Since the advent of home video I have read more articles on the death of movie theaters than I care to think about… and lately, those articles have been ubiquitous. I however, do not believe the movie theater experience should go the way of the dodo and applaud any and all attempts to get people off of their couches and into theater seats. Why do I feel this way? Allow me to share my life long love affair with movies and the houses that show them.
From an early age I recall going to see movies with either my mom, my dad, both of them, my grandparents or with a friend. Each set of movie goer had their own parameters that we lived by… my dad was responsible for taking me to see Star Wars, Jaws, Conan the Barbarian and The Last Starfighter… my mom would take me to comedies when my dad was off seeing a rated R film… so he would be watching Excaliber while my mom and I would head off to see such Robert Hays classics as Airplane! and Take This Job and Shove It. Of course, my mom would also take me to movies she wanted to see and which she expected me to fall asleep during… Saturday Night Fever stands out for me because I recall going to the drive in and falling asleep after watching Tony Manero’s red boots walking to the beat of Staying Alive. She later told me she fell asleep as well….
My grandparents took me to a couple of movies for birthdays… birthdays were always a good reason to head down to the local multiplex… Robert Altman’s Popeye and Raiders of the Lost Ark were birthday treats from my grandparents. Popeye was awesome thanks to being a fan of Mork and Mindy and Raiders of the Lost Ark was awesome for more reasons than I can enumerate here.
In each of these experiences, I have vivid memories of either myself changing, or actually learning something about my parents or grandparents. With Star Wars, a movie my dad had to drag me to see (and later me dragging him to multiple viewings), everything for me changed. My worldview expanded beyond our galaxy and in it’s own way, narrowed the focus of my attention for years to come. With Jaws and Conan, my dad was signalling that I was growing up… able to watch Quint get chomped in the chest or Conan shagging the freaky witch in the beginning. I distinctly recall closing my eyes and my father leaning over to me and saying, “you don’t have to close your eyes.” Step one in man training… boobs are OK.
My dad and I did not and have not always gotten along. We do now of course… but movies were the one area that we could always agree… and to this day we have spirited talks of film (although I have told him I can no longer take anything he says regarding movies seriously due to his constant insistence that Battlefield Earth is good). He doesn’t really see that movies matter… I argue they do. They were the one place I always knew my dad loved me, even if he couldn’t say it.
My favorite movie memory with my dad involved The Last Starfighter… crap movie, but great fun for a kid…. and even more fun when seeing it in a run down theater with your dad while he sits there farting throughout the entire thing, stinking the place up as though there were a green cloud floating over our heads and the two of us laughing throughout.
Of course… time marched forward and I was allowed to be dropped off with my best friend as a youngster and enjoy the crappiest movies imaginable… but were pure gold for Erick and I. Such fare as Caveman and The Black Hole filled our summer days. Erick would also come camping every year with my family… and we would turn our wonderful knowledge of cave speak as epitomized by Ringo Starr in the aforementioned Caveman as descriptors for fire, rock and hot women… Lana zug zug… A’took!
Entering my teens… and being an only child… my bike became my next mode of heading to the theater. At a time of Carl Reiner and John Hughes, movies such as Stand By Me, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Can’t Buy Me Love became remarkable outlets for the raging angst and worry found deep in a teenage boy’s brain stem… sure watching The Breakfast Club at home on VHS was great, but nothing could beat the feeling of experiencing something like Ferris’s lively take on Twist and Shout or Cameron’s existential crisis and coming out of that theater into the light of day and knowing something about you has changed… that somehow the experiences of four young men coming of age while looking for a dead body meant that my experience of coming of age had a shared meaning. That I wasn’t alone. That other young men and women were wrestling with the same issues… and that there were lives both better and worse than my own. Would I have had the same emotional connection if it weren’t in a darkened theater on a large screen?
As high school dragged on, I took a job as assistant manager at a theater in Seal Beach, California… The Bay Theater. This was an old 1940’s era single screen theater that happened to house the country’s second largest Wurlitzer pipe organ originally from New York’s Paramount Theater. The owners, Dick and Jane Loderhose (seriously… that was their names) stayed on the third floor in an apartment when they were in California and Dick would occasionally come down after hours and play that organ as if he were the Phantom of the Opera. After a while I became the manager… calling in the nightly grosses, ordering all concession foodstuffs, keeping the place in daily running order and selling tickets… and all the while, seeing almost every film we showed. And in this theater, that meant art films, foreign films and 3rd run larger budget fare. It was quite the education.
I had also befriended our old projectionist. As in Cinema Paradiso (which we showed), he taught me how to run an old time 35mm print dual projector (nowadays they use platters or digital… not the same thing). These are the projectors that you think of when you think of old movie houses… noisy, large, hot and extremely mechanical. Learning to splice together reels as they arrived in their 20 minute spools in cans on a Friday morning… adding in the approved trailers… learning at what setting the lights should be for pre-movie, trailers and the feature… it was a dream come true. At no point did I ever want to be “in” movie per se… I was in LA County for crying out loud… but I always felt I was “in” movies.
He gave me the opportunity to enter the projectionist’s union. A meeting was set up… and entry into that realm was mine for the taking. I overslept. My chance was gone… and I still think about it every so often when dreaming of what I would rather be doing (film editing or movie critic top that list).
Fast forward to the present… I am 39, married with two beautiful daughters… and I take my girls to the theater as often as I can. I don’t try to duplicate what I had growing up, because that was my life… this is their’s. What I do try to do however is to instill what going to the movies can be… an experience… an opportunity to share something with someone you love, or complete strangers, or with yourself… a chance to allow the world as we know it to drop away and to disappear into suspended disbelief for two hours at a time… a time to allow imagination and wonder to fill your every fiber… to see what cannot be, yet there it is. And when I look over at my daughter’s faces when they become engrossed in something wonderful on screen… I always tear up. Seeing my five year old still reaching for something coming at her in 3D even though she knows it’s not there… that is what I strive for. Joy.
I have an almost obsessive compulsive nature when it comes to my movie-going habits… if I’m alone; small popcorn (with butter and salt), medium Cherry Coke, Red Vines or Sour Punch Straws and a hot dog (with ketchup, mustard and jalapenos) if it’s lunch/dinner time… if I’m with the kids; large popcorn (butter and salt), my medium Cherry Coke, two cherry Icees, Red Vines and hot dogs if we are hungry. Sometimes they like Dibs… I’m happy when they are. When it comes to where I sit… I’m usually in the middle to back third, as close to the center as possible with a slight tendency towards the right side.
One complaint many have regarding theaters is of course the cost. If taking myself and the kids to a 3D kids movie plus concessions equals almost $60, it makes sense to skip it and buy the DVD… but some of the greatest things in life don’t make sense… they are great because there is something more than just the movie… it’s the experience. And I wouldn’t trade anything in exchange for the experiences that I’ve had in movie theaters.
I enjoy a good cry… a great laugh… and a horrible fright. The movies have always allowed me to enjoy these things. And we shouldn’t be so quick to abandon shared communal experiences in favor of home movie theaters. Comfort is great… but I don’t remember the moments I spent sitting on my couch… I remember sitting in a theater seat… either with someone I love or alone, those have been some of the greatest moments in my life.
Cornelius J. Blahg