There is something that bothers me about the death of a movie theater.
The place for movies, in my hometown, was the Twin Cinemas. When new movies were released on Fridays, we were frantic as our school bus passed the building on its way to our neighborhood, and we would peer out of the windows to see which of the newest releases were showing on the marquee.
My first date was in that theater, watching an Indiana Jones adventure, with the girl I would marry. That perfect night was completed at the adjacent Pizza Hut. Movie and dinner. For cheap. In a small hometown. It was big stuff. But it died, as a theater, some thirteen years ago. The building is now home to a furniture-rental business.
That building, now, reminds me of a shoe box you keep in your closet, filled and stuffed with cards and memories. It is the building of special things for me, but it will never recapture what I felt there. And it does not help that the exterior of the building looks scarcely different from its days as a theater.
It was also the place of my one of my earliest memories as a child. The line on opening night, in 1978, for Superman: The Movie was a very long line, easily a thirty minute wait. I was four-years-old when we stood in that line, and I can still remember the anticipation of wondering if tickets would still be available for us. The Twin Cinemas was the only theater for a scattering of small towns in northeast Arkansas, and opening nights for any movie were extravaganzas.
I was one of the last patrons of a local movie theater, walking out of one of the very last shows. Muvico, in downtown Memphis, as of today, has closed its doors, and though it failed to remain successful, it was, to me, the dream of downtown. And it was one of the most beautiful, and majestic theaters I have ever seen. A toy train circled the theater, and with twenty-two screens, and 4,800 seats, it was bigger than life, and the main attraction of a downtown complex that meant to offer places to play, to eat, to shop, to relax, and to be entertained.
It only lived and breathed, as a theater, for seven years, though. It became victim to its own clientele, and underestimated the amount of control needed to operate such a gleaming attraction in a famously “dangerous” city. In less than two years, it was garnishing unfavorable reviews in The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis newspaper, which spotlighted its less-than-fervent commitment to keep various behavior problems under control. And the beauty and majesty of this theater was tainted, and never seemed to recover. But it was not the fault of the building. And, in spite of all of the negativity, it is still a place of great memories.
Muvico is but one of a handful of theaters which fascinate me. Here’s why.
I am, like most, inspired by the lofty ceilings of a movie theater, of its grand designs, and even, at times, swayed to buy concessions that cost way too much. I enjoy all of this, more for the experience of being there, than watching the movie itself. And that is probably where most of us are alike. I would not call myself a connoisseur of films, for I do not know every trivial moment for every movie, or actor, or director. What I do know, however, are personal experiences when watching various films. I imagine most of you feel the same way.
We walk away from bad movies, only to return to the same theater, and pay the outrageous ticket price, to watch another movie. We do not walk into the theaters just to watch. We go to be inspired — to walk into a place that takes us from the ordinary. We watch images which are bigger than our eyes can hold. We like the quiet anticipation in the darkened room, in the comfortable seats, amid whispers, and we feel a quickening of our pulse when the lights finally dim. For me, that feeling has never entirely faded.
And it is that very reason that I am saddened by its closing. That was a small place in a big world that provided a well-worn trail for people who are in desperate need of escape, and in desperate need to find something much bigger than their own lives. We have transformed movie theaters into modern temples, places of worship of the otherworldly. It is the church for people who both attend church, and those who do not. It has a weekly attendance rate that is enviable, and a weekly offering that any church would love. It is the place where people spend their money, their time, and their special occasions. And though the fare is the pinnacle of secular worship and not always morally acceptable, it is hard to ingore the even and consistent theme of good, triumphant over evil. It is difficult to ignore, then, the core and purpose of humanity, even in the most vile of movies.
The space which housed all of those screens will soon be transformed into what is believed to be a much more profitable enterprise. And there are other theaters which serve similar purposes. But none downtown. None in the heart of a city in need of hope.
I did leave with some memorabilia, though, from Muvico. I took some of our students last night to a double-feature. And came home with a movie poster which hung in one of its frames.
A poster for The Incredible Hulk. The best movie of the summer.