Jesse Mun~oz is on the front lines in America's war to prevent impressionable youngsters from watching R-rated movies.
A teen himself, Mun~oz makes about $6 an hour supervising other young ushers who earn $5.75 an hour at a theater complex in Valencia. He believes vigilance is the key to preventing kids under 17 from sneaking into R-rated movies--and the 18-year-old Saugus resident has seen every trick in the book.
"Some of them are pretty good," says Mun~oz, 18, an usher since the age of 16. "They go upstairs, hang around the video games for a while, then go to the bathroom and hang out and wait until it gets busy and then go in."
But sometimes kids who sneak into R-rated movies will give themselves away.
"They'll be throwing popcorn or spitting spit wads and someone will complain," Mun~oz said.
In the wake of the April 20 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in which two students killed 13 people before taking their own lives, Congress and the White House have sought ways to limit the access of children and teens to violent entertainment.
Last week, President Clinton and the National Assn. of Theater Owners, which represents about 65% of the nation's theater chains, announced that youngsters now would be required to show a photo identification to prove that they are 17 before entering an R-rated film without a parent or guardian.
But for the new enhanced enforcement to succeed, it will rely heavily on teenage ushers making minimum wage and often facing incredible peer pressure to police other teenagers.
"I think the most difficult thing--and sometimes we lose sight of this--is that we have 16- and 17-year-olds dealing with 16- and 17-year-olds," said William Kartozian, who heads the theater owners association.
"I am confident we can stop them at the box office," Kartozian added. "But once they're inside the theater, if a kid decides to make a game of it, they will win their share of the encounters."
Kartozian readily concedes that teenage ushers will face enormous peer pressure when carrying out the photo ID checks. After all, he noted, the kids will have to face their friends the next day at school.
"It will be a real test of their character," he said.
Kartozian noted that the response from his membership has been largely positive, although some theater owners are asking one major question: Where are the parents in all of this?
"There are some [theater owners] who feel we're asking them to be taking the place of the parents," Kartozian said. "The fact of the matter is, the rating system is there primarily for parents to let them know what their kids should see. . . . There is a shared responsibility."
The Cool Factor and the Ways Around the Rule
To many youths under 17, the news that theaters will soon be cracking down is something of a joke. For years, they say, they have had no trouble getting in to see virtually any R-rated movie they want.
Besides, they add, most of the Hollywood films they want to see these days are rated R, from "Scream" and "Varsity Blues" to "The Matrix." No 15- or 16-year-old wants to see a G-rated movie, they say. It just isn't cool.
Teenagers say that even if movie theaters do check photo IDs, there are myriad ways to get around the policy.
"A lot of teenagers work in the movie theaters, and they also give us [complimentary] tickets," said Laura Weathersbee, 17, of Huntington Beach, who was going to see "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" (rated PG-13) with her boyfriend.
With purple jewels stuck in her hair and a plastic purse embossed with a monkey face, Weathersbee looks young. Still, she said, she's only been carded once in her life. She also has bought tickets over the phone with a credit card before as a way to avoid any hassle at the box office.
"Unless it's a really busy movie, we don't really even check ticket stubs," said Megan Jolly, 17, who sells popcorn at the Edwards Triangle Square in Newport Beach. "Kids just go right on in."
At today's megaplexes, which contain 14, 20 or sometimes even 30 screens under one roof, ushers face a daunting task to keep track of the comings and goings of hundreds of teens who drift from the video arcades to concession stands to the auditoriums where the movies play.
Theater managers admit some laxity in carding kids for movies in the past: The box office can be swarming with people buying tickets and an underage person can easily be overlooked. Also, when lobbies are teeming with people, ushers don't always spot who goes into what theater.
Even when theaters do check IDs, they find it isn't foolproof.
"We require school identification," said James Lomeli, assistant manager of the box office at Edwards Triangle Square, but he added that many times the identification doesn't include age.
"We're using our own judgment," he said. "You get the feel for guessing people's age."