When you were a child, I imagine walking into the movie theater was a magical experience. Large screens with hundreds of people sitting down right next to you all to watch something you would never experience at home. The small screen was an entirely different experience. Television was the big three networks and maybe a few other local channels. If you are my age or even slightly younger, you will remember the huge TV sets with the small twenty inch screens where all of the colors became one big blob in front of you. And if you were color blind I can only imagine how difficult it was to be able to distinguish anything of note. (Although with the quality of some of the TV shows back then, I am not sure that you were missing much.) Movies at the theater were experiences; television shows were sleeping pills.
For those of us who were able to venture out into the movie theaters, we witnessed amazing spectacles every time. But there were very definitely different classes of movie theaters. When our parents were around they would talk about the days of the movies playing all day, non-stop, and you would come into the movie wherever and watch a couple of movies, shorts and a few other things and stay until you caught up to wherever you walked in. By the time we came along, movie theaters were mostly one hit wonders. You came into the movie theater to watch your one movie and left. (Unless you were those who were of the theater hoppers guild. I won’t tell on you. But you know what you did.) You had your two hours of entertainment and exited the theater.
On the other hand, there were movie houses that blended the old and the new experiences together in one package. They were the “cheap” theaters. At one of these venues, for just two dollars, you were more than welcome to watch a double feature. You could come in the middle of any of the movies and stay all the way until you caught up to where you came in. And if you fell asleep in the middle of a part you could keep watching until you finished watching both movies, or until the movie theater closed, whichever came first. Of course you wouldn’t want to be in the theater for too long because by the end of the night the guy in the corner was snoring loudly, and the couple in the back were doing things you didn’t want to know about, and you definitely didn’t want to have to explain to your children.
But aside from the clientele, there were some serious drawbacks to these cheap movie houses. First, the projectors that they had in these houses were constantly in disrepair. There was always something going wrong. And if it wasn’t the projector, the film itself looked like someone had taken it outside and drug it through the mud while doing the Gene Kelly dance from Singing in the Rain. The print was second, third, or even tenth rate. There were always lines going down the screen somewhere. If you go to Disneyland and check out Mickey’s House with his film shop in the back, you will get to see the Disney Characters make fun of these magical lines that would appear on the screen. And if the scratches in the print were not enough, you had to deal with enough dust built up on them that it looked like a cloud of ash was raining down on all of the characters in the movie. I won’t even get into what the sound was like at these places.
If that were all, I suppose you might tolerate it. But these theaters went cheap on their staff as well. There were a couple of people out front running the concessions, if that. And you weren’t sure whether you ever saw an usher. I suppose this made a small amount of sense because people would stay in the movie theater between the shows. But with how sticky the floors often felt, I’m guessing that these ushers worked but once a day, or they decided that cleaning a movie theater every night was the only time to do that. But by the time the night time crew came to clean, much of the mess was ground into the floors and the furniture. It would have been nearly impossible to get out.
These vestiges of the past slowly faded into the woodwork, but there are still a few of them around. As they faded into the history books, many of us have forgotten them. They have further faded into obscurity as theaters have added recliner seating, meals to order at your seat, as well as the ability to purchase adult beverages to their repetoir.
If you look closer at your community, however, you will find they still exist. But all you can think about is pulling the gum off your shoes as you walk down the aisles. Given our experiences as children, why would we want to go back? Let me give you eight reasons why you might reconsider going back.
1) It’s still cheap. Ok, not cheap as in awful. It’s cheap as in inexpensive. Movies at these cheap theaters cost two dollars. Where else in the world are you going to go and find zero inflation? Seriously!?!? 20 years later and still two bucks!?!? Insane!
2) The quality of the print is a lot better. Actually, I suppose I am lying. There is no print. These films today are on discs. There is no such thing as a print other than some archival footage buried deep within some studios vault. As much as I love the films of yesteryear with actual pictures running by at 24 frames a second, by making them discs these films have no degradation. The film is exactly the same the tenth, twentieth and fiftieth time it is played. Going to the cheap theaters you watch the exact same movie as the expensive ones, minus the alcohol.
3) The projectors themselves are better and not subject to the same breaking down. Without all of the gears and belts of the old projectors, you don’t have to worry about whether a fan gets off kilter. You go for a smooth movie experience and you get no difference between the theaters you go to, cheap or expensive. You might have to worry about the bulb dimming on the screen eventually but it’s not the hassle to change them as it once was where you wore army gear just to take the bulb out.
4) Even if things go wrong with a projector, they now have the ability to rewind things and start fresh. As movies are digital, rewinding them is a simple proposition. With the old theaters, if the movie’s sound went out for ten minutes as the big guy with the face tattoo accosted the manager to get the sound back on, you couldn’t rewind the film. You were stuck missing those minutes. Now the theater can just rewind it and you can take things from there. Thankfully, you no longer need to bring your pitch forks to these cheap movie theaters.
5) Many of these cheaper theaters also have deals on food. Whether one dollar hot dogs or $3.50 nachos, these theaters have cut the price of food to compete with the better seating and food of the more expensive theaters. If you get a movie and food for 10 dollars a person or less, what more can you ask? (aside from a million dollars, a nicer more reliable car… and maybe an all expenses paid cruise to the Mediterranean while you are thinking of it)
6) They have improved the cleaning on these theaters, cleaning out everything between every show. Maybe you don’t get a double feature, but at least you don’t feel like you have to wear a hazmat suit coming in either. And you won’t have to get a rabies shot once you leave, I promise. Unless you are watching the movie Cujo and then I promise nothing. Since people get moved out between shows, you do not have to deal with the soda spills that have sat for hours and allowed to get sticky, the popcorn that has been ground into the floors, or the gum that has been stepped on so often that the color of it blends in with the concrete.
7) The “cheap theaters” have the same 3D as their more expensive counterparts. I realize that it is a couple of dollars extra at the cheap theaters to see the 3D but now you can go to the less expensive theater and still be able to watch the film you want to watch, the way you want to watch it. You do not have to feel like you are missing something. Not only do you avoid dust bombs and scratches on prints, but your print actually gets to play in 3D.
8) It’s better to watch films with an audience. Why would you pay to go to a movie theater, albeit a cheap one, when you can wait and watch it at home on your Television for free? I realize that some of you will question my logic with the improvements in televisions. Scary as it seems, I believe we are eventually headed into Ray Bradbury territory with TVs as we will eventually have Fahrenheit 451, wall sized TV screens. As much as I am not opposed to watching a great movie at home, and I am certainly not opposed to being able to watch the movie as closely to the size that I would have in a movie theater, you still miss out on the movie going experience when you are not with an audience. There is nothing like having everyone ooh and ahhh the right parts of the movie. And with a horror film there is something about the shared experience of relief when the “good guys” escape. No matter how good TV sets become, big screens still do it better.
I admit that I feel like we are missing some of the nostalgia with the movie theaters running with high resolution photographs we would project onto the screen. And as a former projectionist at a movie theater, I think we have lost a lot of the magic of what cinema once was. Even the stories themselves aren’t the same. Often times we wish to beat people into submission with our films rather than just tell good stories. But technology has improved a lot of things in life, and has made these cheap theaters not only tolerable, but enjoyable places to go to watch cinema. If you haven’t lately, go check out a film at one of these places, you will find its a lot different than it was when you were younger.
So what was the last movie you have seen? And when was the last time you went to one of those “cheap theaters?” Tell us about your experience. If you enjoyed this post, check out some of the other posts in my blog and follow me. One last thing, for those who have already subscribed but have done so through WordPress, please send me a note through the contact section and I will provide you with the password to the subscribers only section: The Dad Rules. Subscribing to the site gets you access to that section and The Dad Rules Magazine.
Until next time, this is me signing off.
David Elliott, Single Dad’s Guide to Life