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Are We Not Men?! A Cautionary Tale of the De-Evolved

October 4, 2013

Energy Dome

Working at the age of 15 as an usher at the Orpheum movie theater in Ogden, Utah, was my first serious employment.  The job came after a stint as a paperboy for the Ogden Standard Examiner and a few weeks cleaning the downtown offices of a small local law firm. (The firm’s chief lawyer was famous for defending Ogden’s ultra-violent “Hi-Fi Shop killers,” who had shoved pens into the victims’ ears and also made them drink Drano.) Rumor was that the Orpheum was a tax write-off for the owner, who also owned the Standard Examiner, so he didn’t care about losing money.  This resulted in his only bringing in second-run films he could get on the cheap.  Crowds were few and far between.

The only “new” movies I remember playing during my tenure at the Orphuem were:  Flash Gordon (with the cool Queen soundtrack);The Nude Bomb (a Get Smart movie with the original cast); Zombie(best scene: a zombie battling a shark underwater); The Black Hole (a rare Disney misfire with Anthony Perkins and the voice of Slim Pickens); and Nothing Personal (a romantic comedy starring Suzanne Somers and Donald Sutherland that included implied cunnilingus!).

ZombieThe Nude Bomb

The Black Hole Nothing Personal Flash Gordon

Our boss Les, the theater manager, was only 18 years old and spent much of his time bringing girlfriends into the manager’s office and closing the door for a while.  We younger ushers all wanted to be Les when we grew up.  He had long, wavy hair like Ace Frehley of KISS and told riveting stories from his other gig as an emergency medical technician for a local ambulance company.  He was a teenage boys’ dream boss, letting us take Shasta sodas out of the pop machineMiller High Life gratis and hooking us up with the key to the video game machines (Space Invaders, Asteroids, Lunar Lander) so we could play for free while waiting for the last show to end.  Not always a great role model however, Les also showed we underlings how to steal from the till without getting caught and was the person who talked me into my first foray into underage drinking, a guzzled can of Miller High Life.

Multiple other glorious teenage memories revolve around the Orpheum, many of them related to the 20-something ticket booth ladies and candy counter girls.  There was Barbara whose Navy husband was off on a ship somewhere and who would spend hours telling me how she had fallen out of love with her sailor and lamenting her physical loneliness.  There was also foxy hippie Nanette, who entered my fantasy true love pantheon for life by telling me I was her “favorite usher,” and who once secretly shared with me two niacin pills that made the skin over my entire body feel like it was on fire for about 30 minutes.  Good times!

Behind the fun and youthful innocence at the Orpheum however, there was a lurking evil…

Space Invaders

Separate from we minimum-wage-earning service workers were two union projectionists who ran the pair of 35mm movie projectors in the union-only booth at the back of the theater’s balcony.  These better-paid specialists spent their time deftly splicing film and seamlessly shifting between projectors in accord with the upper right-hand corner blips that flashed on screen to signal the end of a film reel.  We unskilled folk would seldom see the projectionists save when a call would come down asking that an usher bring up a box of popcorn and a coke.  Otherwise, we’d only interact when the last remaining usher had to await the descent and departure of the projectionist in order to lock the front doors and close up.  One of the projectionists was an older, nice-enough guy who said little and has left few traces in my memory.  On the other hand, I remember projectionist number two, Ray, very well.

Ray was in his mid-thirties and was quite friendly.  He’d make small talk for a few minutes on his way out the door at the end of the evening and seemed a cool dude.  One afternoon in late ‘79, Ray invited me and another usher to his apartment for pizza.  At his place, Ray regaled us with propaganda about the high-end audio cable he had either invented or had invested in that was going to make him rich.

At some point during the pizza-eating, Ray inquired as to whether I liked music.  Then, as now, I was ALL ABOUT the tunes and answered him accordingly.  He asked what bands were my favorites and I cited Aerosmith, Nazareth, and Rush, if IKiss - Unmasked recall correctly.  (By 1979, it was uncool in Ogden to publicly admit to being a KISS fanatic, which I most definitely still was at the time even despite the disco “I Was Made For Loving You” betrayal.  Six months later, I would swear off KISS completely for roughly 15 years thanks to what I then viewed as the stink turd known as the “Unmasked” album.)

Ray asked whether I liked Devo.  While I didn’t own any Devo at the time, I had dug their 1978 appearance on Saturday Night Live when they played “Jocko Homo” and their cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” so I answered Ray in the affirmative.  Ray happily noted that he had a good friend in Los Angeles who worked with Devo and offered to get me a signed LP if I wanted one.  I, of course, wanted one.

In 1979-80, I was a sophomore at Ben Lomond High School.  I wasn’t among the most popular kids at school but was not an outcast either.  My friendships and social activities that year revolved more around my work life than my school life.  That said, I was relatively aware of goings-on with my classmates and generally knew who was up to what.

Completely separate from anything related to the Orpheum – or so I believed at the time – there was talk at school of some weird old dude that a few kids would hang out with.  Stories varied, but I remember variously hearing that the guy did everything from counseling a troubled youth with a messed-up home life, to providing drugs and booze to a couple of burnouts, to paying an all-American type kid for homosexual man-boy love.  The freak, who for most of us was just a vague idea of a person we had never seen, was known as “Gay Ray” and, being teenage punks, we would often insult each other by suggesting that someone was one of “Gay Ray’s boys.”

As impatient readers may have already assumed, Gay Ray and Projectionist Ray were one and the same, although I didn’t discover it until sometime after the free pizza fandango/audio cable lecture at Ray’s apartment.  Finally putting two and two together on Ray’s identity added up to a deep sense of foreboding for me.  Within a short time however, the Orpheum was bought out by a regional theater chain that brought in its own projectionists, conveniently saving me from any continuing regular contact with Ray.

Roughly three months after the pizza fiesta and maybe five weeks after my Ray epiphany and the change in ownership of the Orpheum, I was called to the telephone while working one Saturday evening.  It was Projectionist Ray on the line, animatedly giving me the news that my signed Devo album had arrived.  He suggested I stop by his apartment that night after closing the theater to pick it up.  Despite my discomfort, I wanted that friggin’ album bad, and so informed Mr. more-than-twice-my-age Ray that I would indeed pass by.

While only 16 by then — the early Spring of 1980 — I was nonetheless thankfully not a completely oblivious moron.  After Nancy Wilson (Heart) - circa 1980hanging up with Ray I headed over to the candy counter to strategize with a couple of female coworkers.  Working that night were fellow high schoolers Big Cindy (who I sincerely regret having referred to as Big Cindy back then, especially now that I am somewhat rotund of form myself) and super-babe Danae (who I once took out on a failed date and who had beautiful long curly blonde hair a la Nancy Wilson of Heart circa 1980).  After explaining my situation and uneasiness, Big Cindy and Danae agreed to accompany me to Ray’s apartment after work.

When we arrived around midnight, Ray was visibly taken aback upon answering my knock at his door dressed only in a terrycloth robe and seeing the girls smiling there with me.  Flustered, he mumbled something about just getting ready to take a shower and told us to step in and wait in his living room while he went into the back.  He came back out with an LP-size cardboard box addressed to him and showing a return address from Warner Records in California.

Awkwardly handing me the package, he suggested that I go ahead and open it.  Inside, I found a letter to Ray from his record company buddy expressing hope that Ray’s “young friend” would like the gift — the memory of the letter gives me the willies in hindsight — along with a copy of Devo’s Freedom of Choice album autographed to me personally by all five members of the band.   Mark Mothersbaugh had even added a tidbit of advice: “If it wiggles, splice the tips together.”

Autographed Devo

Giddy with my score, I thanked Ray sincerely, although he didn’t seem overly pleased by my gratitude.  Ray took the letter for himself, mentioned the late hour, and escorted the girls and me out the door.  As we got back into the car, I remember Cindy saying the experience had been “gross” and all of us agreeing that my bringing the girls along had been the right move.

I only vaguely remember ever seeing Ray once more.  I’m not sure where or when it was exactly — he might have come to a movie at the Orpheum — but I do clearly remember him asking me why I had brought Cindy and Danae along with me to pick up the album.  I think I answered that we had stopped by on our way to a party.  I later heard that one of my troubled high school peers long rumored to have been a regular visitor to Ray’s committed suicide in his early 30s, although I never heard why.  My younger sister tells me that Ray did eventually set up his own audio cable company.

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The Orpheum was torn down in the mid-1980s, replaced by a city office building.  The autographed Devo LP has been mounted behind glass since about 1998 and still hangs proudly on my den wall.  The tunes from the album come up on shuffle on my iPod on occasion, with the songs “Girl U Want,” “Freedom of Choice,” and “Gates of Steel” being my favorites.

I’ve come to possess much more Devo since getting Ray’s gift and actually like the first LP, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, the most.  Nevertheless, the Freedom of Choice album will always hold a special place for me; depending on your viewpoint it serves as a remembrance of either how I was willing to risk my innocence to obtain a cool record or how I manipulated a poor, lonely pervert for my own benefit.  Either way, the experience would seem to support Devo’s de-evolution concept, defined on the band’s Wikipedia page as the idea that instead of continuing to evolve, mankind has actually begun to regress, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society.”  Whip It, indeed!

Devo: Freedom of Choice (inner sleeve - back)

From → Music

12 Comments
  1. That was a wonderful post. Skipping all the important, wise and sensitive bits of your writing – I SO want to be Les!!

  2. Les sounds like the man! I could never seen to grow my hair long!

    I hated The Black Hole at the time, but I strangely adore it today! Isn’t that funny? Some of the acting is beyond terrible, and it’s…kind of weird at times…but for some reason I love those stupid robots that sound like Cornelius the Ape, and Major T.J. “King” Kong from Dr. Strangelove.

    But back to Les. Yeah. Wish I could have been that guy for 15 minutes back then.

    • You know, I should probably watch it again as I haven’t seen it since it was tanking during its run there at the Orpheum. I do remember my 15-year-old self thinking it was way cool that Disney had named the bad guy’s ship after the black-hole-exploring story from Rush’s Cygnus X1 suites on Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres…. (smile)

      • YES! Which is named after an actual black hole called Cygnus X1! And the ship in the song “Cygnus X1” is the Rocinante, which is actually the horse on Don Quixote. Cool!

  3. What an incredible post. Enjoyed reading this a lot. Surrounded by so many incredible sounding women but ending up having a run in with “Gay Ray” instead! Life sucks sometimes. That signed record is awesome too… and a momentary misreading meant I thought you dated Nancy Wilson once! Oops.

    • Oh no, I definitely dated Nancy Wilson, went out with her again a few nights ago in fact… Now if I could only work it so the damn alarm clock would quit ending the date prematurely!

  4. Goes to show that a true music fanatic won’t stop at nothing to obtain his favorite music.

    I really enjoyed the story. Kudos!

    • Thanks Pris! By the way, I’ve been reading your posts and really enjoy your thoughtful writing. Haven’t commented there solely due to a self-inflicted allergy to leaving an email address. Here’s hoping your gun remains warm!

      • Thanks man, I wish I had more time to write. And I also wish you’d write more frequently, you’re one of my favorite bloggers.

        Btw, if you want to comment on my blog and have a problem with leaving your email address, you can always write down a fake one.
        (I think the email address is required because of anti-spam security measures, but I’m not sure.)

        • Wow, thanks. I definitely would like to post more often as I really enjoy it. Hopefully in the next few months I’ll manage to get a bit more settled and have more time to dedicate. (…been in the middle of a big move back to the U.S. after over a decade overseas.)

          Thanks for the suggestion re commenting on your posts. Sounds like a good option.

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