Bigger Theaters, Smaller People

February 28, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

While out driving yesterday, I passed a building that once housed a movie theater. The theater closed in the early '80s and, since then, it has been a self-storage locale and is currently a pet supply store. I was taken by a momentary pang of nostalgia. I didn't see many movies in the place but I remember one viewing experience in particular because I had looked forward to it so strongly: Clash of the Titans. Isn't it sad, I reflected as I gazed at the building through the car window, that no child today would be able to walk up to that box office and buy a ticket?

Actually, no.

To be frank, it was a terrible place to see a movie. The screen was small, the speaker system was tinny, the seats were uncomfortable, and the stickiness on the floor was so extreme that there was a lingering fear that one might leave behind the soles of one's shoes. The only good thing about the place was its location. What's surprising is that the building still stands and is being used for something else. Old theaters are notoriously difficult to convert for alternate use. I'm aware of a couple in Philadelphia that have been shuttered for a decade but inside remain as they were the day they closed (except there are now more rats and mice). The big, beautiful Uptown theater in Toronto was torn down to make way for condos. That's the way it is with old theaters - most of them either fall or are boarded up.

During my youth, I frequented (to the degree that the word "frequented" can be used to describe my erratic movie attendance) five South Jersey theaters. All of them, plus the nearest drive-in, are no more. One - a mall theater - became a store. Three are now parking lots. (One of those had been standing vacant for a seeming eternity until the wrecking ball got it last year.) The fourth is now a multiplex, although the footprint and configuration are so different that it's not really the same place it once was. Standing at the site of one of these ex-theaters threatens to bring on another wave of nostalgia, but then I recall that they weren't such great places, either.

There was one exception: a 2000-seat mammoth of an auditorium. Excluding movie palaces protected by historical preservation statutes, those are damn near impossible to find these days. It was an amazing place in which to see a movie, especially when most of the seats were filled. That's when the sense of a "communal experience" kicked in. I remember the magic of opening weekend there for The Empire Strikes Back and Star Trek II. Most nights, however, there were only a hundred-or-so people in the theater. The balcony was closed, but not for Siskel & Ebert. And the place seemed empty and cavernous. Still there was no sadder day than when they cut the theater in half, creating two bizarrely proportioned 900-seat twins (90 rows of 10 seats each).

Memory makes us (or at least me) remember the theaters of my childhood and teenage years with a greater fondness than they probably deserve. The fact is, today's multiplexes are superior in almost every way - bigger screens; brighter images; digital surround sound; reclining, wide-backed seats; stadium seating; and comfortably large lobbies. The theater game is one of upgrade or perish, and that's why all those theaters I used to attend no longer exist. They couldn't compete because the owners didn't want to invest the money to stay ahead. But there is one area in which the old movie theaters were superior: the people.

Employees used to be courteous and knowledgeable. Projection problems, when they occurred, were fixed promptly and it was never difficult to find someone to help because there were - gasp! - ushers. If you loved a movie, you could sit there all day and watch it repeatedly, and the ushers would come over in between shows and chat with you. Today's theater employees treat customers like cattle and if there's a problem, they glare at you for interrupting their phone conversation. I'm convinced one of the reasons people my age recall the theaters of the '70s with such a sense of loss is because the people working there still cared about what was being put on the screen.

Then there's the audience. Maybe the reason employees treat patrons like cattle is because that's how they behave. 50% of the time when a movie is ruined for me, it's because of my fellow viewers, who too often treat the auditorium like their living room. If you want to believe that common courtesy is dead, spend a Friday night at a 24-plex watching the latest big release. As a kid, I was always aware that I wasn't the only one in the theater and I did my best to make sure that no action on my part hurt the viewing experience of the others (although I will admit to having made the occasional whispered comment to whoever I was with). I can't decide whether people today are oblivious or so self-centered that they don't care. In the end, it doesn't matter. The effect is the same.

Over the years, the movie theaters have gotten bigger and more sophisticated. It's too bad the same thing can't be said of the people.