It's a Friday night at the AMC Union Station 9 multiplex in Washington, D.C., only a few Milk Dud tosses away from the Capitol, and the Audience Patrol is gearing up for action. Sturdy college-age ushers in spiffy maroon jackets mill around, a few off-duty police officers hired by the theater sit and wait to be called into action, and a field marshal who coordinates it all via walkie-talkie checks his list of show times. ''At 7:40,'' says Milton Hardy, the theater's friendly, 26-year-old assistant manager, ''I'll go down and explain the system to the audience.''
No, these aren't special precautions at a showing of New Jack City. They're one theater's response to what comedian Jerry Seinfeld calls ''the Unshushables'' rowdy movie-audience members who just won't shut up. In this instance, the silence-before-dishonor boys are waiting for a screening of the Julia Roberts thriller Sleeping With the Enemy.
Exactly how much today's noisy, ill-mannered ticket buyers have cheapened the cinema experience is debatable. The range of opinion extends from people who find this problem mildly annoying to the hard-core Felix Ungers who say that even the faintest rustle of cellophane ruins their viewing satisfaction. But there's little doubt that audiences are increasingly getting into the action. ''I operated theaters for 28 years,'' says Herb Burton, executive director of the National Association of Theater Owners/Showest. ''In the early days there wasn't much noise. In the '60s and '70s and especially in the '80s we saw more and more of it. Now it really is a universal problem.''
Burton represents the reasonable view. Still, ours is a country with a rich history of overreaction, and it's apparent that an attitude of I'll-tolerate-fascism-just-this-once has set in among some disgruntled moviegoers. Audience noise has especially aroused the shrill fury of some professional movie critics, who cite a combination of contributing factors: VCRs (the theory being that people get in the habit of kibitzing while watching movies at home); the prevalence of action and horror films, which arouse the generally acknowledged loudness leaders fuzz-lipped teenage boys; and our plummeting level of social niceties. Etiquette expert Letitia Baldrige recently told The Washington Times that the problem goes even deeper. Blame it on the '60s: ''It started with kids who said, 'Down with the establishment,' and started calling police 'the fuzz,''' Baldrige said. ''And we've never quite recovered.''
One nice thing about the Union Station 9 program of crowd control is that it's more Burton than Baldrige. Union Station, a combination train depot-subway stop-mall, draws people from all over the area, and it has unique problems. A typical movie audience here might include teenagers and members of Congress what assistant manager Hardy calls ''a mixed crowd.'' Sometimes a few members of this brigade arrive half-crocked, because the theaters are found on Union Station's sprawling ''eatery'' level. Right next door is Fat Tuesday, a bar that pumps out Technicolor daiquiris.
The AMC plan is simple and strikes a nice balance between necessary action and unnecessary anal-retentiveness. Anyone who enters the theater clearly smashed gets a ticket refund and is shown the door. Before each screening, audiences are told either by an usher or by an on-screen message that unruly antics won't be allowed. Every 15 minutes, two ushers cruise each theater. Disturbers of the peace get one warning. The second time, they're out, sans refund.
Does this mean you'd be bounced for groaning too loudly during, say, a Sally Field ''gutsy lady'' speech? No. Hardy says his patrols exist only to punish the truly disruptive. ''We have patrons come up to us and say, 'Hey, there's somebody whispering behind me,' or 'Hey, there's this lady rattling a wrapper.' We don't want to do away with people's ability to relax at the movies, so we don't get too excited about things like that,'' he says. ''We only respond when someone crosses the line of the acceptable.''
At the Union Station 9 movie I saw The Doors everyone kept quiet, and as I sat there, benumbed by one Jim Morrison drunk shaman scene after another, I couldn't help but think that some movies are actually improved by hecklers. Years ago, a friend saw Gandhi with a feisty audience that felt the title character took too long to get fed up with his British tormentors. They apparently hoped that Gandhi would suddenly turn into Billy Jack and abandon his pacifism in a dizzying flurry of death-dealing martial arts. My friend doesn't remember a word of Gandhi's tony dialogue, but he won't ever forget the man in the theater who yelled, ''Come on, Gandhi! Mess...them...up!''
The AMC approach does seem right. People who pay today's $5 to $7.50 ticket prices deserve to enjoy their 90 or so minutes without free-lance commentary. Still, if you knew what you were getting at the start of a movie, an occasional change of pace (and volume) might be nice. Perhaps, in the spirit of equal time for all movie-patron styles, an enterprising theater manager should launch a special ''Unshushables Only'' matinee.