Monday, June 26, 2017

Turn down the lights and open the curtain it's showtime!

Happy Summertime ghoulies! I wanted to check in and just let you know that I have been busy working on new titles for Celluloid Coffin Video and well just general life. I thought I would take a moment and just reflect and wax nostalgic for awhile about the old days of theater.

My very first movie theater experience came when I was about 5 years old. This would have been around 1976. A year before Star Wars would change my entire worldview, along with millions of others. My father took me to the local shopping plaza which had a small theater. It was originally a Jerry Lewis chain theater but it was built right at the end of that failed business venture and quickly became the Plaza Theater. I was there to see a re release of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). I had been enthralled with giant monsters since seeing the original King Kong (1933) on television. I was fascinated with the special effects of Willis O'brien and my dad had even bought me the book "The Making of King Kong". I remember asking my dad which doors the monsters would come out of. I pointed to the EXIT doors at the front of the theater by the screen and he explained how this was all going to work.

When that opening credit sequence started accompanied by the incredible score by Bernard Herrmann, I was completely hooked! When the cyclops made his first appearance I was double hooked! I was officially a movie junkie at this point. I wanted to go back to the theater every weekend to see more monsters and more adventure. Alas that didn't quite happen but what did happen was my love affair with the silver screen and movie monsters. Ray Harryhausen's effects work for 7th Voyage were the makings of many a dreamscape for me. The Cyclops, the dragon, the two headed bird and that skeleton! That skeleton gave me nightmares actually and still remains my favorite part of the film.

It would be long until I was able to go to the theater again and see another monster film but this time at a different local theater. There was a very old theater in the downtown area of my sleepy little town called the Magic Lantern. It was originally called The Chadwick and sat at Main Street with it's bijou sign lit up for everyone to see. By the time the 70's had rolled around the theater had become more of grindhouse. It was notorious for screening the plethora of martial arts films and late night porn films. However they did screen some matinee material for the young ones and that would be when I got my first big screen experience with everyone's favorite Japanese radioactive mutant dinosaur Godzilla!

My absolute favorite Godzilla film is this one. Probably because I had experienced it on the big screen. It really has everything you could ask for. Three giant monsters, one robot that could fly and change its size, a kid close to my age at the time who was friends with Godzilla and the robot Jet Jaguar! Before the movie started the theater screened a cartoon. I believe the character was called "Blue Racer" but I could be wrong. I just referred to the insect main character as the "Japanese Beetle". Why? I have no idea, I was like 6 or 7 at this point. The Magic Lantern, as I said earlier, was an old theater. I believe it was originally constructed in the 1920's. It was the epitome of a classic movie theater. There was the traditional outside box office. When you entered through the doors you were treated to the smell of fresh popped popcorn. The carpet was a deep red as well as the velvet ropes that guided you past the concession stand and into the large auditorium. There was a stage, balcony and box seats as well. It was everything a classic movie theater should be. I saw two more films in this theater before it died. Those films were Inframan (1975) and Jaws 2 (1978). The last movie to be screened at the Magic Lantern was Friday the 13th part 3 (1982). I can't image the 3D effects being very good. For some reason I just think the owners just didn't care anymore. My theory is solidified by the fact that during the time the film screened the theater met it's demise. Sadly the theater burned down. A victim of arson and personal desperation.

With the demise of the Magic Lantern, the Plaza became my main go to theater. It was nowhere near as glorious as the Magic Lantern but it certainly provided a great service to local movie goers. I saw plenty of great and not so great movies there. From Superman II to E.T. to Friday the 13th Part 6 to Eddie Murphy Raw and beyond! It was a fun little theater but it had a flaw. It was located in a flood zone! Every once and awhile if there was a really, really bad storm the very front of the theater would take on water. This created a permanent stickiness to the floor in the first three rows from the screen.

Never the less this did not deter me and my friends from taking in a movie. Apparently it didn't deter many of my fellow movie goers either because there was always a line that would wind all the way down past several store fronts usually ending at the old Montgomery Wards. The line for Friday the 13th Part 6 & 7 were like this. People enjoyed these flicks and were happy to sit in a theater past it's prime and in need of a complete restoration. The Plaza would close and re open a few times before finally saying its final goodbye in the mid 1990's. The last movie to screen there was Major Payne (1995). A very unfitting end to a decades old movie house that provided so many movie memories for myself and many of my friends.

With the death of the two local theaters my screen time was now going to be had at the many surrounding sliver screens in my neck of the woods. Believe me there were plenty in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. Most of the ones that I frequented were at indoor shopping malls or had their own buildings located near a large shopping area. There were several older theaters as well but sadly I never got to see anything at many of these older locations before they closed.

 Thankfully there is still one classic theater still in operation. The Naro Theater in the downtown Ghent section of Norfolk, Va.

The Naro is more of an art house theater with it's clientele attending more for independent films and documentaries. They do show the occasional big picture but these are normally films that are nominated for Academy Awards. Over the past few years though they have expanded into more genre films.

I have had the pleasure of seeing screenings of Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954 - in 3D), The Time Machine (1960), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The Horror of Dracula (1958), Halloween (1978), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and several others. The Naro is the classic theater up and down. It's not as luxurious as I remember the Magic Lantern being but it certainly is classic with it's red carpeting, seating and curtains. It also has a stage which used quite regularly even today.
I have even had the pleasure of performing at the theater on several occasions. The Naro is also home to the bi weekly screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) complete with a local cast. Theater is certainly not dead and neither is the pocket book associated with the Naro. It recently underwent a digital upgrade (as many other theaters had to) and was able to pay for in part of theater goer contributions. This theater has stood the test of time and looks to continue to be a permanent fixture for many years to come.

So there's my little trip down memory lane ghoulies! Theater will always be a part of my life and these memories will last forever. I am just thankful to be able to have been a part of the lives of these classic theaters. Maybe one day this style will come back and instead of a 30 screen mega plex there will be more single screen classic theaters on every street corner on every Main street in every little sleepy town.

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