Dangerous Confessions of a Movie Line Waiter
The date had been embedded in my mind for months: July 4, 1990. On a Wednesday in the middle of an unusually hot summer, Die Hard 2: Die Harder would be released to the public. The first film, Die Hard, had quickly become a family favorite amongst me and my two brothers. We had seen the film countless times, reciting racy lines of dialogue and reenacting brutal violence at an age when we should have been playing baseball, not terrorist and hero cop. When the release date of the film was set, our house went into a collective frenzy. There was no doubt in our minds what we were going to do the night of July 4th. Forget barbecues or baseball games, if it did not entail Bruce Willis fighting terrorists, we were not interested.
The days leading up to the opening night were agonizingly slow. The commercials advertising the film only served to increase my frustration of not having seen the film. The day finally arrived, filled with joy and the feeling of vindication. My patience would finally be rewarded. Little did I know, trouble was brewing. My mother was called into a late evening meeting, we would not make the 7:30 p.m. showing. Ordinarily this would not be a problem since most films have multiple showings on any given night. Die Hard 2, however, was a longer film than most. My local cinema, the only one playing the film, was airing only two screenings, one at 7:30 and the other at 10:45 p.m. My mom arrived home at 8:30, and we commiserated on our misfortune. Being only nine years old, my strict bedtime of 9:30 p.m. would not be wavered, even by the rogue charms of Mr. Willis. I was well aware that the film would be playing in theaters for the duration of the summer and beyond, but my desire to experience the film “right now” was too overwhelming. Clever use of a guilt-trip sullied my mother’s defenses and soon we were off waiting in line for the late show.
It was my first experience seeing a movie that late; my eyes were wide with excitement and energy. The line extended around the back of the theater but no one felt inconvenienced; they all shared my deep rooted love for this film franchise. They let us in at 10:15, and I could barely contain myself. A nine-year old ball of energy, up way past m bedtime, waiting to see Bruce Willis save the world. The lights went down, and I was hooked.
Even at such a young age, I could feel the power of the opening night. At no other time is the energy as high, the audience as passionate, or the experience as genuine. My need to see movies on opening night became an obsession I have been feeding since that fateful Independence Day. My movie-going life was changed, and film’s place in my social life was forever altered. I blame it all on Bruce Willis.
The years passed, and the opening night experiences grew in number. Braveheart, summer of 1995. Watching the movie we all knew what was happening. The first night of the film’s release and we could all sense it. We were watching a Best Picture in the making, and no one else knew. Apollo 13, just a few weeks later. The air-conditioning in the theater turned up so high, I felt as if I was the one trapped in space.
November 1, 1996. Throngs of pre-pubescent and newly adolescent teenagers pack an unsuspecting local movie theater, awaiting the release of the highly anticipated re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I was fifteen, anxious, and surrounded by braces and Clearasil as far as the eye could see. The theater had underestimated the film’s appeal, and chose to screen the film in a theater two sizes too small. Teens were turned back at the door, openly crying at the thought of a Leonardo-less Friday night. As the 7:30 p.m. mark moved ever closer, the theater began to hum with the excitement. Six hundred adolescents giddy at the prospect of watching two hours of spastic, tragic Shakespeare. When Leonardo’s face first appeared on-screen relationships ended. Girls openly wept and their dates hid in their seats. This was not a film screening, it was hormonal torture.
On another end of the spectrum was the Friday late show of Michael Mann’s sprawling L.A. crime thriller, Heat. On an atypically scorching December evening, I decided to turn my opening night obsession into a sociological experiment. The Oxy pad crowd of Romeo and Juliet had taught me that certain sects of people would only attend certain movies at specific times. To this end, I decided to forego the usual mid-evening show, and instead see the final show of the night.
Returning to the conversations heard in my Die Hard line roots, I anticipated a crowd of film-loyalists; pretentious movie-lovers spouting home-made philosophies on the merits of Pulp Fiction as a new filmic-religion. What I got, however, was a collection of individuals so contrary to anything I had expected that all my theories immediately went out the window. Entering the densely packed theater, I first noticed a preponderance of leather. Everyone seemed to be wearing it in some form, be it the jacket, shirt or pants variety. They all seemed to be unusually large and bedecked with lengthy beards. It was then that I realized what type of audience I walked into. This was no crowd of kids. I had come to the late night trucker show, with access granted to only those who owned and operated a vehicle that could double for the malicious big-rig in Steven Spielberg’s Duel. The crowd reaction was unnatural: no catty comments thrown Pacino’s way, no standing ovations or audible gasps. The only sound you heard was the rustling of leather. I was a child amongst grizzled grown-ups. Two hours of crime drama could not go fast enough.
I began to examine the crowds that joined me in my opening night excursions, finding just as much joy and pain from who I watched, then what I watched. The unusually high number of people seated legs-crossed, near the back of the theater, for Boogie Nights. The crowd full of blown hankies and teary sobs for Carl Franklin’s One True Thing. And most famously, the crowd of somber adults, turned stone silent by the effect of Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, Schindler’s List.
Some of my most profound movie-going experiences, both good and bad, have come from attending the opening night oeuvre of the bearded master himself, Mr. Steven Spielberg. One of the more disheartening times came when I attempted to see Saving Private Ryan with my family, but instead received a lesson on bad parenting.
Standing in line, I listened to the conversations of strangers. No one spoke of the buzz on the ultra-violent opening scenes, or the jarring, too realistic war footage. There was however, affair amount of conversation devoted to the agony that was Armageddon, released onto an unforgiving public just weeks before. Sitting in the biggest theater my town’s megaplex had to offer, I could sense that the crowd of 850 strong was ill-prepared for what they were about to witness.
Surrounded by such a large audience, one does not often take the time to look at the people sitting near you. Normally, I check to make sure there isn’t someone gabbing incessantly into a cell phone, or loudly unwrapping the four course meal they had hidden under their over-sized coat. For some reason, this time I did not notice my neighbors. Preoccupied with keeping my company entertained, I paid no mind to anyone else in the theater. It was not until mid-way through the Omaha Beach charge, did I hear the unassuming voice of a child, sitting directly behind me. “Where’d that man’s arm go, Daddy?” Like the silence Tom Hanks experiences in the film, everything around me began to dim. The volume of life turned itself down, only one sound penetrating the silence: the innocent musings of a child who had no place in the theater. He persisted to ask horrifyingly innocuous questions to his disinterested parent. Unable to concentrate on the film, I was appalled that the father felt he could bring his young son to a war film, and then have the gall to ignore his child’s curiosities about the brutality of war. Now I have paid good money to squirm through countless bad movies. I sat through Batman and Robin. Twice. I even attended a packed opening night showing of To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything Julie Newmar. Though never was I more uncomfortable in a movie theater then when I was made to see the cruelties of war, through the eyes of a child.
An inappropriate crowd can ruin your enjoyment of an opening night film screening. A child present when they should not be, people abusing the “please be quiet” rule, people booing and clapping at the wrong times. However, in all my years of movie-going, I have experienced one film event that rose above my distaste for loud, obnoxious crowds. An event so joyous that I welcomed the onslaught of boos, claps, excessive talking and children who were too young to see such fare. On vacation in New York, walking down 51st Street, my brother noticed the odd sight of a poster of the movie Jaws tapped onto the wall of Radio City Music Hall. An odd sight indeed, we went to investigate. Under the poster, we found a group of people sitting and joking about the film. Now it’s not out of the ordinary to see people on the street talking about any number of things, but I knew this was different. I can spot a movie line from a mile away. And I knew before my mother even asked the man in the ticket booth. Jaws would be screened at Radio City Music Hall that night, in front of hundreds, and I would be there to enjoy it.
We rushed back to our hotel to drop off our bags and tourist garb, then sprinted back to Radio City. The time was 3:30 in the afternoon and the screening was at the magic time of 7:30p.m. This would be a true test of line endurance, but I was up to the challenge. I quickly found that East Coast movie lines are particularly chatty, as I came to befriend several of my fellow line companions. We passed the time by quizzing each other on the film and regaling each other with stories from other film lines. As the hours passed, the crowd gained in number. Sitting near the front of the line, we had several people tentatively approach us, inquiring about the nature of the line. Upon hearing that we were waiting to see Jaws their eyes lit up and their faces beamed with the glow of nostalgia. Needless to say, soon the crowd was enormous, extending nearly three and a half city blocks. People from all walks of life exuberantly clutched their tickets stubs as if it were the essence of life itself. For some, including myself, it was.
Three long hours passed, and without ceremony, we were let in. Being my first time in the Hall, I marveled at its grandeur. This was the ultimate movie house. High ceilings, wide seats, and a set of acoustics that would turn John William’s haunting score into a sonic explosion. Seats filled in seconds. One thousand film lovers, having braved the sweltering August sun, cooled off in the air conditioned palace that is Radio City. And there was still an hour to go.
Naturally, the crowd grew restless. Tens of hundreds of impatient movie-goers churning in their seats like fish caught in a net. Ushers were powerless to stop the commotion of weary patrons. Chants began. The noise grew louder, louder, LOUDER! The entire hall was shaking. Suddenly, at five minutes till show time, with the crowd ready for blood, a small older man hobbled onto the stage. Not a person among us had the slightest clue who this man was, but none of us were interested in listening to a speech. We wanted Jaws, and we wanted it now! Eventually, the crowd quieted. The quicker we did so, the quicker the man would be finished and the filmic bloodbath could commence. The man stood in his place, waiting for complete silence. He took a breath, readied himself, then spoke: “Good evening ladies and gentleman, I’m Peter Benchley.” The crowd erupted! It was the man who started it all! We were fools! How were we supposed to know that the literary giant would be presenting this movie? Every single person in the Hall was on their feet, cheering. This time, Benchley smiled as he waited. Several happy moments later, we let him begin a truly eloquent and moving speech about his gratitude for Steven Spielberg’s efforts, and the resulting film. When he was finished, and the lights finally went down, the crowd was ready. Charged and already satisfied, we could all feel the intensity of what was about to happen. The curtains parted, and that familiar music swelled. For the second time in ten minutes, one thousand people stood in unison, clapping ferociously, until their hands were sore.
The film itself became an afterthought. Standing ovations came with every character intro, and with every utterance of a classic line. People were on their feet, cheering for a film they must have seen dozens of times. My obsession was re-energized. Jaws changed the way I looked at movie-going. If this many people could collectively share an experience as wonderful and jubilant, then opening nights could truly do anything. Walking out of Radio City Music Hall on that fateful night, I smiled the smile of a sated lover. Somewhere deep inside me I could feel my destiny; the next challenge in the race to live my movie-going life. Jaws had solidified the purpose of my mission, and I would not fail. Two years later, I stepped in line to wait for the movie that began the tradition: Star Wars.
This is what we had been practicing for, for years. The opening of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, when my friends threw me out of a moving car just to secure a better spot in line. Godzilla, 1998, when we showed up four hours early, expecting riots, and instead found solitude. All the opening nights, all the lines, from Die Hard 2 till now… all just preparation for Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace.
The plan had bet set for months. We would purchase advanced tickets for the opening night, 7:30p.m show; the only show a true film lover attends. We would skip school, and spend the day at the theater, soaking up the vibe of twenty years of forced patience. The world had been waiting for this movie, and my friends and I would not let the world pass us by. We showed up at 7:30 in the morning, with chairs, snacks and entertainment in hand. Fifteen of my closest friends and family; our resolve was strong and our desire was awe-inspiring. Twelve hours till history… this is what opening nights are all about.
The day went on and the people began to arrive. They came by the hundreds, drawn to the theater like the cars at the end of Field of Dreams. People did come. And like Jaws, the line took all kinds. Adults dressed like Luke Skywalker, women with their hair in Princess Leia-like cinnamon buns. There was a lightsaber in almost everyone’s hand, and an immovable smile from their faces. Never in my life have I seen so many people dressed up on a day that was not Halloween. My friends and I took pictures and reminisced. We were seniors in high school, with the pull of the real world only days away. Star Wars was our last chance to bask in the ease of adolescence. On that day, in that line, my young life hit nirvana.
I had worked for this moment for ten years. Sitting in the theater after ten years and twelve hours of waiting, surrounded by friends and strangers, my obsession was vindicated. I was not there just to see a movie; I was there, like I had always been, to share a feeling. The same feeling I felt waiting for Bruce Willis, or for Godzilla, or Jaws, or Men in Black, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park or the Jedi Knights of Star Wars. It was the same reason that people were dressed up in Star Wars-inspired clothes. It was the same reason that people had brought posters and action figures and signed memorabilia. We were all there to witness the culmination of our collective line experiences. Waiting in line for any other movie seemed like a prelude to the time spent waiting for this one special film. Two men proposed to their girlfriends while on line. I spoke to another couple who planned their honeymoon around the opening of the film. I shared favorite movie moments with a Grandmother who had taken her young grandson to see the first Star Wars, twenty-five years ago. The power of the night flowed through us all.
I sat with my friends. The same people who had waited with me on lines like this, for more than five years. We had bonded over countless Friday nights spent standing in front of the local movie house, and sitting in innumerable darkened theaters. There was no other place in the world that measured up to the passion, the frenzy, the lure or the wonderment of an opening night film screening. Star Wars was the climax of our fascination. We all understood the power, and we all knew what this experience meant. There would be other movies and other lines, but our work was done. We had traversed and explored every inch of the experience and came out on the other end, content.
Looking around me in the moments before show time, I thanked my mother for introducing me into this world. I thanked her for inadvertently making me feel something I never knew existed. For giving me a path to take, that could guide my love of film to a road of realized dreams.
The lights of the house dimmed, the crowd exploded into cheers, and I felt that familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach, one more time.