This happened 40 years ago this week.
It was late December of 1978, I was 19 and working the snack bar at the Elsinore Theater in downtown Salem, Oregon. For those not familiar, the Elsinore was built in 1926 and had a seating capacity of about 1,350 spread on three levels. The main floor had about 700 seats or so, a luxury loge section on the mezzanine level had another hundred, while the upper balcony had over 500 seats. Being the largest theater in town, we got most of the big blockbuster movies, and for this Christmas season we were playing the first Superman movie.
One night somewhere between Christmas and New Years we got the crowd in for the final showing of the day. We closed up the snack bar, I filled out my time sheet, and was ready to go home. I went out to my car, a 1976 AMC Lemon, er, Pacer, and it wouldn't start. I went back inside and asked my manager, Mr. Proctor, if he could give me a ride home since we lived barely three blocks apart. He said he'd be happy to. I would deal with my car in the morning.
We sat in the office for about an hour shooting the breeze until the show broke. We then stood in the lobby watching the crowd exit the building when some frantic ladies came running up to us saying “Someone just fell out of the balcony!”
Mr. Proctor and I ran into the auditorium. He followed the women down the aisle they came from. For reasons I don't remember I went down the far right aisle. Maybe it was to stay out of the way, or maybe to get a different perspective on the scene. I don't know. I watched Mr. Proctor quickly assess the situation before heading back towards the office. I followed.
In 1978 we didn't yet have a 911 emergency system. We had to dial a seven-digit number for emergencies, which meant we had to open the phone book and read it. Mr. Proctor was so flustered he couldn't focus his eyes on the phone book and he asked me what the number was. Of the two of us I seemed to be the calmer one so I said “I'll call.”
While I talked to the dispatcher Mr. Proctor went back to the auditorium and realized that in addition to the man who fell there was another man hanging motionless over the seat in front of him. Mr. Proctor's first thought was “Oh my god, he killed someone.” But then he saw his fingers move, one at a time, then his arms and legs, one at a time. The man was a body builder who had enough sense to test each limb before attempting to move his whole body. Eventually he got up and he was OK.
Medics soon arrived and took the fallen man to the hospital. We later heard that he got off with just three cracked ribs. Meanwhile, Mr. Proctor began getting witness statements. He started with the victim's female companion who said he fell asleep, then woke up not knowing where he was. In his disoriented state he accidentally stumbled over the edge of the loge section. Upon hearing this another witness standing behind Mr. Proctor leaned into his ear and whispered “Bullshit.”
The other witnesses were all in agreement. The man was seated on the aisle three rows back from the balcony's edge. When the credits rolled and the lights came up he got up and ran straight off the balcony, no doubt thinking he could fly like Superman. He landed on the main floor about four rows in front of the balcony. Had he stumbled off as his companion stated he would have landed directly below the balcony's edge.
Several days later the local newspaper ran a brief article about the incident, playing up the man-thinks-he's-Superman angle. But the story was not complete until one day several weeks after the fact. Two girls who looked to be about 13 or so came up to buy some popcorn. One of them asked me “Did someone jump off the balcony here?” When I answered in the affirmative she informed us “That was my uncle. He was on acid.”* I shared that bit of information with Mr. Proctor who, like me, was not surprised but mildly amused by how I learned it.
*Acid is a slang term for the psychedelic drug LSD.