The Ranger Theater was well past its heyday in 1966. Of the handful of theaters — Ranger, Quilna, Sigma, Ohio — still hanging on downtown while downtown moved to the malls, the Ranger had the most tenuous grip. The onetime “Main Street Show Place” was showing its 56 years. The popular myth was you could get your shoes polished at the Ranger by placing popcorn on them and letting the rats lick it off. Those who believed this put their feet on the back of the seat in front of them.
In 1966, I was hopeful of having a heyday and looking for a way to pay for it. I had worked the usual kid jobs — mowing lawns, delivering newspapers. When it snowed, a friend and I would grab our shovels and head out. We were cheerful, honest, hard-working and trusting, letting the customer set a fair wage. A lot of people saw us coming. I yearned for a steady, reliable income. I wanted to be paid by the hour.
So that spring, on the day I turned 16, I headed to the employment office. Within an hour I found myself seated before the manager of the Ranger Theater, rashly accepting her offer of 60 cents an hour to be an usher/ticket-taker/concession stand worker/janitor/whatever else she could think of. I went to work that very night, earning upwards of $2 before taxes on my first shift. That doesn’t sound like much now and it really wasn’t much then either. But it was an hourly wage.
For the most part, the job was easy. On weekdays, only a half dozen or so people would be in the theater, most of them simply seeking respite from the summer heat and probably half of them friends I’d let in the back door. It was my first chance to wield power, and I abused it.
The Ranger had a long foyer separating the ticket booth from the concession stand where I popped popcorn and took tickets. On summer days it was an oasis, far removed from the din of traffic and the glare of the day. On weekends it was a buffer between me and the theater’s sometimes iffy clientele.
Saturday matinees were bad. Parents would dump carloads of kids at the ticket booth. Each kid would pay a quarter to get inside and then scream for four hours. In addition to my other duties, on busy days I made regular patrols of the theater, mostly to keep kids from putting their feet on the backs of the seats in front of them. I guess they didn’t want a shoe shine. I learned to keep low when passing in front of the screen. Never present your silhouette to 400 kids armed with Milk Duds.
Sundays could be terrifying. Kids were bad in the dark; adults were worse and the Ranger’s low prices drew more than its share of adults willing to behave badly. The theater was often sold out on Sundays. Admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. Really young children and almost anyone who threatened the ticket-taker were admitted free. A few of these people invariably slithered in among the paying customers on Sundays and they made patrols of the theater truly scary. I would hurry through, never telling anyone they couldn’t put their feet on the backs of the seats.
Late that summer I got a job bagging groceries at Kroger, more than doubling my hourly wage. I worked both jobs for a month or so before quitting at the Ranger in the fall of 1966.
I never did see any rats.