For years, Robert Melton was as much a mainstay of the Westhampton Theater as its marquee. The longtime usher died last week at 75, not long after the theater closed for good.
Since at least the mid-’80s, Melton wore many hats at the theater — usher, cashier, occasional projectionist, repairman. He tore innumerable tickets and scooped popcorn for generations of moviegoers before retiring five years ago.
“You might call him the ambassador of the Westhampton,” says Kevin Mettinger, who held management posts at the theater from 1996 to 2001.
Melton worked at local cinemas, including the Byrd Theatre, since he was a teenager. He often biked from his Lakeside bungalow to the Westhampton. When it rained, he took the bus. For a time, he also rode his bicycle to another job cleaning the parking lot of the former Ridge Cinemas near Three Chopt Road.
Melton was obsessed with movies. His home was filled with the best stereo equipment and every DVD and Blu-ray movie imaginable. Every Tuesday, he called the Westhampton’s most recent manager, Elaine Browder, to ask which movies were newly released on DVD. She’d take him to Wal-Mart or Target to buy the film for his collection. The ever frugal Melton had to get it done before Sunday because that’s when the price shot up by about four bucks.
“Robert is the type of person, when you meet him you immediately start to care about him,” Browder says. “He just brings that out in people.”
The two met in 1984 when Browder became manager of the theater. They remained close friends when she left for other posts and later returned. Browder was with Melton and his family the day he died at St. Mary’s Hospital.
She drove him to see two of his last movies, “Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice,” which he didn’t care for, and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which he loved.
He was opinionated about a lot in this world. He’d firmly point to the paper and say in his Southern drawl, “Let me tell you something,” before sharing his insights. And he was known for an amusing frankness. He once told a scantily clad woman complaining about the cold to consider wearing more clothes when going to the movies.
Mettinger says that Melton sometimes had difficulties with certain tasks at work, but found ways to forge ahead. He often repaired odd items at the theater — a leaky faucet, a broken handle. He built the deck on the back of his home, which he later enclosed.
“He was an inspiration for anyone who met him to get out and work — many people without a driver’s license or education that are just down on their luck,” recalls his niece’s husband, Keith Lowery. “He didn’t let that stop him.”