Carmike Theater 20 in my city had a hard time today. Showing “Pirates 3” on 3 screens, “Shrek the Third” on 3 more screens, and an assortment of other popular movies on the rest of the 20 screens in the building, they were set to make a lot of money this Memorial Day weekend. One school had transported several busloads of children to the complex, buying out at least one theater. My adult daughter and I arrived just as the show was supposed to start, but found a long line at only one of the indoor box office windows open to sell tickets, and another long line of people wanting refunds at one other window. It seemed that the movie had stopped in one of the theaters and could not be started again, so those people were getting refunds.
Tickets were sold out for some of the showings and there were at least a dozen people ahead of us. We had 2 friends waiting inside Theater 6 who could not leave without forfeiting what they had paid for their tickets. We wondered aloud why the management had only 2 people working the box office windows. A little later, a man behind us began to shout at the people inside. “Hey, is there anybody else in there?” he yelled. “I want to see the manager!” Some people passed in front of us and went to the other line. “Hey!” the man shouted, “We’re not going to get in line again!”
It had begun to rain when we left home, and by now it was pouring outdoors. There had been a chance of rain, but no one expected this. We had brought our umbrellas, but the car was parked around the back of the building. We were all pretty well stuck. But finally we were able to buy our tickets and join our friends. The movie was just starting as we sat down…
About 5 minutes into the show, the strobe lights came on, flashing painfully bright in our eyes. What now? Were they doing some kind of test? But it continued to flash and we had to shield our eyes. Then the movie stopped and there was some kind of announcement coming over the speakers. We saw that people were getting up and were leaving the theater, and finally we could make out that we were being told to leave the room and move towards the entrance of the building. Almost everyone did, but we noticed that a few people just sat down in their seats again, probably thinking it would be over soon and the movie would start again. Out in the hall the whooping of the evacuation alerts were sounding, but at no time did we see or smell any smoke. All we could smell was hot popcorn oil. But we followed orders and took the first exit to the lobby.
There we met theater staff who told us that they did not know what had set off the alarms, but we had to get out of the building. Outside the thunderstorm had worsened and wind was blowing rain into the covered entrance. We objected that we would be in danger of being hit by lightning if we went outside, and were allowed to stand inside near the doorway instead. Some people were saying that it may have been lightning that set off the alarms. But they could not restart the movies: the schedule had been totally disrupted, and they would just have to close down until the next day. I wonder how long those people sat in the empty theater before they realized that it was all over for the day?
Theater employees were working among the crowd offering refund vouchers or free admission on another day to those who had their tickets. I had stuck mine in my purse, as I usually did, but my daughter found that her ticket must have dropped onto the floor when she got up to leave. The manager gave her a refund voucher anyway, and took her name.
Outside there was a fire engine and the police, probably staying there to see that the children got back onto their buses safely and that no one started a riot. But no one was angry. The kids were excited, but orderly. They were probably texting their friends about what had just happened. Parents covered their little children with blankets and carried them to cars that were pulling up to the curb. One busload of kids pulled away and the rain began to let up a bit. So my daughter opened her umbrella and went to bring her car around so that I could get in without both of us having to make the long walk.
There was high water in some of the streets we had to take to get home, and we saw one car stalled with its flashers on. But we made it safely into the dry comfort of the garage. There are thunderstorms or showers forecast for the rest of the weekend and the first part of next week. We hope that the folks at the theater will learn to handle emergencies like this better than they did this time. If there had really been a fire, there would not have been enough trained people to handle a crowd of this size trying to get out.