The status of ushers

posted by ticktock11 on November 6, 2008 at 7:45 am

I’m curious about the status of ushers (and usherettes) in the golden age of movie palaces.

I think I read in Ben Hall that only the best-looking, most pimple-free boys were sought for ushering jobs. But I don’t recall that he said anything else about it.

Was this a high-status, sought-after job? Or was it more like working for McDonalds today?

Would love to see a thread about the job (and memories) if possible.

I was a kid in the mid-50s, in a small town,. We had usherettes, and I don’t know if it was a cool job.


Comments (27)

larrygoldsmith on November 6, 2008 at 10:24 am

Back in “the days”, all theatre positions were only given to the cream of the crop, and NO KIDS NEED APPLY, was sort of the norm. It was very critical then that Box Office Cashiers be of a very special caliber to sit in that free standing little box. Males were used as ushers and doormen only. You would never see a male in the Box Office or behind the Candy Counter. That all started changing a little at a time in the mid 60’s. Now the theatres will about hire anything that can crawl thru the front door in many instances.

ticktock11 on November 6, 2008 at 1:38 pm

Larry, thanks much for that response.

So, I take it that it had status appeal, and maybe was a cool job to hold?

Thanks again.

CTCrouch on November 7, 2008 at 4:51 am

Some factors to consider:
Back in the “golden age”, theatres operated with a much smaller staff; thus, there were fewer spots to fill and one could be more selective.

Prior to the 1950’s, movie theatres held a more prominant place in communities; thus, a theatre job would be viewed in a higher regard.

Also, the overal business model was geared more towards an “event” experience than mass consumption product; thus, theatre operators weren’t focused as much on efficiency, speed, and cost cutting, as modern theatre operators are.

There is no doubt the quality of theatre workers was much greater in the “golden age”. I’d dare to say they tended to be much better just a decade or so ago, than they presently are. Working at a theatre was once a well respected profession that offered decent career options. As such, you saw long term employees, who truly cared about their work. These days, due not only to the theatre industry, but also to modern economics, theatre staff positions are more part-time, seasonal, and short term in nature.

markp on November 7, 2008 at 5:04 am

Also, how about the projectionists. When I would go with my father on a saturday afternoon to see a movie, I still remember when we went to the front of the line to get in the front doors, people would look, and my father would say “I’m the projectionist,” you would here the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahhhs’. Back in the day, everyone thought that was a cool job, which is one reason I followed in his footsteps 33 years ago. And the best part was, you got a cartoon, one trailer for an upcoming movie, and the movie. Not the 25 mins of trash you get today.

Simon Overton
Simon Overton on November 7, 2008 at 2:19 pm

My youthful memories of cinema staff in England during the late 1940’s – 1960’s are of the highest regard.
The ushers were polite but strict about patrons sitting in the correct area -according to the varied prices of admission, and they seemed to remember should a patron (accidentally) happen to re-seat themselves in the upscale area.
The doormen kept an eye out for members of the military and would often pull them out of line to get priority seating.
The very pretty “big” girls (oh yes)got to carry the tray of drinks and ice creams down to the stage area and stand in the spotlight.

Every staff member was so well dressed and manicured and, thanks to the general manager, all performed in such a professional manner!

As for Larry Goldsmith’s (above) final comments… I couldn’t have worded it better. So sad.

ticktock11 on November 7, 2008 at 3:08 pm

Simon, many thanks.

Yes! In my case, I recall the red-coned Flashlight of Death, used to keep order in our small theater. (I think the Brits would call it a “torch of death.”)

As for projectionists, I’m not sure I ever oooohed or aahhhhed, but I did think it would be a cool job, up there manipulating the whole show. The owner of our small place (304 seats) was a showman to the core. Even at Saturday matinees, with no one but kids in the seats, he used the dimmers, the bright red main curtain and the white title curtain. Change-overs were perfect. He set a good example.

I recall wanting (and getting) a projector for Christmas, so that I could put on moves for family and friends. And I did …

Jim Miller
Jim Miller on November 7, 2008 at 8:35 pm

I became an usher at the North Star Cinema I&II in October 1968 here in San Antonio, TX. FORTY YEARS AGO! I am so old! We wore blue blazers, white shirt with bowtie, and tuxedo pants. We had the roadshow engagement of “2001: A Space Odyssey” playing in 70mm when I started. It was a reserved seat engagement. Our shoes were expected to be shined, our hair clean and short. We were paid a whopping 75 cents an hour when minimum wage was $1.60! We ran reserved seat roadshows at North Star until the autumn of 1969. The final roadshow was “Oliver!” For the regular run features at least one usher was expected to stand in the back of the auditorium monitoring picture, sound, temperature, and the audience. I LOVED every minute of the job, and the era I worked. I have been out of the theater business for 14 years now, and I miss it VERY much, but I would not want to work in today’s theaters, or theatre companies.

markp on November 8, 2008 at 7:36 am

I’m right behind you outafocus. As I stated above, 33 years and counting. I remember my first few years, when I was an apprentice in the IATSE union, and an usher. I worked usher for GCC and we had blue blazers, bowtie, just as you said. I have seen a lot of changes these past 33 years, and all I can say is the pencil pushers in these big chains ruined everything. As for me, I have my hopes pinned on an old palace that one day may do stage shows and concerts, and the occasional film festival, and thats where I plan to spend my remaining years. The multiplex is NO fun at all.

nerwall16 on November 8, 2008 at 12:10 pm

i remember being hired and starting behind the candy stand and wanting to get moved out to usher, for some reason at 16 years old it seemed like a profile gig, we took great pride in our jobs and the trouble we could get into in the downtime ahh the amc days. i allways wanted the theaters to be clean the bathrooms to be ready the doors to be open on time, thinking it would set my little 8 plex apart from the 24s and 16s in the area. we had a great core i miss those days

but once i got my feet under me in projection i was hellbent on creating the best show o could, playing with the preshows to make it more exciting for the viewer. but regal put an end to that

i go to the movies alot and im allways looking to see how things are handled at various theaters. ur hard pressed to see kids now that care. i visted my ex regal theater and couldnt find an employee with a tucked in shirt, the girl in box office was texting


Jim Miller
Jim Miller on November 8, 2008 at 2:01 pm

movie534, your theater beginnings almost mirror mine. General Cinema was a class act back then. I learned showmanship, and found love for the theater through the manager there. He was a very colorful character, and a showman’s showman! He taught me everything from cleaning an auditorium to merchandising and advertising. I worked my way up quickly to assistant manager. The union projectionists in the booth soon became friends, and my interest went to the projection end. I eventually learned the ART of good projection, and became a working member of the IATSE. North Star had Century JJ2s in Cinema II, and Century SAs in Cinema I. Ashcraft Cinex Specials using 13.6 carbons lit our large “shadowbox” screens VERY well!

When the union fell on hard times, the education I got as an usher and assistant manager years before got me into management, and i manged some very nice independently owned theaters.

Now it looks like only the big chains that may have heard of showmanship, but aren’t sure of what it means have the theatre business hostage. Get ‘em in, and get 'em out quickly and at the highest possible profit has taken the place of showmanship, and all the pride and romance out of the theatre business.

I don’t go to the movies much anymore. The few times I have gone, sometimes there isn’t even a ticket taker, let alone an usher! The person selling tickets with tattoos, piercings and a sneer sell me and tear my ticket. If I can afford to buy concession items, the ticket seller’s siblings seem to wait on me. I find the auditorium I want, and climb up the stadium seating layout, then my ears are assaulted by loud and overly long COMMERCIALS, and then the movie finally starts.

I miss the days of large single screen theatres! The North Star Cinema twin where I worked was the first “multiplex” in San Antonio. They were run as different theatres though, with separate boxoffices, restroom facilities (VERY NICE ONES AT THAT!). snack bar facings, and PLENTY of help to wait on the customer.

Reading about the theatres that have just opened without projection rooms has made me even more nostalgic for the old days.

patschaefer on November 9, 2008 at 10:20 am

What a great trip back! My brothers and I spent every Sat. in the theatre; no babysitters needed! I went to St. Brigid’s from kindergarten until 1952; lived at 256 Palmetto St. Found your site looking for my family history, the Schaefer’s and Pfundstein’s. Remember the great chinese restaurant over the El across from the theatre? I still have the depression glass they gave out to my parents and grandparents. Does anyone know Raymon Rorke, Margaret Rey or remember Sister Johanna?, Thanks, Pat

MPol on November 9, 2008 at 4:30 pm

outafocus, while I agree with a number of your points, I think that having commercials/previews of coming attractions on prior to the feature movie presentation is beneficial for the following reason(s):
I think that they’re probably put there for late stragglers, who, for whatever reason, arrive late, and there are a number of reasons for being late, at times:

A) Public transportation is often unpredictable

B) Parking can often be quite difficult to find.

C) Sometimes, a person just has a slow start.

D) Sometimes, traffic can be really slow and nasty, for whatever reason.

larrygoldsmith on November 9, 2008 at 6:12 pm

I agree with Previews of coming attractions showing prior to the feature presentation, because it also helps to move patrons into the auditorium with some extra time given in the event of Box Office back up. Patrons coming to the theatre do not always allow for this wait. But outside ads/commercials are totally unacceptable to me. But that is my personal opinion. The above reasons are also valid.

nerwall16 on November 9, 2008 at 6:20 pm

my theater is indie so i run a classic drive in ad then 2- 70’s 80’s or 90’s quirky trailers from my collection before the movie people show up early to see what i have added to the film

ticktock11 on November 9, 2008 at 8:27 pm

I recall as a small boy, in 1952-53, that we had ads for International trucks and a local jewelry store (and probably other businesses that I don’t remember) at the start of each program. They were separated by the title curtain, and I believe the main curtain closed over them, separating them from the rest of the program.

So, at least in small rural theaters, commercials were shown back then.

No one else remembers a thing like this?

larrygoldsmith on November 10, 2008 at 9:21 am

Monical As an employee for FWC/NGC the policy was to never show any outide ads. The exception for this policy was annual Christmas ads that did advertise local merchants. However, these ads were run from after Thanksgiving thru Christmas Day only. No other ads were ever run, with the exception of previews of coming attractions. Managers were encouraged to sell these merchant Christmas ads. MGR’s received a percentage of what they sold, and we could charge the merchant any price we could get. I remember some of the merchants I had were not even charged, as I knew they were struggling and I gave it to them for free. Others paid that could afford it. Theatre Mgrs did not get rich from this. Some Mgrs refused to participate because of the low percentage given by the company and the footwork required to enlist merchants to participate.

MPol on November 10, 2008 at 3:08 pm

Thanks, larry. I with the view that outside ads and commercials are unacceptable…and unattractive, to boot.

ticktock11 on November 11, 2008 at 10:23 am

I wholly agree with the annoyance value of in-theater commercials as we experience them today.

But it has only just dawned on me that they aren’t a new thing; we were seeing them in the early 50s—and probably before, but I wouldn’t know. (This would make an interesting research project.)

My best memory suggests that these were pre-filmed ads to which the local dealer’s name was attached at the end, just as stock intermission ads might end with the theater’s name.

One difference: these were always part of the program, in my memory. They weren’t screened while the audience waited for the show to begin.

ticktock11 on November 11, 2008 at 11:45 am

Back to ushers:

Are there any references to ushers in popular culture of the time? In songs for instance (“You’re the tops, you’re a Roxy usher … tra-la, tra-la”). Stories? Even movies? If your daughter’s date worked as an usher, was that a good thing? And so on … .

Soda jerks had a place in popular culture. I’m still curious if there was “romance” associated with ushers.

markp on November 11, 2008 at 8:21 pm

Yes outafocus, those old GCC days were good. My twin had a Century JJ2 in Cinema 1 , and a Century “H” in Cinema 2. Did not have the Ashcrafts by them, we were Xenon. And I actually remember those Christmas ads that larry goldsmith mentions above. One more thing, do you remember when we cross-plugged the movie on the other screen? “Also Showing at this Theatre.” The 2 old union guys I worked with hated it when they had to change those trailers on the platters.

GaryParks on November 11, 2008 at 8:41 pm

From about 1966, when I first started going to the movies as a very tiny tot, to 1973, when we moved away from Southern California, it was just part of the show to have a movie ad for the Los Angeles Times newspaper. I remember a loud and nasal male voiceover, and the paper landing on a brick doorstep. I just remember the last words were, “…in the Los Angeles Times! On sale now!” The theatres I went to the most during this time were the Bay and the Fox Rossmoor in Seal Beach (both National General houses), and the Crest and Belmont in Long Beach—also NGC houses.

larrygoldsmith on November 13, 2008 at 9:17 am

Monical In answer to your above question whether theatre ushers had a place in pop culture, I would say no. Being a theatre employee in the position of usher was never a big deal. There were times when an usher was moved to doorman, if male. That may have been sort of an advancement to the employee, but no difference in pay. If an usher were to be a female, she may be advanced to candy counter, then possibly to the box office. At one time, females advanced to the box office was probably the most “important” position to the females working in that theatre. I remember a lot o jealous females that did'nt get that “advancement”. Again, no difference in pay.

MPol on November 15, 2008 at 9:33 am

That’s too bad, larry. There’s no reason why females can’t be just as capable of being good ushers, or receive equal pay.

ticktock11 on November 15, 2008 at 11:30 am

In my small town, the whole staff was female. This was except for the owner, who was male and acted as projectionist.

But his wife and several women of high school-age or thereabouts ran the public aspects of the theaters. The same women worked there through my whole childhood (as far as I can recall).

Haven’t I seen mention somewhere (Ben Hall?) of all-female usher corps in a few big-city palaces? They were intended as a novelty, I think.

larrygoldsmith on November 15, 2008 at 1:26 pm

I would say in most situations, that ushers and usherettes were about in equal quantity in most theatres. In later years, when young people became more rowdy and disruptive, males were probably used more to monitor the auditorium. When I managed in the 70’s, I always used 2 males “inside” on Friday and Saturday nights. The young people that attended on those 2 nights could sometimes be a real nightmare. I finally smartened up and monitored the box office, where I could keep out the trouble makers. This was probably the most effective method of keeping the adult patrons happy and coming back.

TLSLOEWS on December 10, 2009 at 12:40 pm

Larry goldsmith, I remember those days or nights I should say when we had people lining up Church street.We would go out in our uniforms and asked if they had tickets , if they did not not we would show them to the line at the box office.Red Jacket, Black Bow Tie and black pants.Those were the days.LOEWS CRESCENT NASHVILLE,TENNESSEE

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on May 18, 2010 at 11:24 am

In today’s rushed world of 40 plexs,What is an usher? My last year was 1983 in the business.GCC employeed ushers and often Managers and Assistants would like Tlsloews wrote about directing people.When I drop my kids at the local movieplex it looks like a mad house. No Ushers and certainly not the type we had from 1974 that did not mind to tell people to shut-up during a movie,but we never had that big of a those days going to the movie theatre one behaved and usually dressed like they were going to church.Today, they dress the same for church as to do a movie.Said it a 100 times glad i got out in 1983.

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