Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Cancer: Overwhelmed


Running the theater is hard enough, when we have to deal with the vagaries of the market, seasonal fluctuations, the indifference of our consumer base, and keeping the lights on in a depressed economy. Then you add a debilitating illness on top of it, the treatment for which is to make the person sicker and more debilitated, and suddenly, things look grimmer and grimmer.

Every August for the past eleven years, we’ve watched as everyone in Vernon turns out for the big weekend car cruising event, Summer’s Last Blast. Cookouts abound, as do adult beverages, and fleets of classic and muscle cars and trucks (and a few oddballs) cruise up and down the main thoroughfare. Vernon, for one weekend, returns to its former glory and the scene is like something out of American Graffiti, which is exactly the point.

On the following Monday, football practice starts. Two-a-Days. The next weekend, it’s tax free weekend, and people drive one to three hours out of town to save 8.25% on clothes for the kids. It’s a zero-sum event when you factor in gas, food, and travel time, but that’s irrelevant because it’s a good excuse for folks to leave town. The week after that, band practice starts. And the last week in August is the final stretch as everyone hunkers down for school. It’s a busy time for everyone, except us. Our attendance drops 75-85%. We don’t just hit the brakes. We hit the embankment and jackknife.

In the past, this is the time of year where people see a lot of just me and Cathy, because we can’t afford to pay anyone else. These last few years, it’s been all Cathy, as I drive to Dallas to moonlight at Heritage Auctions. This has kept us afloat for the past few years. Until this year. I can’t leave Cathy alone, especially during the days following her chemo treatments; namely the weekdays. Never mind the surgery that will follow in October or November.

I’ve gotten offers from a lot of people who have volunteered to work for us during this time. And it’s appreciated, but frankly, I don’t know where to begin or how to even start bringing folks in. Everyone has said to me, “I can pop popcorn. I can make drinks.” And that’s because that is all that they see. There’s obviously more to it than that, and it’s the hours of work beforehand that make those two hours we’re open, selling tickets and concessions, look so easy by comparison. Most adults have jobs and are busy during the weekdays with their own lives. The last thing anyone wants to do is come clean this place for two hours and then hang for another two to three with four in the audience watching two movies, as is so often the case in August and September.

What makes it worse is that I can’t even really talk about it in town. They will turn it into “Mark hates high school football! He said so!” About seven years ago at a Chamber of Commerce meeting, I brought up the idea that not every business benefits from Summer’s Last Blast—us, for instance, and it would be great if we could get some actual data on the economic impact of the event. All anyone heard at that meeting was, “Summer’s Last Blast is bad for Vernon.” The guys at the car club still don’t talk to me, to this very day. It’s not enough to simply mishear a statement; you’ve also got to mishear it in the most horrible and negative way possible.

Every year, since we’ve been open, at least three times in a calendar year, someone will come up to me in public and say, “I heard a rumor that y’all were closing.” I always ask, “Who did you hear that from?” They never can tell me, or won’t. I think it’s probably just one person (the same person every time) who doesn’t like us because I told them to hang up their cell phone during Spider-Man 3 ten years ago.

It’s sure not the vibe we’re putting out. I always tell people, “we’re hanging in there.” I don’t want folks to think we’re going out of business, but I don’t want them to think we’re doing spectacularly, either. Vernon hates winners almost as much as Vernon hates losers. I have tried to indicate, through my verbal inferences over the years, that we really need the community’s help if we’re going to be successful. This is both 100% true, and also designed to keep the gawkers from playing a game of telephone with any statements I may make that end up ballooning into, “Someone told me that y’all was going to turn the theater into school for the gifted and such.”

“No, what I said was, ‘We’re showing the new X-Men movie next week.’”

They look puzzled. “That’s not what they told me at all.”

Well, who’s right? Some guy you were talking to at the Wal-Mart who works in Bait and Tackle, or the person who actually owns the movie theater?

During the Summer and Winter, I shrug it all off. Everyone’s out of school, in a good mood, and the movies are big and flashy and dumb and bright and make you feel good. During the Fall and Spring, Cathy and I have learned over the years not to take it personally. Football is stronger than the Baptist church in Texas, and especially here.

It was easier when there was two of us. We could, at least, weather high school football together. I have no idea what we’re going to do this year.

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