Winning big on lottery might get you small popcorn for a night at the movies

May 30, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AT THE END of a week in which Bill Gates agreed to slip $20 million in chump change to the Johns Hopkins University, a week in which the shadow of a hand reaches across a Pasadena lottery machine to snatch a ticket worth $31 million, the big financial news at my house was real simple: From now on, we start sneaking food into the movies.

Never mind the $20 million to Hopkins, or the $31 million to the Pasadena stranger who wisely wishes to keep his identity hidden from me and other of his long-lost cousins. I wish to talk about $4.29 for a small popcorn at the movies.

You heard me right, friend.

$4.29.

For a small popcorn.

And that's just for openers. Four of us, wizened adults but financial innocents, went to the movies at Hunt Valley Mall last week to see "A Midsummer Night's Dream," where seats were plentiful because every other geek in America waited on line to see "Star Wars: Episode One," a movie rumored to have cost more than the national debt to make and that will probably recoup its costs in about the next 10 minutes.

The cost of a ticket at Hunt Valley was $8.25. I will leave aside all nostalgic talk of my youth, when I could attend the Apollo Theatre on Harford Avenue and see a double feature, MovieTone News, adventure serials, previews of coming attractions and 14 cartoons for a 25-cent ticket, since this is 1999 and not 1952.

But, still.

Later, in my adolescence, I could take a date to the movies for maybe $1.25 a ticket, buy a popcorn and a Goobers and two sodas for maybe a dollar -- total -- more.

Could such a thing be said today? Can a high school kid take his girlfriend to the movies on a reasonable allowance, and maybe even head over to the modern version of a Gino's, or even an Ameche's for the Powerhouse with the No. 35 sauce that seemed to stagger the wallet at a cost of 50 cents -- after a night at the movies today?

I think not, and here's why.

Last week at the Hunt Valley movie, after spending $16.50 for the two tickets, we went to get something to eat because, God forbid, as Americans, we should go two hours without a Raisinet. This is the modern equivalent of a famine.

So I ordered a small popcorn for my wife.

For $4.29.

"For another 50 cents," said the young lady behind the counter, "you can have a medium."

"For another 50 cents," said I, "I could buy a new Chevrolet. I'll stick with the small."

Two small sodas cost $2.99 -- each.

A box of Goobers, which used to sell for 6 cents back in the days when movie candy was always a penny more than the candy you bought in a store, now approached $4.

Thus, the bill for a small popcorn, two small sodas and the Goobers came, with tax, to $13.92. Plus the $16.50 for tickets, meaning a simple night at the movies came to $30.42.

Our friends, naturally looking to save money since he's a newly retired Baltimore County school teacher now coasting through life on his wife's employment, went for a couple of small drinks and a medium popcorn, so their bill, including tickets, came to a mere $28.

Well, we live in interesting times.

The gap between rich and poor, we are told, has never been greater. Corporate executives, who once earned four times as much as their employees, now reportedly earn an average of 20 times as much. Certain major league baseball players make $13 million a year, but, because they consider themselves underpaid, find it an inconvenience to run all the way to first base. And Bill Gates, a man reported to be worth $82 billion, donates $20 million to the Johns Hopkins University and waits for applause.

OK: Applause, applause.

I do not knock anyone who gives $20 million for good works, I only wish to lend the slightest perspective. We live in a time when one man is actually able to accumulate $82 billion -- that's $1 million, 82,000 times -- while millions of children go to schools and need government assistance merely to eat lunch.

So, while we applaud his gift -- Yes, yes, we applaud it! -- we take note that $20 million from a man with $82 billion is the mathematical equivalent of someone worth $82,000 giving a gift -- of $20.

That's the kind of money Bill Gates has. That's the reason people stand in lottery lines today, dreaming of $31 million payoffs such as last week's to some stranger in Pasadena, dreaming the new American dream of hitting it big one time and living off the residuals for the rest of your life.

Because, otherwise, we are left with many of us standing in a pit and gazing up at a mountaintop at those like the winner of the $31 million lottery, and the $82-billionaire Bill Gates, and realizing one thing about them:

They're the last ones in America who will be able to afford a small popcorn at the movies.

Pub Date: 5/30/99

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