Good Times in a Movie Theater

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Just as I was seriously contemplating whether or not to take up the challenge from a recent guest blogger (known in our comments stream as masterofoneinchpunch) to knock out a piece listing favorite moviegoing experiences/stories—that is to say, favorite memories not necessarily related to the quality of the film so much as the actual experience of being at the venue…I caught wind of this grotesque and sad story.

So very infuriating. So very, very tempting to launch into a more generalized and scathing and deserved attack on a particular culture of values—and no, I certainly don’t mean the culture of values that argues it’s ok to text inside a movie theater—that would only wind up somehow indicting the film that was being screened when this idiotic murder took place. So, because that would be exactly the wrong thing to do (indict the movie, that is), I decided instead to use this opportunity to answer masterofoneinchpunch’s request and turn my attention now away from an extended diatribe on tragic events and towards jotting down some of my best-remembered good times at the movies.

I have no doubt our readers will have some colorful stories of their own to share, or their most treasured memories of filmgoing that may be attached to a particular theater (either still standing or not); these are the first five that leapt to mind from my own history.

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Roxanne   Tri-State Mall, Claymont, DE

Oh, this theater and I go back a long ways. I remember waiting with my parents for what seemed like forever, in an incredibly long line that snaked from the box office all the way down the main hall of the mall and nearly out the door, to get into Conan the Barbarian. Two years later, I had my very first movie date there, and that movie was Beverly Hills Cop.

The theater, once operated by Sameric, is long gone, but the mall still stands—sort of, it’s a very disconcerting place to enter at this point—and my final visit there was with a friend to see Roxanne, Steve Martin’s cheerfully romantic and modern reinterpretation of Cyrano de Bergerac. As the end credits began to roll, I happened to look down the aisle…and saw a rat scurry from one side to the other. Game over.

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King Kong Lives!  Cinema 5, State College, PA

In college, I was part of a regular group that met in my neighbor’s dorm room (he was the Resident Assistant) to watch what we referred to as “Real Man” Movies. The films in rotation included The Right Stuff, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Jeremiah Johnson (that was a favorite, and repeated, request by one member of the group). We enjoyed adult beverages and smoked the occasional cigar. We also had great taste in movies even way back then, a fact easily verified because all of us (well, most of us) were appropriately worshipful of the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis remake of King Kong. I say that with a limited amount of irony.

So imagine our joy when we learned that Dino’s sequel, King Kong Lives!, would soon be premiering downtown. And that the film starred Linda Hamilton, hot action babe from The Terminator. And that we were likely to see a flash of skin from the leading lady, since she wasn’t shy about that in the Schwarzenegger film, and since the precedent for that sort of gratuitous (if fleeting) flesh-baring had already been established in the De Laurentiis Kong franchise with the ’76 film, when Jessica Lange struggled—and failed—to keep her flimsy jungle gown secure.

The event would be black-tie only. Yes, we all wore tuxedos. The movie, as most of you probably know, is kind of an abomination. But of course we knew that would be the case going in, and yes, that fully-anticipated and nearly-subliminal glimpse of nudity from Ms. Hamilton had us in stitches for a long time to come. Thank you, Dino. Your legend lives on.

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Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace  Loews Meadows 6, Secaucus, NJ

Were you present when movie history was made? I’d already seen the first of George Lucas’ much-maligned prequel trilogy projected on celluloid—a funny-now story in itself because a friend and I had bought tickets far in advance, worried about a sellout, only to encounter massive traffic gridlock that resulted in us hurling our tickets out the window and then finding the nearest multiplex, certain the movie would be sold out, only to easily score new tickets—but this special presentation was a big deal, because digital projection was being touted as the future of film exhibition.

Some thought otherwise, and they were wrong. What I recall most about this screening was how striking the clarity of the image appeared to me, how rock-steady, how much like looking out of a window it seemed, especially whenever the majority of the image had been originated digitally rather than on film.

Now, as you probably know, digital projection is the norm, and has its own share of weaknesses resulting from theater owners’ disregard for or inability to afford quality, specifically with regard to projection bulbs (still!) dimmed down in an effort to save money, or subpar equipment being utilized in spaces that demand better. But to be present at the turning point? That was a genuine thrill that even Jar Jar Binks couldn’t spoil.  

(**Fans of The Last Broadcast, breathe easy: Here’s where I’ll mention that the 1998 low-budget thriller was the first film to be projected using DLP cinema. The Lucasfilm prequel was the second—and the one that got the digital changeover mojo truly rolling)

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Frankenstein (1910) The Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre, Jersey City, NJ

The Landmark Loew’s, if you’ve never been there, is a magnificent-looking palace that opened in 1929—its restoration has been long ongoing. Thomas Edison’s famously long-thought-lost-forever short version of the Mary Shelley tale was being screened as part of a Frankenstein movie festival, which was much-publicized because Alois Dettlaff, the Wisconsin man who had discovered the only surviving print, was notably reluctant to allow the film to be put in a projector anytime, anywhere.

Dettlaff was in attendance. He was introduced and walked out onto the stage…dressed up as Father Time. He began speaking about the thrill of acquiring the film, only to divert into some surly discourse about how contemporary society had, by permitting abortion, abandoned the “pro-life” values he maintained were clearly articulated by the Edison film. The gentleman who introduced him edged closer to him as his emotions got the better of him; it was the sort of thing we’re used to seeing at the Oscars on occasion, but there was no orchestra on hand to play him off.

I don’t see exactly any kind of strident anti-abortion message one can attach to the Edison Frankenstein; I suppose if you wanted to take the “man playing God” theme from the Shelley tale in general to be an attack upon medical science making women’s reproductive rights possible, that’s a line of argument I could see at work; I just didn’t see it as legitimately applicable to this primitive and liberally-adapted version of it.

Reportedly very reclusive and not well-tempered in general, Dettlaff passed away in 2005. Cranky as he may have been, it’s thanks to him I saw the first filming of Frankenstein on a very big screen.

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Cirque du Soleil: Journey of Man, IMAX 3D, AMC Empire 25, New York, NY

This was a date, and it turned out to be a very significant one. The movie? It’s kitschy, more or less, depending on your taste; the presentation was stunning. The 3D glasses actually had their own speakers. Other memories about this screening are a little bit of a blur, and the rest of what was precious about it to me I will keep to myself—if only to add it was a special trip, and it embodies my feelings about New York City, and it will be enough to say that one of the fringe benefits of going to the movies is how the magic on the screen can be a miraculous vehicle to help you appreciate all of the other kinds of magic to be found in the world.  

 

  • Martin

    I can so recall one evening at the Apollo movie house in Hollywood seeing a double bill of DEAD RECKONING (BOGIE and SCOTT) and ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (WAYNE and RUSSELL).
    in 1947. The hayday of movie-going and every film made money. 20 years later it was a sad carpet store and not a sign of Liz or Gail to be found.
    So glad to have been around for those special days with Art Deco movie palaces to take you out of the dreary world of reality.

  • Movie Fan

    Every movie theater I grew up with is now gone. New ones were built, but they don’t have the charm of the family-owned places I loved. The drive-ins were my favorites because it was an experience like no other. We’d bring pillows and blankets and camp out on the hood or trunk, depending on how my dad parked the car. I’d fall asleep to the scent of Pic and salami and popcorn, a warm breeze gently ruffling my hair. The walk-in theaters were old and smelled of dust, horsehair, roasted peanuts and soda. I remember the distinctive squeaky sound of the curtains being pulled back, the chatter of the projector and the sounds of people settling themselves into the uncomfortable, hard backed seats. I remember seeing Elvis in “Follow That Dream,” and the Beatles in “Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” I remember Don Knotts and Jerry Lewis and Ernest Borgnine and Clint Eastwood, impossibly tall, incredibly loud, with music from the soundtracks booming from the ceiling. I remember the sad goodbyes from the communities when the theaters closed, one by one. The theaters were magical places, doorways to worlds that existed only on film. When they closed, they took the magic with them, leaving only harsh reality in its place.

    • Bruce Reber

      I have two drive-in theater memories – the first in 1964 (I was 6 YO) when my family saw the Jerry Lewis comedy “The Disorderly Orderly”, and in 1969 (I was 11 YO) when we saw “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid” and “The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie” on a double bill.

  • Masterofoneinchpunch

    Fun article. The theater is quite an experience. Usually a more satisfying one than even your big screen TV with surround sound. I find that a theaterical movie tends to have a bigger imprint (stays on my mind more vividly with a few exceptions) on my watching experience than just watching on the small screen. There is something fascinating about a shared experience. Sometimes it is a peculiar individual or group that makes it fascinating or sometimes dangerous.

    Having the whole theater to yourself is also an interesting experience. There is some trepidation of being alone, but also some exhilaration for having the whole place to yourself. There have been many times where one other or two other people come in and you sigh. But by yourself there is a feeling of specialness, like this is just run for me (why do I have to still see the commercial and trailers though?) I have got to see two by myself: Brave (ahhh no kids) and Searching for Sugarman which I expected to be empty.

    Modesto: All the theaters (except for The State which is an arthouse theater that years ago was one of the major theaters in Modesto; I have a picture in a book of Dodge City being played there, that film had some parts filmed in the Modesto/Oakdale area*) that I grew up with are gone. There were three at one point: Vintage Faire (at the mall), Briggsmore (which had the largest screen in Modesto) and Festival (which is now Regal.) Brendan came in early 2000s and it is the one I go to now.

    * Errol Flynn was in Modesto for some of the filming. My grandfather, a very Irish man with a gift for storytelling, had told a story of getting in a bar fight with him (something that Flynn was known to get into) after some haughty words from Flynn.

    Cheap projection bulbs have been an issue for years. I know Roger Ebert had complained about it quite often, but if it happens to you complain about it. The theater experience should be a positive one (though really if they want to attract and keep crowds in this age it makes very little sense to not be proactive with issues; there are so many things that keep people away from the movie screen, even if it was just one bad issue years ago — I’ve had my share.)

  • Wayne P.

    My fave movie theater is still standing and going strong. Its the famous Uptown on Conn. Ave, NW in Washington, DC. Opened by Warners in 1936. I saw quite a few famous pictures there including Lawrence of Arabia, How the West Was Won and Apocalypse Now, but my all time best experience was watching the world premiere run of 2001: A Space Odyssey there a week after it came out at the Uptown in April, 1968. The story also goes then that First Lady ‘Bird’ Johnson and her daughters saw the actual opening night showing. The old Todd-AO was updated to Cinerama and even though Kubrick had trimmed 20 minutes off the picture after the first screening, the overall length of the film itself (at still around 2 1/2 hours) plus the surround sound effects and fabulous classical music score thundering from the side and rear of the theaters large speakers was quite awesome. I’ve since moved to Memphis but will always treasure the memories of that curved screen!

    • Bruce Reber

      I remember going to see “Rollerball” at the Uptown in August 1975, when I was 17 and living in suburban Bethesda, MD. I’ve seen it on TV numerous times since then, but nothing can compare to my memory of munching on popcorn, sipping a soda and watching it on that huge screen, with stereo sound and an audience.

  • Daisy

    I remember going to see Around the World in 80 Days with my dad, in a converted New Orleans theater designed for stage show, but with a special wide screen erected to show off Mike Todd’s spectacular. A few years later, Cinerama came to town, with a huge, new theater, and with it such great fun films as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and How the West was Won (the only western film I ever really liked), and When we saw Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001. And last but not least, there was in a beautifully redesigned old theater which showed off the gorgeous Edwardian classic, My Fair Lady, with a reserved-seats-only, just like a Broadway theater. At that age, I was duly impressed.

  • Bruce Reber

    There was the Baronet, located in Bethesda, MD (it was closed and demolished sometime in the 80′s). I saw many movies there, i.e. “The French Connection”, “Harold And Maude”, and more than I can remember. I went to the Baronet with my 9th grade English class for a viewing of “To Kill A Mockingbird” in January 1973.

  • wade

    In the late 50′s I remember going to an older theatre in Sherbrooke, Quebec, the Grenada all done in red velvet and gold a beautiful old theatre that I’m not sure is still there today