection starting with comedy albums, Big Bands, and Broadway Shows, eventually finding my way back to rock and roll.
My father’s trade school certification didn’t pay off or pan out. He couldn’t pass the physical exam when he applied for his first shipping job. Seems he had a brain tumor that could kill him at any minute and they didn’t like his limp which was a birth defect. When he died, it was from pancreatic cancer. That tumor never did kick in.
My father lost his faith in the Catholic Church and he lost his faith in education. He pretty much believed that anything worth learning can be self taught and school was a place where you served time before entering the work force. I was his employee when it was time to graduate high school and he told me that I had to work on graduation day. My right of passage would have to be the all night party which didn’t start until after my shift was over.
My father was married once before he married my mother. I have a wonderful half sister, Nicki, who I seldom saw growing up because she lived with her mother and her step-father. My father told me that while he was working his first wife, Betty, would go out dancing with one of his friends. He didn’t dance because of his limp. Well, not in public. I saw him cut a rug once in awhile. When I was a teenager, he told me that one of the things that hurt him the most was being called “a cripple” by Betty when he found her at home with one of his friends. It was a sad story.
Oddly, the story was meant to be a testimonial to my mother, who loved him unconditionally. My mother and I seldom saw eye to eye. He wanted me to understand that he and my mother were a team and that I needed to be more understanding and compassionate where she was concerned.
My father had routines. Popcorn and butter warming machines had to be turned on a few hours before the movie theater opened. Sometimes he would pick me up at school and we would go down to the theater to “turn the stuff on” and top off the inventory in preparation for the evening show.
The movie theater was like a playground to me. I would do somersaults down the aisle to the stage of the Fruitvale Theatre. One time, I got on stage and sang “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad” to an empty theater. I was surprised to hear applause at the end of my song from my father and another manager who was visiting.
I was always excited to spend time with my sister. On one occasion, she was dropped off at Nana’s house. I think we were going to see Disney’s The Sword and the Stone. Someone had told me that my father would be picking us up and then picking up my mother at the apartment on 35th Avenue. I wanted to show my sister how knowledgeable I was of the back streets that went from Nana’s house to my parents’ apartment. Nicki willingly followed her little brother and we both got into trouble for wandering off and scaring everyone. I grew up as an only child, but the few times I saw my sister felt tremendously significant.
My father took me to the Ringling Brothers Circus and the Ice Follies. He also took me to a puppet show with marionettes and a variety show with magicians and vaudeville acts including a chimpanzee. The chimp was going to be a featured performer at a Summer Matinee.
We were guests at the variety show and we got to go backstage. I was very impressed by all the scenery hiding in the rafters. We came in the stage door and our guide took us to our seats and introduced us to a black man who was sitting behind us and smoking a sweet smelling cigar. His name was Earl Hines, known to jazz aficionados as “Fatha”. My father was very glad to meet him, and so was I. I had no idea who he was, but I could tell that he was a very important man. I kept looking back at him over the seat and he seemed to be very amused by that.
When the chimp came to the Del Mar, the theater my father ran in San Leandro, he went totally nuts. It may have been part of the act. He ran from the stage and into the lobby, then upstairs to the balcony. Then he climbed down from the balcony and ran back to the stage. It was all very exciting. Before the show, I was able to meet with the chimp and shake his hand. My father liked chimps. I would get him birthday and Father’s Day cards that had chimps dressed like people because I knew they would make him laugh.
My father told me that there were two kinds of theater managers, housekeepers and promoters. He was a housekeeper. He didn’t like promotions. They were just more work. Growing up, I was under the impression that the most important part of being a theater manager was making sure the seats didn’t collapse and didn’t have any holes. People abused their theater seats. They cut them with knives, they jumped on them until they wouldn’t stay up, and they covered the bottoms with gum and other sticky stuff. It seemed to me that theater seats weren’t really for watching movies. They were receptacles of a patron’s anger.
When I hear the words, “red tape”, I don’t think about hassles. I think about all the rolls of red tape that my father and his employees went through so people could sit comfortably and enjoy a movie. The phrase “picking your seat” was a triple entendre to my father. It referred to pulling your underwear out of your butt, finding a good place to watch a movie, and what customers did to the red tape on the seat cushions.