I have been a moviegoer for many decades, and during that time I have had the pleasure of experiencing many great movie theater moments – at least for me.
Here are six of them (arranged chronologically).
1. King Kong (1952): As a kid in the early ’50s, when television was still in its infancy, my brothers, cousins and I were taken to the local movie theater to see King Kong! Way back then I had no idea what the movie was about, nor did I know that this movie had been around for almost 20 years! Only after I returned home from the movie, and was still afloat with what was the most mind-boggling thing I had ever seen or imagined, was I told by my father that he had seen this film as a kid himself! The fact that I had seen a third theatrical re-issue of this film (King Kong had five theatrical reissues in 1938, 1942, 1952 and 1971), stunned me and I couldn’t imagine that a movie so fantastic, so mind-blowing and so extraordinary was also so old! To my young and innocent eyes, it was totally new! King Kong became one of the great movie moments on early television when, in 1956, it first aired in New York, garnering an estimated 80% of the viewing audience! I, of course, was among that 80%. To this day I continue to find this film a fascinating visual and aural experience, and, despite its technical age, it stands high above all the remakes.
2. Ben-Hur (1959): While Ben-Hur was the big movie extravaganza of 1959 and remains one of the epic movies of all time, this movie alone was not the only source of my fond memories. The movie theater itself –the fabulous and grand Loew’s State Theater on Broadway at 45th Street in Manhattan–was as much a part of the experience as the movie, matching the film’s spectacle and grandeur with its own architectural and ornamental grandeur. This true movie palace boasted a huge, 1,885-seat capacity (but before its 1958 renovation its seating capacity was about 3,700) and an enormous screen to accommodate the brilliant 70mm print. With ornate architectural elements, a sweeping, deep balcony and a sound system worthy of today’s biggest blockbusters, the Loew’s State Theater served to magnify and enhance Ben-Hur in an indescribable way, making its total impact truly unforgettable!
3. House on Haunted Hill (1959): I was lucky enough to see this William Castle film with his promotionally hyped “gimmick,” Emergo. In this now-familiar cult classic, a skeleton would seem to emerge from the screen on cue and float into the auditorium, well above patrons’ heads, then retreat back into the screen. In fact, the skeleton emerged from a black-draped box situated at the upper right and left of the screen. just in front of the drapery. The skeleton moved into the auditorium by virtue of a long cable and pulley system from which it was suspended.
I can recall seeing the draped boxes in the theater well before the movie began and was already anticipating some sort of dazzling effect. Apparently, many others in the audience were unaware of this device because, when the time came for Vincent Price to crank the skeleton out of its acid bath, those two black-draped boxes released their skeletal contents, causing many off-guard audience members to hop out of their seats and head for the exits, accompanied by panicked shouts and screams. I was very amused at the entire event and couldn’t seem to understand how the audience was so oblivious to what I thought was so obvious! It was great and memorable fun!
4. The Exorcist (1973): Accompanied by family and friends, I attended a showing of the Exorcist during its initial theatrical release. We had the misfortune, after waiting on line to see the highly-hyped film for nearly one hour, to be informed that the current showing had been sold out! And so we endured another two hours in a line that continuously grew. But, it was well worth the wait! The fact that the theater was relatively small and every seat was filled served to concentrate the film’s impact on every audience member. The screams were loud and frequent, the moans and groans of loathing and abhorrence were equally loud and frequent, and the sense of shock and repugnance was rampant. In fact, I can recall quite a few patrons actually leaving the theater in apparent disgust. I also remember hearing an almost constant flow of expletive-laced verbal reactions by audiences members – both young and old - to the now iconic screen images and sounds. This film was something no one back then had experienced before – and it was, indeed, a powerful – even shocking – moment in time.
5. Star Wars (1977): An extended exhibition of more than a year guaranteed me my Star Wars “fix” whenever I wanted it at my local “Quad-plex” theater. And what made this film super special was the extra-huge screen on which it was shown! But, the Star Wars movie wasn’t the only story. There was another story outside the theater. And that was the story of the endless stream of people lined up for subsequent showings – lines which encircled the large theater complex on a daily basis! While lengthy lines and waiting times were nothing new at that time … what was new was how much longer and persistent these lines were – even months after the film’s premiere! Star Wars (A New Hope) seemed to mark the beginning of the “blockbuster” line, one which would become part of the history of a string of big screen hits which followed: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, Alien, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi, etc. While the long lines were often dreaded by unwary patrons, those same long lines were celebrated by film fans … to them the wait had a galvanizing and electrifying effect, amping up their expectations to frenzied heights and immersing them in an atmosphere of shared communal anticipation. Once the doors opened, however, everyone made a mad dash for their favorite seats – if they could get them!
Sadly, today there is little if any of that electrifying anticipation what with multi-screen theaters and multiple showings and much smaller screens – and, of course, cable and satellite TV, DVDs and the Internet.
6. Moonraker (1979): While visiting a shopping mall with a friend, I noticed that the new James Bond movie, Moonraker, was making its local debut. Unbelievable as it may seem, I had never seen a James Bond movie before and thought this was an ideal time to get tickets and see what all the hype was about. My friend and I sidetracked our shopping in order to stop at the movie theater, a complex separate from the mall, to purchase tickets for the first showing scheduled (I think) for 6 PM. I approached the ticket booth and asked the young lady for two tickets to Moonraker. She happily obliged and then we left to continue our shopping. Later, we returned to the theater only to be taken aback by the enormous line which, by now, had encircled the entire theater! I had no idea that such popularity for James Bond existed and neither did my friend. In fact, she was averse to waiting on the long line but I hated the thought of missing the movie since we already had tickets and were already there. And so we stepped in with the rest of the waiting patrons. I casually asked someone ahead of me if this was the ticket holder line. When he said no, I decided we should go to the theater entrance and get into the ticket holder line. So we walked around the theater only to be confronted with more lines. After checking with more people on the line, I realized that there was no ticket holder line! Hm-m-m. With the approval my friend, we waded our way through the lines and opened the theater doors to see where the ticket holders were. A uniformed usher immediately rushed up and confronted us with a “where do you think you’re going” remark. “Were looking for the ticket holder line” I said. He returned with a “we have no ticket holders line” and asked me to go back outside and wait on the line to get a ticket like everybody else! When I told him I already had tickets, he seemed incredulous and asked to see them. I held out the two tickets. The expression on the usher’s face was priceless, transforming from one of authority to one of head-scratching confusion. In light of the fact that the tickets were, indeed, legitimate, he had no choice but to let us in. As a result we were the only ones in the theater for quite a few minutes, having our pick of the optimum seats.
I often wondered if there were ever any repercussions for the poor young lady in the ticket booth who likely mistakenly sold me the tickets.
By the way, I am happy to report that I enjoyed my first James Bond movie experience, and since then have gotten around to seeing all of them.
JSD’s film-loving days began when, as a kid, he attended the theatrical re-re-release of King Kong in the early 1950s. Since then he became a teacher, author, artist and filmmaker while maintaining his ongoing enthusiasm for the movies.