My First Job: I got my start in the movies

Inspired by the “My First Job” article series on LinkedIn, we had our very own thought leaders reflect on their first working experiences. In the last article in our 3-part blog series, David Wilgus recalls his first job and what it taught him.

I got my first real job when I turned 16 and my parents let me know that I was off the allowance dole.  I applied for a job as an usher at the now-defunct General Cinema Theater. Those of a certain generation will remember the animated mascot Popcorn Bob and his Candy Band. I had always been a big movie fan and thought this might be the perfect job because one of the “perks” was getting to see movies free. I quickly learned that being an usher was the opposite of Hollywood movie glamour.

The required usher “uniform” was black slacks, black shoes and a white shirt. They supplied a nifty polyester, powder-blue blazer with the GCC logo. Unfortunately, I was late getting to the supply closet that first night on the job due to my 15-minute orientation. The only jacket left in the closet was two times my size. There is nothing more humbling than wearing a giant blazer with rolled up sleeves. Never be late (to the supply closet) was a critical lesson I never forgot.

The job entailed a lot more than tearing tickets. We stocked candy shelves, changed out carbonated drink syrup bottles, popped mountains of popcorn and cleaned empty theaters. I learned that friendships are built when a team of people work together to achieve even mundane tasks.

One Saturday morning I learned the value of helping your teammates in difficult situations. The theater had a special matinee price for kids. Moms would drop their children off to see a Benji movie while they shopped at the mall. They would give them money for popcorn and candy and the kids would stuff themselves. One of the female ushers came to me in a panic. She looked pale and was gagging a little. Several kids had thrown up in the girls’ bathroom and she was told to clean it up. She couldn’t do it and begged me to help. I did the dirty work and cleaned up the horrific mess. I won lots of brownie points that day with all the female ushers, and it paid off in future favors when I needed to rearrange my work schedule or needed to get off a little early.

Another valuable lesson learned from my cinema days was to look for new opportunities and take chances. One night the assistant manager asked if I wanted “sign duty.” I was told that it paid $5.00 an hour vs. the $2.10 minimum wage I was making as an usher. I jumped at the chance to make more money but had to rethink my decision when I found out what the job entailed. “Sign duty” meant climbing a 12-foot ladder up to the giant marquis and changing the movie titles. This was a two-man job and the first step was convincing one of your teenage buddies to go and hold the ladder for you. Once you recruited an assistant, the two of you would begin by getting all the title and time information and matching it with the huge black plastic letters we had in storage. Unfortunately there weren’t always enough letters for the longer titles, so we did our own editing. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia became Bring Me Alfredo. I wasn’t afraid of heights and actually kind of liked the job and loved the extra pay.

I ended up working at General Cinema throughout my high school years and, as much as I enjoyed the experience, it taught me perhaps the most important lesson of all – I definitely wanted to do something more with my life. The summer of my senior year I got a call from the Cinema manager. He offered me a full-time job as assistant manager. “No thanks,” I said. “I’m going to college.”