Last week I went on a winter coastal road trip. It was fun to get out of the city, visit smaller towns and see more of the country. During this trek I stayed in a handful of towns along the eastern coast and throughout my travels I noticed how very few old time independently run theaters there are out there these days. Where I grew up, there was one similar to this photo (left) near where we lived. It just showed one movie at a time and wasn't even open every day. It was run by a family. By the time I was in high school we moved to a different area where there was a multiplex type set up. Don't get me wrong, I went to plenty of films there, but my favorite was the one screen old movie house from where we lived before. This photo is from a little single screen movie theater on Chincoteague Island, Virginia. The Roxy was built in 1945 in the Art Deco style, with 352 seats. The island theater has much of it's original design still intact, including a painted ceiling. It shows current releases and hosts a town film club. It's not one of those grandiose palatial sort of movie theaters that often gets refurbished to its original splendor (those are lovely too). It's just a pretty old theatre that represents part of a town's history and is still an active force. I'm guessing it's not owned by a large corporation, but looks to be a participating member of the robust main street in Chincoteague.
After spotting a couple of theaters like this, I Googled independent movie houses when I got home. There were quite a few listings for them everywhere in the country, yet I still get the feeling that they are a bit of dying breed. Although I have noticed the resurgence of old movie theaters in the last 15 years or so. Movie houses of yesteryear are getting revamped. the structures themselves are staying where they are and often renovated toward something resembling their original design or at least given a retro feel. They often show current releases as well as sponsor themed events around older and retro films, like sing-a-longs to musical cult favorites or 70's karate movie marathons. These theaters also offer full meals and an assortment of alcohol. That's definitely a different twist to the original movie theater, but it's a twist that brings in the crowds and keeps them open.
One of the most well known of these theaters is The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain out of Austin, Texas. Where I originally come from we have McMenamins Pubs that show movies and also offer live music on certain nights. Laurelhurst Theater is good example of a 1920's theater that had closed down in the 80's as a result of the multiplex boom, only to open again, fully restored and now offers a full menu and alcohol. These renovated old theaters with a new twist have popped up everywhere and have inhabited old single screen houses to slightly larger ones. I do enjoy them a whole lot and highly recommend the couple I mentioned. There are also those theaters that have been renovated and run by a corporation theater chain. These theaters are nice too. The Neptune in Seattle is owned by Landmark but still feels like a locally owned operation, partially because it's a company that promotes independent, foreign and art house movies.
What I do miss though is the old movie house that is just an old movie house. The Roxy seemed to be that. A place where you see a film and buy a reasonably priced (you heard me) popcorn and sit in comfy seats. In my Googling I came across a book devoted to historical movie theaters. Cinema Treasures: A New Look at Classic Movie Theaters (2004) takes a look at the history of American movie theaters. There were other books via Amazon I found, so there's an obvious nostalgic interest in them still.
What I really thought about on my trip in relation to The Roxy and others like it was what kind of value a locally owned movie theater brings to the town lives in. I imagine in a similar way a family run restaurant, privately owned hardware store or corner coffee shop serves its community, the town film theatre does the same. It aids other nearby businesses. After all, before a film you might grab dinner at the grill around the corner or head to a cafe to discuss your cinematic experience over coffee afterward. In addition, it brings its surrounding neighborhoods together under a common interest. Okay so maybe that's not too different than what you might do before or after seeing something at the AMC or Regal Cinemas. The difference being I suppose is that most of the cineplex odeons are located in malls outside of town. I know those malls cater to the housing developments in the area, but they generally aren't locally owned. They are usually made up of chain cinemas and chain retail stores. Those of course have their value, but I don't think they support local businesses and foster a community culture the way an independent theater on a town's main street might. I believe that is part of why small town America seems to be rapidly disappearing and also why it's so important to save. A valuable culture is dwindling. One that America was kind of built on. A family owned business that thrives, supports other businesses by attracting clientele to it's area and helps fosters a culture of arts, which leads to dialogue which brings about community. Community is an important ingredient in our social structure. It's a big part of what makes us human. I'm sure I'm not bringing new news to anyone reading this. Those mega mall movie theaters don't really offer that ingredient as much as they do the super-sized family pack with extra goo on your nachos and butter flavoring on your bucket of corn. And those cheesy extras just aren't that good for you.