Andy Thinks

My First Job

My stepfather, George Johnsen, got me my first job the summer after my sophomore year in high school. It was June of 1974. I was 14 years old.

George was a union projectionist. Five days a week he ran the projectors at SunValley Cinema in Concord, California. On Fridays, he worked at the Capri Theatre, just down the street from the SunValley mall.

George asked the manager of the Capri, Mr. Bruno, if he might have a summer job for me. Bruno was glad to oblige.

California state law prohibited the employment of minors younger than 15 years. Mr. Bruno, knowing I was a month shy of my 15th birthday, took the risk and put me to work anyway. No one ever found out.

My starting pay was $1.50 an hour.

On my first day on the job, I operated an industrial popcorn popping machine. I arrived promptly at 10:00 am. Mr. Bruno introduced me to the assistant manager, Jeff, who took me into a small room at the end of a long hallway, past the restrooms and the janitor’s closet. Jeff showed me how to operate the popcorn machine, then watched me for a few batches to make sure I did everything right. Then he left me alone to do my job.

The machine looked like this:

On the floor under the machine was a 5 gallon drum that was filled with a solid orange glop. The label on the drum said “Coconut Oil.” On the drum was mounted a heating element that melted the oil, and a pump mechanism with tubing that led to the kettle at the top of the popper.

For each batch, I pressed a button that pumped a measured amount of hot oil into the kettle. I then poured in a large scoop of popcorn kernels, and a scoop of fine salt. After about 3 and half minutes, I dumped the finished batch into a large bin, and sifted out the unpopped kernels. I then filled giant brown paper bags with the popped corn, and sealed up the bags. These bags of popcorn would be shipped to six other theaters in northern California.

During the summer, movie theaters are open every day from late morning until about midnight or so. That day, I diligently popped popcorn all day long. I stacked the large bags up to the ceiling in that little room. I left a narrow pathway from the big machine to the door, so I could get out. When the room filled up, I started piling the bags up in the hallway outside the room.

During the course of the day, I worked mostly alone in that tiny room. Twice, I was visited by other employees. The first was Clyde Wilbur, the theater’s regular projectionist, who came in and introduced himself. With his balding head, bushy gray beard, and ever-present pipe, I thought Clyde should have been a sea captain. We were soon to become good friends.

The second visit was from two giggly teenage coworkers, Debbie and Denise, who worked at the candy counter and box office, respectively. They were both about 18 years old, and clearly found the awkward 14-year-old Andy to be a novelty.

When the last movie of the day was over, I was still popping popcorn. I was getting a little concerned that for several hours no one had come to check on me, so I walked out to the lobby to look for Jeff or Mr. Bruno.

Jeff had already gone home for the day. Bruno was visibly shocked to find me still there. He sheepishly admitted that he had forgotten all about me. I had worked for 14 hours straight without stopping to take a break! And popped one heck of a lot of popcorn.

Before long, I was performing many duties at the Capri: tearing tickets, changing the letters on the marquee, stocking the candy machine, changing light bulbs. I was the go-to guy whenever someone needed a key to anything in the building. Early on, Bruno started to call me Handy Andy; soon it became Handrew Andrew. He had other names for me, too, but those names weren’t very nice.

Over the course of the following three years, I survived four successive managers at the Capri Theatre. Jeff would be the third of those, and he promoted me to assistant manager. I was 17 years old.

I have many fond memories of my days at the Capri, and can still recall the diverse and amusing cast of characters who worked there.

During my tenure at the Capri, I learned how to drive a car, I graduated from high school, and started college.

And I invited a girl on a date. Her name was Sue Altorfer. We fell in love.

Me at age 15, at the doorman’s post at the Capri Theatre. I still have the patch that was sewn onto the breast pocket of that red blazer.

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