By Ben Falik
Randolph Bowersox — an ’80s-movie name if ever there was one. The alpha teen who thinks he owns the slopes, never suspecting John Cusack and/or Booger. The heir whose parents can buy him anything, except love and/or Pee Wee’s bike. The geek who hacks into a military supercomputer, creating a nuclear threat and/or dream woman.
At 25 years and counting, real-life Randolph’s relationship with the movies is more enduring than any trilogy or trope. Humbler than walking away from an explosion without looking back, but every bit as unflinching and ultimately tidier.
Since 1993, Randolph has been tearing your tickets on the way into the theater and sweeping up your popcorn to get things “nice and happy” between shows. But his first appearance at the AMC Americana West, as with the origin of many a hero’s journey, was a matter of family, of necessity … of destiny.
Unbeknownst to Randolph, his wife, Michelle, had run up debt on multiple credit cards. She had been paying her mom back for their wedding. Ever soft-spoken and chivalrous, he took on a second job as an evening usher, after days managing the mail at Hamilton Insurance, to pay down the debt over the next six years. By which time he was a fixture at the theater.
I remembered Randolph right away when I saw him last month at the Birmingham 8. “Shazam,” I thought, like the moment when kid Shazam turns into big Shazam by saying “shazam” in the movie I’d just taken my kids to, can’t remember what it was called.
For that matter, I don’t remember the plot of 1997’s Double Team with Jean Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman, though I was confident (at the time) it was the apotheosis of cinematic achievement. I don’t remember what American Bulk Food I smuggled in my Skidz, though I am confident (at present) that the Powerhouse Gym that replaced the theater is a Dantean hellscape populated by yesteryear’s baggy-pantsed and buttered-popcorn transgressors, spinning for their sins.
But I remembered Randolph. And Randolph remembered me. At first, I thought he was just being polite — courtesy being this rare, resilient superpower that can resist even kryptonite-caliber cranky customers. By my conservative estimate, he’s torn some two million tickets during his turnstyle tenure, though he never got the hang of the one-handed tear.
He remembers the movies that were gracing the marquee the first time he clocked in at the Americana. And he has aged better than any of them:
Blank Check ($1 million just doesn’t go as far as it used to), Greedy (“Where there’s a will … there’s relatives”), Philadelphia (Whatever happened to Tom Hanks?), The Paper (Whatever happened to paper?), The Getaway (with newly married It Couple Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger) and Reality Bites (indeed).
Born in Dearborn in 1961, Randolph and his family spent the first half of the 1960s in South Africa for his dad’s work with Ford Aerospace. A tiger’s eye from their time abroad (not from a tiger) adorns one of the belt buckles in the rotation he wears to his decades-long day job at Kelly Services in Troy.
In 1979, then a senior at Groves, he met junior Michelle; after 20 years, he’d saved enough to buy a house in Southfield and marry his high school sweetheart. Randolph and Michelle figured out the secret that eludes so many contemporary marriages: They took turns picking the movie. And he has kept coming weekly for the decade since she passed away — still small popcorn, still small Pepsi — though he now mostly foregoes her favored family films for sci fi, historical and heists.
Randolph left the Americana West in 2000 and, at the behest of his manager, brought his sixth sense for customer service to the AMC Abbey for a couple years (from Erin Brockovich to Catch Me If You Can) before another two at the Showcase Cinema (with Nemo, Neo, Frodo, Jack Sparrow, Mr. Schneebly and Frank the Tank) in Sterling Heights.
During his 10-year run at the Palladium, digital overtook 35mm in the projection booth and seats became sofas.
Since December 2014 (Into the Woods), Randolph has been under the marquee of the Birmingham 8 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. We met up Tuesday and talked through the previews for Long Shot.
For all the fuss over Avengers, Randolph doubts any quantity of superheroes will foster the feverish fandom of Titanic, which got an extended run at the Americana West — for those who couldn’t let go of Rose and Jack — after the AMC Old Orchard closed.
Nor has he ever heard laughter spill out into the lobby like There’s Something About Mary — “a classic we all enjoyed.” And as a perennial pull, the costumed summer openings of Harry Potter had more magic than the force of recent Star Wars submissions.
While it was a “little haul” getting to the Showcase (he sticks to surface streets, locally and on trips to the family cottage in Coldwater), the manager there encouraged a practice Randolph had been doing intuitively all along and has kept up ever since:
“Say ‘Hi, how are you? … Thanks for coming and good night.’ People will remember and it will keep them coming back.”