Theatre Manager's Career Began At 15

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by Mike Burkett

roundup staff reporter

You have to admire Mary Klein.

Most movie-theater managers would run screaming from this particular question. But Klein, the general manager of the Sawmill Theatres, confronts it head-on, fearlessly, honestly.

Of course, directly after the question is posed, and before she finally answers, Klein does stop dead in her tracks for a moment, obviously considering the impact her response could have on her career, her life, her livelihood.

But then she takes a breath and bravely exclaims,"Yes, I did it once! I did! I didn't like the movie and so I sneaked into another auditorium!"

Before we continue, two words of caution to any local would-be auditorium-hoppers: Forget it. Klein will toss you out of the place on your ear. And she could, too, even though she's only 28 years old and slight of build.

Klein's been in this business since the age of 15, when she launched her movies career at the United Artists' Christown Cinemas in Phoenix.

Of her climb to the top of the celluloid-exhibition heap, this Valley native recalls, "I started doing nothing but cleaning the bathrooms. And then I worked my way up past scraping gum off the backs of chairs to ushering to the concession to the box office and just about every other job you can have in the movie theater."

Later, Klein worked at the Harkins Theater on Shea Boulevard. But when she moved to Payson about four years ago, there was no movie theater. What to do?

Well, Klein applied for the next-best job: an assistant-manager position at Planet Video, where she later parlayed her slot into that of the operation's top-dog manager.

"So I was still in the movie business!" Klein says.

Last year, when the Sawmill Theaters folks were hiring for their six-plex's Thanksgiving-weekend opening, Klein was hired as assistant manager, which last June she parlayed into yet another managerial slot.

"I had no idea I'd end up turning movie theaters into a career," she says. "Starting out, I just did it to make extra money. I loved it, because I like working with the public. And there are so many different aspects to running a movie theater; there's not just one set job."

The key to her management philosophy, Klein says, is to "treat everyone who comes into the theater as I would like to be treated. If I had a complaint, for example, I wouldn't want it to be blown off. I would want it to be handled immediately."

Fortunately, the complaints never get too complex at the Sawmill Theatres.

"The two biggest ones we get are, 'The popcorn's too salty' and 'The kids are talking too loudly in the theater,'" Klein reports.

As much as Klein loves showing movies, she isn't all that enamored of actually watching them any more.

"I never do it while I'm working, and I never do it during my time off," she says. "I like to get away. One reason is that it's such a busman's holiday; I sit there thinking, 'Is the sound OK? Is the picture OK? What are the ushers up to?' And I'll complain if everything's not perfect because as a manager, I know how much managers appreciate it when they're told that something is wrong. With six theaters all going at different times, we can't check them all. We really rely on the public to help us with that."

Despite her youth, Klein remembers the golden movie-theater age when ushers patrolled the aisles, flashlight in hand, ready to reprimand any excessively loud chit-chatters and/or toss them bodily into the parking lot.

Not only that, Klein upholds the tradition.

"I still do that at the Sawmill Theaters," she says proudly. "We don't do the flashlight thing too often anymore. But once in a while I'll go in there with one, just to show I mean business."

So how many patrons has Klein tossed during the span of her career?

"Actually, none," she admits with a smile. "I have yet to have to follow through on my threats."

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