Movie house Usher: Death Wish in Tustin Theater
“Steve, we’ve gotta a problem down here!”
by Stacey Warde
I got my first job as an usher at an independent movie house, the Tustin Theater, in 1974. I was 16, feeling the invincibility of my teenage years, learning to scrap and wrestle with other high schoolers, the rough and tumble of sports play. I thought I was pretty tough but never pretended to be anything more than a high school kid with ambitions of one day getting a “real” job and becoming a man. Having a job, my dad would say, was one way to prove your worth. Protecting and providing for your family, as well as holding down a good job, were about the best a man could hope for, he said. Do those things, and I’d be ok.
My ushering duties entailed taking tickets from moviegoers, checking inside the movie theater to make sure customers found their seats, scooping up cigarette butts out of the sand-filled ashtrays outside the theater doors, and making sure there were no hazardous spills or other troublesome issues like kids throwing popcorn at the screen.
My uniform, like my duties, was simple: black pants, white shirt, skimpy black bow-tie, sports coat and flashlight. My boss, Steve, a good-natured man who loved his job, encouraged me to watch the films we showed. We offered popular titles that year such as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Benji, Death Wish, and The Longest Yard. I’d watched them all, sometimes more than once, popping inside the theater to rewatch favorite humorous or dramatic scenes and taking delight in listening to the audience guffaw or gasp. I earned about $1.25 an hour.
Sometimes, depending on which movie was showing, the line outside the box office would go clear around the block. It could get pretty hectic. Whenever the line to get inside wasn’t moving quickly, the crowd would turn restless. My job on these busy nights was to support the box office attendant and make sure the line kept moving, so customers wouldn’t get impatient.
One particular busy night, the line snaked its way to the box office, where a recent hire, a young, quiet Southern gal, Miss Charlotte, “Char” for short, deftly worked the steady flow of moviegoers, taking money and dispensing tickets. Together, we were moving things along. “There’s plenty of room inside folks, not to worry!” I’d shout after taking someone’s ticket, hoping to allay fears of getting turned away.
Char was a bit older, 20-something with fine features, fuller and more womanly than the gals my age. I thought she was pretty in her grown-up Southern blonde poofy hairstyle, makeup and drawl, which some employees teased her for. I wanted to flirt with her but seldom did because she was married to a Marine who had just transferred to the area. I’d met him a few times when he came to get her at the end of her shift. He seemed high-strung and not very friendly. I could tell she was afraid of him. Nonetheless, she would smile, even if she wouldn’t talk to me.
We were showing the movie “Death Wish,” where Charles Bronson plays the role of a vigilante after his daughter is raped and his wife murdered. The movie shocked me, even as a teen curious about the “real” world. The rape scene left an unpleasant imprint on me. I couldn’t shake it, or get it out of my mind. How could anyone be so brutal? Why would anyone ever commit such an atrocious crime? I knew little of these absurdities, growing up in the relative safety of suburban Orange County, where I had been schooled in fair play and treating women with respect, and knew nothing of a death wish. This movie shocked me.
I had never actually witnessed, and knew little of, the type of real violence I’d heard about on rough city streets, or seen in TV coverage of the Vietnam War. Still, if I was to encounter aggression toward myself or any other person, I reasoned, I wanted to be like Paul Kersey, the architect turned vigilante that Bronson portrayed, bold in the face of threats, ready to do justice on the street, and to protect the harmless and innocent from thugs.
I’d been roughed up a few times in fights with kids my own age over the years, bullied by older ruffians, but never faced any real threats to life and limb. Nonetheless, I wanted to give a good accounting of myself if ever such a threat was made. So far, I’d shown promise in my scuffles with friends and bullies but lost at least half as many—if not more—battles than I’d won.
Once, a couple of Marines harassed me on the back side of the local grocery located at the far end of the lot from the theater. I was riding my bicycle home from a high school wrestling workout when a bright yellow muscle-car screeched around the corner of the Market Basket and barely missed hitting me. I automatically threw up my middle finger, out of fear as much as anger at the close call. The car whipped back around and screeched to a stop in front of my bicycle so that I couldn’t pass. Two Marines jumped out and wanted to know, did I have a message for them?
“Yeah, fuck you!” I blared. “You almost hit me!”
They moved toward me and I was certain they would pummel me until another car passing slowly our way distracted them, the driver peering over at us, as if to see what was going on, which allowed me to jump on my bike and escape. “You guys better get outta here before the MPs come and take you away,” I yelled. The military police, I’d learned over the years, were quick to respond to reports of misbehaving Marines. I pedaled home as fast as I could, shaken and breathless. It wasn’t my bravest moment; yet my adrenaline had spiked and I felt something like madness or bravery growing inside of me.
Marines were an integral part of life in Orange County then. I grew up under the shadow of war and the military. The Marine Corps Air Station just outside of Tustin was host to helicopter crews and squadrons. Not far down the road, fighter jets flew in and out of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro on the southern skirt of the Irvine Ranch. You could hear the roar of their engines miles away. As a boy, I knew that many of those pilots would soon be flying over the jungles of Vietnam. The war ended miserably for Americans, with 58,000 dead. But that did little to diminish the Marine Corps pride. These were fighting men, not to be messed with. Now, after a humiliating defeat in Southeast Asia, with no one to really fight anymore, they seemed to like taking it out on civilians: mouthy teenagers, barflys, girlfriends, wives….
Char rarely spoke, unless she absolutely needed help. Tonight, she was holding her own, keeping the line moving and the crowd from growing restless.
“Not to worry, folks! There’s plenty of room inside!” I shouted, hoping she’d at least glance over in appreciation of my efforts to help move the line.
Suddenly, there was a commotion. An angry Marine started pushing his way through the line. “Hey, buddy, watch it!” someone shouted.
Char’s husband cut through the line and burst through the door where I was standing and started for the box office. “Sir, you’re gonna have to wait a minute. We’re really busy right now.”
“Stay out of it, buster,” he ordered, staring me down, sizing me up. Just as suddenly he turned and bolted to go inside the box office. No one but staff was allowed in there.
“Sir, you’re not supposed to be in there,” I shouted, taking another ticket. He grabbed Char by her upper arm, spun her around, away from a shocked paying patron, and began pulling her out of the box office, and dragged her toward the door, leaving the line in a lurch at the window, customers staring aghast as he hauled her away.
“Come on!” he ordered, as they passed by me. “You’re going home!” She followed him without protest as he roughly moved her through the crowd, pulling her along by her arm. I hesitated, couldn’t say anything, knew that I had to keep the line moving, wanted to stop the Marine in his tracks and knew I couldn’t, and now the box office was empty and people standing in line were starting to panic and get impatient.
“The movie’s gonna start pretty soon,” someone shouted, “is someone gonna take our money?”
“That’s what ya gotta do with women these days,” said another, a burly older man, also waiting in line to get his ticket. “You gotta show them who’s boss, or they get the wrong ideas.”
“Steve!” I shouted up toward the manager’s office. “Steve, we’ve gotta problem down here!” I wanted to leave my station and do something but feared Char’s husband, duty bound to keep the crowd under control, all while Char was being treated roughly, and dragged across the parking lot, off to who-knows-what. “Steve!”
He came running down to the box office, keys and change jangling in his pants pockets, his eye glasses askew on his head. “What’s going on? Where’s Char?”
“Her husband came and got her,” I said. “He dragged her out of here.”
Steve went inside the box office, picked up the phone and called the MPs; at the same time, he began taking money from moviegoers and dispensing tickets through the window. He gave Char’s address to the MPs and hung up the phone. He looked over my way. “Not the best night for family squabbles,” he complained.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t feel comfortable trying to stop him,” I said, moving the line. “First set of doors to your left sir. Plenty of seats,” I said, waving ticket holders inside.
“You did the right thing. Let’ keep this line moving,” Steve said.
Char’s husband got picked up by the military police. She never came back to work. I never heard what became of them, whether he was charged with assault, whether they stayed together, but realized I wasn’t ready avenge anyone the way Paul Kersey did in the movie, Death Wish. I was better off just doing my job, leaving the death wish to others more brave.
Barely two years later, though, in the spring of my senior year, 1976, the nation’s bicentennial, my father handed me brochures advertising the various branches of the U.S. military: Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Army, Air Force.
“If you think I’m going to join the military,” I said, “you’re crazy.” I handed the brochures back to him. Yet, despite having a job, my prospects were dim. I had no future as an usher, or even as a movie house manager. I hadn’t excelled academically and wasn’t much interested in going to college. My parents were preparing to move to Illinois and I had no intention of going with them. I’d be graduating soon. My options seemed limited.
Before long, I met with an Army recruiter and talked about job possibilities. I had no interest in being a Marine. I’d seen enough of that. At 17, I was most intrigued with the role of Army Rangers. They were elite, strong, fearless, well-trained, ready to face death for love of country, to protect the harmless and innocent, just as any Marine would, perhaps better. By April, with my parents required consent because I was not yet 18, I signed with assurances that I’d be getting some of the best training the military had to offer, and was assigned to the 2nd Ranger, 75th Infantry Battalion.
I’d go active, report for duty, two days after my 18th birthday, still not experienced in the world, to begin a more demanding kind of job, facing down threats from international thugs. America had lost its taste for war. Vietnam shattered us all. Still, there was the Soviet Threat, and we had to be prepared to stop it anywhere in the world. As it turned out, President Jimmy Carter didn’t send troops into combat while I was an active soldier. As far as I know, he’s the only modern day president who didn’t have a death wish of his own, needlessly committing troops to battlegrounds where they didn’t belong. §
Stacey Warde is publisher of The Rogue Voice.