I’m fortunate to live in a town that still has one of those grand old movie theaters from the early days of cinema. Our local theater seats over 1700 people. It has a magnificent and regal entry foyer and the inside is lavish and richly decorated. The original owners included a full stage and backstage areas, allowing for both live theater and movies. While still glamorous, the theater is now tattered and a bit sad around the edges. Many of those 1700 seats are in poor shape, and when attending sold out live performances canny attendees know to get there early enough to insure finding a comfortable spot to sit. The lush velvet curtains are torn and patched, the elegant plaster frescoes are chipped, and the whole place has the look of a once well to do house that has sunk down into poverty.
In recent years the theater was used almost solely for live shows, with movies shown during the Wisconsin Film Festival. Recently we almost lost this wonderful place, but luckily a new owner has come along with enough money and interest to restore the place.
How much of a difference does the venue make on our movie experiences? All of my most memorable movie experiences are of films seen in groups. Not a one is of a movie I saw first at home.
I saw “There’s Something About Mary” with a group of friends. We attended a crowded performance on a Saturday night, and the laughter was so loud that at times it was actually hard to hear. I wonder: if I’d seen that movie alone at home, or with just one or two other people, would it have been that funny?
Years ago, before VCRs and cable TV, the University of Wisconsin had numerous movie societies. These groups rented lecture halls to show films on weekend nights. You’d pay your money at the door and some serious, shaggy-haired graduate student (hey, it was the 1970s) would stand up front and give an introduction to the movie before it started. The seats weren’t padded, you brought your own refreshments, and the sound quality wasn’t anywhere near the surround-sound Dolby experiences in today’s multiplexes; but almost all of my favorite movie memories were in those large lecture halls.
These showings were participatory affairs long before the Rocky Horror Picture Show. At my first viewing of Casablanca, I tried to follow along with the rest of the audience. Everyone stood and sang La Marseillaise; the first camera shot of Major Strasser unleashed a loud chorus of boos; and, of course, everyone erupted in cheers and applause when that famous line “Round up the usual suspects” was uttered. I was hooked. The campus film societies were my introduction to foreign movies, Hollywood classics, film noire, old comedies; every type of movie was available. A typical weekend night provided a choice of 30 movies.
I gained a lifelong appreciation of foreign and older films. I doubt if I’d have become as interested in films if my first time watching Fellini’s 8 ½ had been on a laptop. Hitchcock’s “The Birds” would have seemed lacking in suspense had I been watching at home on a TV while texting back and forth and going to the kitchen to get something to eat.
I watch many movies at home, some on TV, others on an a tablet. I’m able to enjoy them, but there’s never a “wow!” moment. That’s why I still prefer to see movies at a theater. It’s magical to sit in total darkness with that huge screen. My concentration is on the screen, not on the cat, or the phone, or the computer or whatever else happening around me.
It’s not perfect. The cost, of course, is higher, and way too often there’s some oaf who can’t manage to keep quiet or forgets to turn off their phone. While the multiplexes have older theaters beat in comfort and sound quality, I miss the feeling of grandeur and elegance those magnificent lobbies and theaters had. Regardless of all that, I’d still rather see a movie in a theater, on the big screen, than at home.