May 19, 2008

Back in the Day: Ushers Collecting for Charity

Last week, Alexander Coleman (great new blog) posted his musings on "event" movie experiences. As I started to think back on some of mine, another question came to me (no idea how): didn't theater ushers used to collect money for charity?

I've looked around online and have found little to no information on this. Am I remembering correctly, or am I confused? I'm picturing a 16 or 17 year-old movie theater usher, typically male and always awkward, standing at the front of the theater right before the previews and, in a possibly cracking, monotone voice, reciting an appeal for us to dig into our pockets and donate to the charity of the day. As if walking to the gallows, the usher would then march up the center aisle and collect pennies, quarters, M & M's, possibly garbage, and anything else
that impish teens would pass down the aisle. This was in the late 80's and early 90's - I think.

Did this happen, and if so, when and why did it stop?


  1. That's kind of awkward. I don't want to go into a movie and be guilted into donating money to some cause I know nothing about. Setting up stands in the lobby is one thing, but collecting down the aisles? It's a movie theater not a church collection plate.

    Some things should be sacred. Movie theaters are one of them. Having charities panhandle in the aisles seems...classless.

  2. Around here, they used to pass the can for the Jimmy Fund and Dana Farber at my local multiplex. I don't mind giving to charity, but pass the can in the movie theater is up there with the kids outside the grocery store collecting for little league, cheer leading, etc...... totally exploiting the cute kid factor. I always feel bad for the kid given the awkward job of holding the can.

  3. The Will Rogers Institute for sure. I know that several times I have seen a short film/video about the good works that they do, and then a short announcement (sometimes awkward, sometimes not) about giving money in the theater bucket, or supporting them by buying movie & concession combo packs. I seem to vaguely remember some other charities collecting "at the movies" too ... but that's the only one that sticks with me clearly.

  4. Well, Matthew and Linda, I guess you both touch on the second part of my question. Public opinion must have turned on the practice at some point. Of course I can't imagine that they would pull in very much cash anyway, but who knows. I'd have a hard time trusting kids these days, anyway. Maybe give me an option at the ticket kiosk to donate, but don't hold up the movie. On the other hand, that's where they make the "sell"...but on the other hand, the ushers usually yawned through their presentations anyway, so nobody was really moved by them in the first place.

    It must have evolved into the video presentation, Josh, because I remember that, too.

    And that video must have evolved into - bingo - the 20 minutes of commercials we have before the movies now. It's just that now it's for cars, Fanta, and the National Guard. Who cares about kids anymore?

  5. I've never been subjected to this particular ploy ... is nothing sacred?

  6. Yeah, I'm with Rick.

    Maybe it's just the area that I live in. But I've been a very frequent moviegoer since the 90s and I've NEVER had the experience that you describe, Danny.

    Truthfully, that would really creep me out. My Catholic upbringing makes me impervious to guilt or regret. They're both ridiculous wastes of time in my view.

    If I want to give freely of myself for whatever reason (and I have on many an occasion if I thought it was right), I can and will. But I'm not going to be manipulated into that. That's totally crass.

  7. I find it odd that more people don't have experience or recollection of this. It seemed to be a pretty regular deal at the time.

    As you both infer, Rick and Miranda, lots of people probably considered it inappropriate. I'm just interested in the background behind it, and who eventually ended it.

  8. Since I mentioned ads earlier, I thought it appropriate to toss in this insane nugget to chew on.

  9. Yes, I recall the awkwardness of the Will Rogers collection films and the poor ushers who would have to walk the aisles to indifference. Last time I remember it was on opening day of JURASSIC PARK in Long Beach.

  10. Aha, a date - thanks, Christian. 1993/94 sounds about right...

    ...until I found THIS - hard evidence that it's still happening!

    You can even (if you want to register, I didn't) watch the old PSA's. Crazy.

    Well, case closed I guess.

  11. I do remember this practice. There used to be a short PSA on screen to introduce the charity, then the lights would come up and ushers would come down the aisle. You'd pass your money down if you were in the middle of a row. I never felt guilted at all. Nobody cared if you gave or didn't. It was just something public-minded that the theatre owners did. I wish they'd do it again. I'd rather have a PSA than another Fandango commercial.

  12. Thanks for chiming in, Marilyn. I remember it as you did, if not a bit more awkward when it was the ushers doing the presenting instead of the video.

    As you can see, I haven't felt strongly either way about the practice of doing it. If it actually makes money for the foundation, well that's great, and I'd be happy to do without those commercials as well. But if it does become patronizing or start to negatively affect the movie-going experience, I can see that as being counterproductive to their efforts. There can be a lot of backlash against things like that, and in this day and age of already dwindling theater audiences, there's probably a better medium (the internet) to use anyway. Who knows?

    For me, the strangest part is that the Will Rogers Institute is still doing this, even though no one can report any recent experience with it.

  13. It would probably be better than the chubby "Indiana Jones aficionado" dressed in full regalia and giving bullwhip demonstrations before the press screening of "Indy 4" I went to tonight.

    OK, maybe not better. But it was still pretty damn awkward. Especially since he kept talking as the lights were going down.

  14. Uh... Danny, one of your links shows research labs connected to the Will Rogers Foundation.

    If they're going to be conducting experiments on animals, they'll NEVER get a bloody penny of my money.

    Incidentally, though I experienced a full recovery, I had a VERY serious illness which is considered life threatening.

    That doesn't change my mind a bit.

  15. Wow, Matthew. Sounds like it didn't set the mood so well. Something or somebody has to be really cool to pull that off. Look forward to your review - after I see it, of course.

    I'm afraid I didn't explore the links to the foundation as to the depth that you did, Miranda. As somebody who knows what they're talking about, I trust your judgment, and suspect that if others can relate, the Will Rogers Institute probably faces an uphill PR battle.

  16. Thanks, Danny.

    I am exceptionally passionate about things that are of importance to me. I'm glad you weren't offended or took what I said personally as that is most DEFINITELY NOT what I intended.

    You're an absolute doll...

  17. Daniel, I barely remember the Will Rogers Institute having a commercial prior to the film, then a collection box in the front lobby. I don't remember ushers taking up a collection. And this was always at the second-run, $1 theater.

  18. Certainly not, Miranda! I would never expect to you intentionally offend - at least not without someone deserving it...

    Thanks for the insight, Rachel. An interesting development - discount theaters. Maybe that's why we don't see them much. Ironic, isn't it?: save money on the movie - and give it to charity. Somehow I doubt that happens...


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