Standing in front of the large mirror in the small dressing room, Katrina Stevens finished applying her lipstick and took a good look at her image. The mascara around her cat-like eyes was subtle, and her brown hair was trapped in a bun on the back of her head. Wearing her new usherette uniform for the first time was a dream come true, and she wanted to look beautiful.
It was the summer of 1957 in Emberview, Colorado. Having lived there her whole life, Katrina had learned to love cinema during the screenings at the Palladium. The film theater had been there since the 1920s, a big building at the edge of town with one screen and a large lobby. The Palladium gave a special flavor to the lives of Emberview’s five thousand inhabitants.
This was a town of film lovers, and Katrina wasn’t any different. She associated happiness with the smell of popcorn, the soft cushions in the seats, and the sound of the film projector above her head. It was at the Palladium that she had developed her crushes on Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift. She used to go there with her friends after school to watch the serials. And now, it was there that she had found her first job!
Wearing her red coat with the big golden buttons and the funny little hat, she felt like a kid who tries on the uniform of a favorite superhero for the first time. She had poodle skirts of the same fabric, and nylon stockings of a different shade of red. The shoes were comfortable enough for a gig that required her to stand most of the time.
It would feel strange to walk around during the screening, helping people find their seats, without being able to pay attention to what was going on on the movie screen. She still hoped to find time to come to the Palladium to actually watch a film from time to time. The payment wasn’t much, but she had the right to free screenings.
Somebody knocked on the door. “Gilda, are you decent?” a man’s voice asked.
“Come in, Don!” said Katrina, saidwith a smile. She loved the reference to the movie Gilda, especially coming from that voice. Don Keller was the theater owner, a tiny man who looked a thousand years old. He knew Katrina too, just as he knew everyone in Emberview. The Palladium was the only movie theater in town and the only source of entertainment for its citizens.
“You look nice,” said Don, coming into the room. “Are you comfortable?”
“Very,” answered Katrina.
“You have to be,” he said. “Being an usherette is harder than people think. When I started in the movie business, the films were all silent, and nobody minded if people talked during the screening. Now, we can’t let that pass.”
Katrina nodded. She hated people who talked during the movies. To her, the time between the opening credits and the end of the film was just as sacred as going to church. “I’ll take care of that, Don,” she said.
“Just remember that when that happens, you need to take care of the situation without making more noise,” he said, pulling up a chair and taking a seat. “Most people respect the flashlight. Others will try to argue, and that’s the annoying part.”
“I’ve been in this situation,” said Katrina. “As a moviegoer, that is. But I was always the one trying to enjoy the flick. I paid little attention to what the usherette did.”
“The best thing is to make an ape face,” said Don. “Let me see yours.”
Katrina squinted and twisted her lips. “Is that good enough?”
Don made a scared face. “Nobody is going to argue with that!”
They both laughed. “Thanks again for this opportunity,” said Katrina, and she meant it. After finishing high school a month ago, she’d sent her resume to every business in town, without success. Her friends were all leaving Emberview to go to college, and she didn’t have a dime to spend. Don, who knew all about everyone, phoned her one day to say he needed a new usherette.
Katrina accepted on the spot. Everyone in town saw Don as a sort of godfather, always helping people in need and willing to talk about all kinds of flicks. Katrina believed he’d seen every film ever made. He was responsible for part of the education of everyone in town, getting films from other countries and languages, and presenting to the townspeople parts of the world they’d never even dreamt about.
“It’s a pleasure to have one of my best clients working for me,” he said. “This is a special place. People come here to forget about the world and lose themselves in the screen. I never understood the appeal of watching a movie sitting inside a car. The movie theater is the real deal.”
Katrina nodded. “I wouldn’t trade this for anything.”
Don’s eyes seemed lost in a corner of the room. “I just want you to make me a promise, Katrina,” he said, looking back at her. “You’re going to open a savings account for the money you earn here at the Palladium. And, at the end of a year, I hope you have enough to split from Emberview and find a better job somewhere else.”
She wasn’t expecting that. “I thought you loved this town, Don.”
“Oh, I do!” he said. “This is the home I chose for myself, the place where I built my whole life. I’d never dream of leaving Emberview, especially at my age. But you can do so much better than here, Katrina! You should see the world with your own eyes, and not just on a screen.”
She smiled at him. “That’s a deal,” she said. “Now, where’s my flashlight?”
He got up and went to an old metal cabinet in the corner, with five big drawers, all locked. Don picked a keychain from his pocket, and Katrina noticed the keys were all very old and rusty, except for one. That one was shiny and silver and much smaller than the others.
“Here’s the flashlight,” said Don, picking it from a drawer he’d just unlocked. “It’s an old model. A little heavier than usual, but much more reliable. Here, take it.”
Katrina picked the flashlight from his hand. She’d seen it in the hands of many ushers and usherettes throughout the years. Holding it for the first time, she felt like King Arthur must have felt when he’d pulled Excalibur from the anvil.
“You can hang it on that hook on your belt when you’re not using it,” he said. “Now, come on. The screening starts in twenty minutes, and you have lots of tickets to tear.”
The movie that night was a science-fiction film called The Planet that Fell on Earth, and half of the town was expected to show up. The Palladium crew was limited. Cindy Sousa, a middle-aged woman with purple hair, sold the tickets at the entrance. Emmett Zimmerman, with his curly gray hair and thick glasses, had been in charge of candy and popcorn since Katrina was two years old and showed no signs of quitting. The projectionist had always been Don himself, who refused to pass the torch.
Katrina was by far the youngest one there and had to start her shift tearing the tickets as the moviegoers entered the auditorium and helping everyone get to their seats. Don had a strict rule that nobody would be admitted inside after the film started. Movies take a lot of effort to get made, he said, and it was an insult that people weren’t there at the right time. That’s why he didn’t let the usherette sell candy and popcorn during the screening, either. If Don had his way, he wouldn’t allow moviegoers to go to the bathroom during the movie, but he knew that would be too much.
Although a little nervous at first, Katrina soon found out she was pretty good at the job. Everyone there knew her, just as they all knew each other. She smiled and greeted the old couples, the young couples, the families, the old ladies that came to the theater in groups. The Palladium felt like her home, and now she was welcoming her guests.
Everyone was in the lobby, and Cindy had now left her place in the ticket booth and prepared to help Katrina open the doors. “You’ve got a good first night,” she said. “All tickets sold but one.”
“I’m jazzed,” said Katrina, her smile brighter than ever.
“Funny thing, Don asked me to save that ticket for a friend of his who was supposed to drop by,” said Cindy, as they walked to the door. “He never did that before.”
Katrina didn’t pay much attention to those words. Everything was so perfect; she was almost afraid. The lobby was crowded with people standing in line holding their halves of the tickets. After they entered, she would have to recite the rules of the theater. “No littering, no talking during the flick. If you want to smoke, please use the ashtray in the arm of your chair. What else, what else…”
“You should go now,” said Cindy, interrupting her thoughts. “Don’t be nervous. This isn’t rocket science.”
“I hate talking to an audience,” said Katrina.
“You’ll do fine,” said Cindy. “These are the same people you see every day. Most of them are your friends. Keep that in mind. I promise it’ll help.”
The Palladium was a small theater, with only three blocks of seats. The screen was larger than most theaters though, and Don himself had made some improvements to the sound system and the projector.
“Not even in Hollywood do they have this quality of image and sound,” he used to say. Not that they had any basis with which to compare. Most of the people who lived there had never been outside Emberview. Don still refused to install a 3D projector, despite everyone’s requests. Katrina would love to see a film with that new technology, but Don said that wasn’t real cinema.
It took a while for everyone to be seated (not too long, she hoped) and soon Katrina stood on the small stage in front of the screen. She held her flashlight like it was a safe boat. “Good evening, and welcome to the Palladium. Before we start our...” she started, but the words died in her throat.
One hundred and thirty-nine pairs of eyes stared at her.
“You look classy, Katrina!” somebody yelled, and everybody laughed. That voice sounded familiar. It was a guy named Alex Waterston whom she knew from school. Katrina had always found him a dreamboat. Her face got as red as her uniform, but this time she laughed too. That seemed to break the ice between her and the crowd.
“Before we start our screening, I’d like to point out some safety procedures,” she went on. This time nobody interrupted her, and Katrina went on about the safety exits and fire extinguishers. The information wasn’t new to anyone who’d been to the Palladium before, but they were nice enough to listen in silence. “We wish you all a great screening.”
There was even applause at the end, and she came down from the stage feeling like a movie star. As she walked up the aisle, the lights went off, and the projector started to work. Soon, the blank screen she’d been in front of was covered in a magical light, and the audience saw the RKO Pictures logo.
Katrina cast her eye around at the many heads that watched the flick, and everything seemed to be at peace. Every seat was taken like Cindy had said, except for one, right next to the aisle in the front row. Strange to think that Don would choose that seat for his absentee friend. People only went to the front row when they had no other choice. It was too close to the screen,, and it wasn’t comfortable looking up for two hours.
The thought didn’t linger in her mind. She was too proud of herself and her work. The Palladium, where she’d spent many of the best moments of her life, was now under her protection. People chewed popcorn, drank their cherry soda, and whispered in the ears of their dates. Nobody was smoking that night. If they started talking too loud or throwing popcorn at the screen, she’d be there with her flashlight to restore order.
Katrina walked around, a smile on her face, paying attention to everyone. They didn’t notice her, which was a good sign. An usherette was supposed to be invisible while the film was going on. Katrina felt she was responsible for that perfect film screening, and that nothing could go wrong that night.
She was half right.