If the essence of Jim McNeill could be bottled and sold, there'd be a fortune in it twice over: for the seller, and for the buyers. The Westend Family Cinema, now finishing its 23rd season, is testimony to a rare talent, not just for dedication and hard work, but for coaxing and energizing the same professionalism out of 40 more volunteers.
The cinema itself is unique, as is evident to its weekly patrons at the Notre Dame High School auditorium. Those uniformed, crisp, cheerful staff are all volunteers, yet they're offering first-rate movies, high-quality sound, incredibly low snack prices and all the mothering and kidding you can stand.
“It's a family-oriented place, that's why people keep coming back,” says Olly Green, who sells tickets each week and behind the scenes spends extra hours on the phone co-ordinating volunteers' schedules. “We have a lot of regulars. I get such a kick out of seeing them come back in September because the kids grow.”
“We're a real community, we're a family,” agrees Anne McNeill. “It's not just a show, people get time to talk and it's obvious we care about them. It's a safe environment for children; the staff are very aware that children are our main concern here. People will say they can't believe we exist.”
Jim knows what works to keep customers coming back. “We do things to a high standard but you have the family and friends and it's just much more reasonable. The kids come back every week to meet their friends. We acknowledge their birthdays. Husbands and wives will use Fridays for an inexpensive night out.”
And as Donita Alexander on the canteen points out, “We make the kids say please.”
Although he spends up to 20 hours a week on cinema business, Jim himself is quick to credit everyone else. “Anne Patry and Eugene Brazeau are supervisors now, and they do a lot of work,” says Jim. “Anne buys a lot of the gifts, prizes and supplies and then Donita does everything to keep the canteen stocked. Bernie Reilander does all our art and graphics for the flyers and most of the tickets. Then Barb Warren folds all the flyers and delivers them to the schools and libraries. Matthew Darwin, besides running the projector, has completely designed our computer system and he keeps the records and the website up to date...”
The rest of the McNeill family pitches in willy-nilly at showtime and the rest of the week, as Anne stamps all the tickets, drives films and artwork hither and yon and handles the phone, while daughter Jennifer organizes promotions and incentives.
Volunteers tackle responsibility as soon as they've shown they are ready. “We do check references,” says Olly. Adds Jim, “The new staff stay with a supervisor or assistant manager for a few weeks. We give them one area at a time but then we like people to learn every area so they can move around.”
“What I like is that Jim gives me guidelines but then I am the master of my domain,” says Matthew Darwin, one of four projectionists. “Here's this projector with the DTS digital sound system, one light bulb costs $4000. The responsibility is a motivating factor—and it's fun.” Matthew started 13 years ago, in his mid-teens, “and I've taken maybe three Saturdays off.” As his programming talents grew, he designed the cinema's member database and other record systems, including a website.
“You learn how to get along with customers,” points out teen volunteer Jenn Chappell. “You learn responsibility and it helps in the working environment. It will certainly look good on my resumé.”
Jim agrees, “We're strict with volunteers. We have to be pleasant, you can't have people who get too frustrated when they're busy.”
Volunteers range in age from 16 to 60-plus and all those there last Saturday had quite enough going in the rest of their lives already. “When my kids were little, it was my adult time,” says Donita. Now, twelve years later, it's just one of many commitments. “Let's just say I juggle my time pretty well.” Like many of the adults who have been volunteering weekly for over a decade, she keeps coming back for the camarade — and the “wicked sense of humour we share.”
As Barb Smith on the canteen says, “It's a wonderful group of people, like a second family. We all make suggestions on systems and we all work together.”
Brain waves from staff and customers have brought many innovations, from booster seats to fruit juices and bottled water. There's even a popcorn machine now, although a donation towards a bigger machine would be most welcome.
“We've had other organizations come in and talk to Jim about how to go about it but it seems like the hours that go into it are just too much for them,” says Anne McNeill. “No question, we started really small with Jim's own equipment and movies, no overhead, ten kids at the Alexander Community Centre with a sheet on the wall.”
“It's Dorothy Stoiber who asked Jim if he'd put a movie on for the Young at Heart Club and then they thought, why not kids? And then...it...just...grew.”
The Family Movie Club, as it was then known, went through years at W.E. Gowling (“we used to have to take every child's boots off and clothespeg them together, put all the chairs up and take them down, cart all the refreshments back to our house,” recalls Anne) and then Fisher Park auditorium. “It's quite impressive now—although there are a few people who can't handle the level of niceness.”
It's the niceness, the satisfaction of meeting high standards, the shared responsibility and the chance to flex any special talent you care to offer that keeps volunteer morale so high.
“We love Jim dearly,” confesses Olly Green in a rare serious moment. “He's called every which way and he has to be twenty different places. It's his baby, he started it and he loves it. People like to help out on something that is so good to have in the community. We all love movies and it's our way of putting something back.”
Elaine Desrosiers and Olly Green are among the first faces greeting movie-goers at the advance tickets desk.
Jim and Anne McNeill have been anchoring the Westend Family for 23 of their 30 years of marriage.
The equipment, though steps below state-of-the-art, gets the same results as at a $10 movie theatre ticket, say Matthew Darwin and Jenn Chapel. Volunteers have gone on to paying jobs as projectionists.
Volunteers span many ages: Donita Alexander, Jean Lim, Bunny Brazeau and Barbara Warren keep refreshments flowing at the snack bar.