Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Movie Theater

When I was a young lad, I practically lived at the movies. Correction: I lived in the movies. The real world was merely something to pass through on my way into and out of the theater. Not anymore. The movie-going experience is not what it used to be and the movies are not to blame. The culprit is the movie theater.

When I was growing up in the late Sixties, downtown Cleveland, Ohio was home to such theaters as the Hippodrome, the Allen, the Loew’s State and Ohio, and the Palace, most located in an area still known as Playhouse Square. The Palace was especially well-named because, like all of these theaters, it was fit for a king. Plush architectural wonders, they made a trip to the movies an event even when the attraction was as mediocre as Murderer’s Row, a ridiculous spy thriller starring Dean Martin as Matt Helm, a secret agent less super, and certainly less sober, than James Bond whose fantastic adventures were all the rage during that decade. Yet I clearly recall seeing this turkey during my first visit to the Hippodrome in December 1966. I recall it more vividly than many superior movies I’ve seen since precisely because of the theater in which I saw it.

The downtown movie palaces are gone forever. The State, Ohio, and Palace are still standing but not as movie houses. The Hippodrome, however, exists only in memory. After closing its doors in 1980, it became a target of the wrecking ball to make room for a parking lot. Considering the grade Z exploitation movies the Hippodrome played throughout much of the Seventies (black exploitation and kung fu flicks), its demolition was a mercy killing. The Allen, boarded up for years, reopened its doors but only for live theater, not for the beam of a 35mm projector.

That’s a shame. These were special, distinctive theaters, completely unlike the multiplexes that dominate the industry today. Seeing a movie at the Hippodrome or the State was comparable to dinner at an elegant restaurant. Today’s multiplex cinemas are closer in spirit to McDonald’s. In the past, the theater where you saw a film was almost as important as the movie itself. If you saw the James Bond thriller Thunderball at the Loew’s State, as I did in December 1965, chances are you’d remember that you saw it at the State. Today, it’s doubtful anyone can accurately say where they saw a particular movie because the theaters all look and feel the same, and the movie playing at one multiplex is usually playing at all of them.

The neighborhood theaters of the past were not as impressive as the downtown movie palaces, but they had their own individual charms. My favorite was the Garden, located at West 25th Street and Clark Avenue, since it was in its darkened auditorium that I was introduced to the glorious world of cinematic make-believe, a world in which I spent some of the happiest times of my youth.

Today’s theaters are barely worthy of the name. The old theaters that do survive have been split up into multi-screen mini theaters, while the newer models built in the past thirty years are buried inside those ghastly shopping malls that are as lacking in character as the theaters themselves. And not just one theater, but often more than a dozen under one roof, all as unimaginatively numbered as so many of the sequels that play on their screens.

Those screens are another source of irritation. In the Fifties, when television lured Americans away from the movies by offering free entertainment in the living room, the motion picture industry fought the threat by offering what could not be found on that square box. Cinemascope, Cinerama, Vista-Vision (“Motion Picture High Fidelity”), and other innovative processes that required larger and wider screens were introduced. Now that television, as well as cable and home video, has proven victorious, theater screens are smaller than ever. It’s as though theatrical releases are little more than promotional tools to hype the disc or download scheduled for release a few months later.

Even walking through the lobby of those great old theaters was more pleasurable than being anywhere in one of the shoeboxes of today. The walls were adorned with large colorful posters of the current and coming attractions. Just as the screens started shrinking, so did those posters. They’re not as eye catching as they once were either. The poster for Thunderball featured panels of exciting artwork that conveyed the action in which star Sean Connery engaged in on screen in a way that may be more memorable than the movie itself. Posters for more recent 007 films simply feature photographs of the star posing with a gun and maybe a Bond girl or two.

Well, kids, let me sum up by saying you don’t know what you missed. I may sound like an old codger drawing unfavorable comparisons between modern reality and an idealized past, but the fact is a night at the movies isn’t what it used to be. Today, you buy your overpriced ticket, see the movie and maybe a coming attraction or two, and are then rushed off the property. Considering the quality of too many of today’s films, who needs to be rushed? Chances are you’ll be hurrying out the door with no encouragement from management for fear of being locked in overnight and subjected to another viewing of The Human Centipede by a deranged projectionist.

Murderer’s Row: now that was a good movie!

PS: On a bright note, the Capitol, a grand old neighborhood theater on the west side of Cleveland, has been restored and is a full time movie house (with digital projection rather than film, which could be the subject of another nostalgic blog entry). It's a multiplex with three screens, but the two smaller theaters are upstairs. If you see a movie in the main auditorium, it's just like old times, especially on those Sunday mornings when, for five bucks, you can see everything from Citizen Kane and North by Northwest to The Pink Panther (the original with Peter Sellers) and The Bad Seed.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


No comments:

Post a Comment