Friday, Nov 01 2013 09:53 AM

HERB BENHAM: Retirement job was just the ticket for Maya staffer

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Herb Benham

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    By Photo courtesy of the Burnham family

    Terry Burnham

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By HERB BENHAM, Californian columnist hbenham@bakersfield.com

Terry Burnham liked greeting people at Maya Cinemas. He thought taking tickets beat driving a truck, maneuvering a forklift or working in a print shop.

Sunday, we went to the matinee showing of "Enough Said," one of James Gandolfini's last movies. Good movie but hard not to think about losing Gandolfini.

Stuck on the inside of the ticket booth window was a photo of Burnham, 67, and a paragraph explaining that he had died the week before of a heart attack and that friends and family were raising money for his funeral service. Not only was Gandolfini gone but so was the well-regarded man who took our tickets, tore them in two, gave half back, and slipped the other half in the slot in the podium and then directed us to the correct theater.

"Welcome to Maya Cinemas," Burnham would say. "Yours is No. 9 on the right."

Burnham was serious. He wanted patrons to end up in the correct theater and arrive on time. He would sit in his high-back office chair and direct movie traffic like a parade grand marshal.

After the movie, I called Maya and asked if I could speak to a member of the Burnham family. Brian Burnham, his 27-year-old son, returned my call. Brian has worked at Maya for 31/2 years as an assistant manager in charge of promotions.

"He had this joke," Brian said. "'I have a great job,' he'd say. 'I can tell people where to go all day.'"

Sheila, Burnham's wife of 28 years, died 10 years ago. The Burnhams had two biological children but a larger extended family.

"Dad took in strays," Brian said. "If any of our friends had issues at home, they came to live with us."

Burnham took a job at the theater after he retired. He worked four 71/2-hour shifts a week. He was one of five greeters, and with his bald head, erect carriage and friendly but no-nonsense approach to the job, maybe it's most distinctive.

"He was a model employee," Brian said. "He had zero discipline problems."

When he wasn't at the theater, he was looking after his 4-year-old grandson, Drake.

Burnham was a fan of spaghetti westerns. He also liked action movies like "Taken," "Red," "Unknown," "Thor," "The Avengers" and even "The Hobbit." He would watch one or two movies a week at the theater.

His favorite movie was "Paint Your Wagon" and his favorite song, "They Call the Wind Mariah."

Services were Monday at Valley Bible Fellowship. Among patrons and friends at the theater and the Pay It Forward website, people donated $1,000 toward the cost of the burial services. At his service, a friend of Burnham's told a story about him when he was in his 20s.

"A buddy had gotten a girl pregnant and was not going to be involved," Brian said. "Although she was not Dad's girlfriend, he offered to marry her and raise her child."

Maya hosted the wake at the theater. Valley Bible donated pit beef, rolls and salad, and La Dona Restaurant contributed chili verde, rice, beans and tortillas.

"Tuesday was my first day back," Brian said. "That was our day to work together. It was hard walking in the office alone."

Brian isn't the only one who misses him. Burnham's grandson, Drake, asks, "When is Grandpa going to come home?"

I don't know about these things, but I wonder:

Maybe somewhere Gandolfini is making movies and Burnham is sitting in a high office chair, taking tickets and directing people into theaters that will soon be filled with light, sound and a rapt audience.

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