Ribbons and Bows

My wife and I went to the movies the day after Christmas. The theater lobby looked a little forlorn after the holiday rush. There weren’t many patrons besides the two of us. The employees wandered here and there without seemingly much to do. The concessions were woefully under-stocked. In fact, as we stood at the counter, we realized there were no nachos, no hot dogs, and not a single bottle of water to be found. Did all those “Star Wars” groupies buy up everything before us?  Did a link go missing in the supply chain? Can we blame the aliens?  Ah, but popcorn.  At least they had popcorn.

I can’t see a movie without cradling a big ol’ tub of theater popcorn.  Don’t ask me what chains the two together, but popcorn and movies are a heaven-on-earth marriage.  It’s like that Kacey Musgraves Christmas song about a ribbon without a bow.  The movie might be Oscar-worthy but there’s a big something missing without popcorn.  The next time you watch “Field of Dreams”, consider the ball field is surrounded by acres and acres of corn.  As if you need a metaphor.

Popcorn wasn’t always an option at the movies.  In the early 1900’s, the theater-going experience was different.  The auditoriums were much smaller.  The carpets and seats were lush and expensive.  The patrons tended towards upper-crust.  And the movies themselves… had no sound.  Any one of those reasons made popcorn a poor concession choice.  Theaters didn’t want kernels ground into their pricey floor coverings.  Patrons didn’t want a snack associated with the lower-class circuses and sporting events of the time.  Most importantly, no one wanted to hear crunching and munching while trying to read the subtitles of a silent movie.

The Great Depression – and “talkies” – ushered in the union of popcorn and movies.  A broader cross-section of patrons sought the theater for an inexpensive distraction to the hard times.  Popcorn was easy to mass-produce, and the smell and pop created an effective lure for the concession stand.  Crunching and munching was no longer a concern up against soundtracks.  And popcorn was affordable, even to those who could barely scrape together enough for the movie itself.

Do you prefer “mushroom” or “butterfly”?

There’s a little science behind popcorn to get it from husk to Hollywood.  Growers developed the appealing “butterfly bud”, with several “ears” to trap the butter and salt.  Growers also worked to shape popcorn to take up as much room in the bag as possible (less air), giving a more satisfying feel to the overall weight.  They coined terms like “expansion rate” and “mouth feel” and “finger control” – anything to make you buy more of the fluffy stuff.

All this talk of popcorn reminds me of a children’s book about a farmer who grew acres and acres of corn.  He’d store his corn in giant metal silos next to his field.  One summer day, the silos got so hot the corn inside started to pop.  The farmer heard the sound and climbed on the roof of one of the silos to see what was going on.  Suddenly the silo burst open, and the roof started rising above all that popcorn.  Up, up, up went the farmer.  When the popping finally stopped, the farmer was high up in the sky with no way to get down.  His neighbors came from miles around to try to help him.  The fire department’s ladders weren’t long enough.  The town had no helicopter.  Finally, the people talked it over and realized all they had to do was start eating the popcorn straight from the silo.  Down, down, down came the farmer until he was safe.

As much as I love popcorn, I only seem to eat it at the movies.  When my son was in college, he admitted to going to the theater, buying popcorn at the concession stand, and… leaving the building.  Who does that?  Then again, there’s nothing wrong with the idea (high price aside).  It’s like having turkey when it’s not Thanksgiving.  Or dessert before dinner.  Seems a little off, but really, why not?

As for me, I’ll continue to enjoy my popcorn with my movie.  I’ll pay the ridiculous price for the shrinking bag, and still eat too much.  The only problem with this scenario?  Finding decent movies anymore.  They seem to be fewer and further, at least on the big screen.  Thank goodness for Netflix and my air popper.

Some content sourced from the Wall Street Journal article, “How AMC Gets Its Popcorn From Stalk to ‘Star Wars'”, and from the Smithsonian Magazine article, “Why Do We Eat Popcorn at the Movies?”


Watch out.  I’m about to ruin your theater-going experience.  If you want to enjoy your movies without the nagging of my detail-oriented world, do not read any further.  You have been warned.

13 - irk

I am one of those who can’t help but notice the little things.  When I enter a theater I am immediately aware of my surroundings.  How big is the screen?  How comfortable are the chairs?  Is the sound too loud or just right?  Did I get freshly-made popcorn or the slightly stale stuff from the bottom of the bin?  Yet these are minor distractions when I consider my recent experiences at the movies. Drum roll please; I give you the twelve items that irk me most when I’m at the theater.  No matter how intense the action scene or how enrapturing the love scene, one or more of these dozen offenses are sure to get up in my face and say “hello”:

1) The sounds of snacks.  At the movies I demand the silence that Simon & Garfunkel made famous (get it?) but instead I’m surrounded by crunches, slurps, wrappers, pours, gulps, and chews.  Is this a vote for early-onset hearing loss?

2) Cell phones.  To the credit of my fellow movie-goers, I can’t recall the last time I heard a cell phone bleep during a movie.  But they still buzz.  And they light up.  And I notice.  My peripheral vision gets high marks at the eye doctor but makes me pay dearly at the movies.

3) Ushers with flashlights.  Here’s a new one.  Ushers pass through the theater once during the movie to check things out.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good idea with some of the crazies out there.  But I see them.  I know why they’re there.  And my movie gets a “time-out” until they leave.

4) People movement.  This one is trending upward.  Why are people going in and out of the theater during the movie?  Did they not take care of business earlier?  Are there lottery winnings distributed in the lobby that I’m not aware of?  And what about missing those couple of minutes while you’re gone?  Don’t you want your money’s worth?  Sit still people!

5) Commercials.  I include movie previews in the value of my ticket purchase.  But not commercials.  Nor previews that are really just commercials in disguise.  Nor ads for television shows.  Not what I came for.

6) Seat kicks.  Which begs the question, are they intentional or is the person behind you overly-aggressive with their response to a given scene?  No matter; you never see them coming and once you get one you’re on edge wondering when number two will hit.

7) The louder movie next door.  Beware the lure of a soft romance or poignant drama.  Hollywood has produced an action-packed blockbuster that just happens to be playing in the adjacent theater.  There are no words to describe the moment when a bomb goes off in the middle of a love scene.

8) Ticket/concession costs.  Okay maybe this is just me, but it takes time to get over the fact that I just paid more for my concessions than I did for my movie ticket.  I know, I know – concessions equal profit margin.  But I’m already well into my movie before I can make peace with that.

9) “People” sounds.  In addition to the sounds of snacks, I give you loud breathing, distinctive laughs (otherwise known as cackles, whoops, snickers, and howls), coughs, sniffles, and those other sounds better left to the imagination than described here.

10) The wrong movie.  I kid you not.  At a theater a few months ago our romantic comedy opened with a towering image of Will Ferrell’s face.  I knew instantly they’d queued up the wrong movie.  Will Ferrell and romantic comedy do not belong in the same sentence.  Or movie theater.

11) The person sitting next to you.  Admit it, you arrive early and choose your seats hoping no one will sit next to you.  And when they do, you wonder who gets the arm rest.  Or the drink holder.  And what’s that funny smell?

12) Talkers.  Sorry ladies, but women who go to the movies together like to talk ABOUT the movie DURING the movie for EVERYONE to hear.  They also seem drawn to the seats directly behind me.  One time I actually confronted them about it and promptly learned the meaning of the phrase “dagger eyes”.

So there you have it.  Life used to be so simple.  My gauge of a good movie was getting to the closing credits without wondering where I put my car keys.  But those days are gone.  The movies are officially a gamble, but only with respect to which (or how many) of the above distractions will be included.  I hope you’re enlightened.  I’m irked.  Enjoy the show.