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One of the major movie theater chains recently announced it plans to close all its United States and United Kingdom locations indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The newest James Bond movie has had its opening date changed so many times that the movie will probably be five years old before it come out in theaters. A few other big-budget movies have had their releases postponed. Couple this with stringent measures that vary from location to location, and the movie theater has probably breathed its last breath.
As a lot of us had figured, this was a long time coming. For a long time, the theater experience wasn’t what we had remembered and what we had enjoyed.
When I was a teenager, way back when, I worked in a movie theater. The manager was a family man named Mr. Lynch and he looked at all of us employees like his own children. He was kind and friendly, with a good sense of humor. Looking back on it, old Mr. Lynch was probably not that old and was probably the same age as I am now.
It was a small theater, with two big auditoriums that had been there since the place was new, and five smaller theaters newly built to the one side. I had the job of tearing the ticket stubs and directing customers to their movies. It was easy and fun and on a busy night, the time would fly.
Once in a while, I would duck into a theater and watch a few minutes of the movie. I think I saw all the new releases that year, but not in any particular order. I saw the end before the beginning and I would sometimes see the middle before anything else and nothing would make sense. I knew all the songs that played during the ending credits because that’s when I was in the theater picking up trash and sweeping.
I knew the movies that were good and the movies that were bad. I knew the people who always tried sneaking in and I know a few people who stepped outside the exits that didn’t allow you back in once you stepped out. I saw local celebs and once met a real princess, but from where I can’t remember. She was nice and pretty and about my age and had a couple of guys in dark clothes with her.
We thought movies were expensive then, but they probably cost about a third of what they do now. I remember a woman saying she would stop coming to the movies if they ever reached $5 to get in. I wonder what she says about it now.
As employees, we got free soda and popcorn. We had to use our own cups and bowls, but it was free. A couple times we had jalapeno pepper eating contests when the customers were all gone for the night. It was work, but it was also a night out at the movies. We would see our friends and classmates and all have a good time.
I once saw a girl I kinda liked at the theater with some of her girlfriends and I had the nerve to ask her out. She accepted and asked where I would take her. To the movies, of course. We had that one date and that was it. Later on, she dated a buddy of mine, and I remember the movie more than I remember her. Her name was Jennifer and some French last name. She wasn’t French, though. She was just a girl from Maryland whose last name I can’t remember.
For generations, the local theater or movie house was the center of family entertainment. Before television, there was radio. Radio was great, but the pictures were in your mind. The movies brought the picture to you in Technicolor and in 70mm Cinemascope and stereo sound.
There were cowboys and cops, pirates and war heroes. There was Sergeant York and Dorothy Gale, Tony and Maria, and later on, Rooster Cogburn and Dirty Harry.
The movies became more adult, but the theater remained the same. There was the ever-present aroma of popcorn, the sweet stickiness of the Coca-Cola stain that happened to be under your feet every time you sat down.
A boy and girl shared a tub of popcorn and once in a great while, their fingers would touch and they both would pull back wondering what would happen if they gave up on the popcorn and just held hands.
At the theater, friendships were made and broken. Boys met girls and girls met boys and after the movie, they would gather in the lobby and talk before their parents picked them up in that big station wagon with the wood on the sides. Young couples would save a few dollars to get a “date night” once in a while to come see the new hit movie.
Parents would sit through that year’s big kid movie wishing they were somewhere else. Groups of young men would huddle in the corner, smoking cigarettes and looking at the group of young girls trying not to look back at them. In the parking lot, car radios went from Buddy Holly to Elvis to the Beatles to Led Zeppelin to disco and so on.
The kids from the lobby would become the parents and then the grandparents and they would still come back to the theater. America loved the movies. The movies loved America.
Along the way, the movies got bigger and more expensive, so the theaters got bigger and more theexpensive. Television was supposed to kill the movies back in the ‘50s and didn’t. The movies lived on through the ‘60s, the ‘70s, the ‘80s and beyond.
Now, as the theaters have grown old, television offers streaming services that bring the new movies directly into your home.
My wife and I don’t go to the movies much anymore, for a lot of reasons. Once in a while, it’s nice to see something on a big screen in the dark with a room full of strangers. Television just doesn’t bring us together like that.
I want to see movies in a theater. Big movies that deserve to be seen on a big screen. It’s not so much about the movie, but the experience. It’s about the memories. It’s about the fingers touching accidentally in the popcorn.
The next time I go to the movies and I brush against the girl’s fingers in the popcorn, I’m just gonna go for it and hold her hand. I’ve been married to her for a long time and I don’t think she’ll mind much at all.
Joe Weaver, a native of Baltimore, is a husband, father, pawnbroker and gun collector. From his home in New Bern, he writes on the lighter side of family life.