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Penkava: Coming soon to theaters: The Gummi Runners

Published: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

When my wife and I go to the movies, we try to go on the night that you can get a small popcorn for only $2, which is a great deal because to pay the regular price, you have to exercise the option of either trading in your car or promising them your first-born child. And getting something to drink along with your popcorn is a matter between you and your mortgage broker.

But we do love our movie popcorn. The love affair between moviegoers and popcorn actually began during the 1920s. Back then, street vendors discovered that if they stationed themselves outside movie theaters, movie patrons would pop for a bag and bring it into the theater. It didn’t take theater owners long to figure out they would have a literal captive audience if they sold their own popcorn.

Enter some guy named Charles Manley to invent the world’s first electric popcorn machine in 1925. His primary market was the theater owners, who gobbled up the opportunity to do their own popping. They found popcorn to be so profitable that they even lowered ticket prices to butter up their patrons to see a movie and buy a bag of popped gold.

In the ’50s, the profits from popcorn began to exceed ticket revenue. Over the years, popcorn prices have increased over 600 percent, while ticket prices have gone up only 60 percent. In today’s world, theaters keep only an average of 8 percent of ticket sales, but 85 percent of their concession sales are pure profit. Of course, the Academy Award winner for concession markup is popcorn, with almost 1,300 percent, as compared with candy with a mere 300 percent. Take that, you box of Goobers.

For many of us, it’s really hard to pay such inflated prices for movie snacks when we know we can buy them for a fraction of the cost outside the theater. Interestingly, when we check into a hotel room, we all contemptuously snicker at the mini-bar prices, but when we enter a theater, our noses obediently follow the aroma of the popcorn and our wallets eagerly flop open to pay outrageously comparable price markups.

Well, all of us have solved the hotel mini-bar conundrum: We just bring our own snacks into the hotel room. It would stand to reason that we should just do the same with our movie snacks, but there’s one big glitch: Theaters prohibit patrons from bringing in outside food. But it appears those rules have not stopped a lot of people from becoming what I call “Gummi Runners,” people who smuggle in everything from Gummi Bears to Gobstoppers.

One Gummi Runner wears a loose-fitting sweatshirt and duct tapes candy bars to the underside of his arms. Another plops his Skittles under his baseball cap and breezes through the lobby. Still another actually was seen walking out of the theater with an empty salad bowl under her arm. And then there are the countless cargo shorts and hoodies and purses and man bags stuffed with everything contraband, from footlong hot dogs stuffed into their socks to nacho chips with accompanying melted cheese covertly secreted into their fanny packs.

Now, I’m not condoning these “Gummi Runners,” but when an ounce of popcorn costs more than an ounce of filet mignon, I guess you can’t be surprised there will be some people who come into the theater with baggies of homemade popcorn and boxes of Milk Duds and Skittles concealed in their every nook and cranny.

So, if I were you, I wouldn’t trade in my car for a movie snack. Hold onto your first-born and keep the house. And I’ll understand if I see you walking into the theater with a suspicious bulge … you’re just one of those Gummi Runners trying to save a week’s salary.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He once saw a man smuggle in a sack of messy BBQ buffalo chicken wings, but the guy got caught red-handed. He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.

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