In praise of urban movie theaters

In praise of urban movie theaters

When I was in grade school, the nuns brought my class to Duluth’s NorShor Theater to see a revival of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Our little minds were blown as we sat there in the front row, watching giant eyeballs tremble.

In junior high, my aunt Betsy took me to the Uptown Theatre in Minneapolis to see Gone With the Wind for the first time. I was entranced, as much by John Waters’s no-smoking clip as by the feature attraction.

In high school, I’d walk the several blocks from our house in St. Paul to the Grandview Theater, where I’d sit in the front row (those nuns taught me well) to watch movies Premiere told me were Important, like Dances With Wolves and The Crying Game.

In college, my Boston University classmates and I would take the Red Line to Cambridge to see double-features (Blood Simple with Shallow GraveRepulsion with The Tenant) at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square.

By the time I was in grad school, the Boston Common movie theater had opened. My friends and I saw innumerable first-run movies there—maybe most memorably Revenge of the Sith, which I pregamed with a beer-tasting and then waited for my friends while sitting on the gum-spotted sidewalk scarfing lo mein out of a styrofoam take-out container from Chinatown.

There are so many others I haven’t even mentioned: the Highland Theatre, the Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Trylon Microcinema, the defunct Nickelodeon, the Lagoon Cinema…the list goes on.

There’s a special quality to urban movie theaters. They’re less likely to have up-to-the-minute projection technology—but they’re more likely to have art-deco murals allegorically depicting the birth of the Mississippi. They’re less likely to have free-refill rewards programs, but they’re more likely to have real butter that doesn’t cost extra. They’re less likely to have free parking, but they’re more likely to have true marquees, with blinking lights and hand-mounted letters spelling out the names of the films being shown.

The allure of urban movie theaters isn’t just about nostalgia, though there’s certainly that. Whether they’re classic (like the Uptown), modern (like the Lagoon), newly-built (like the Boston Common), or appropriated from other spaces (like the Trylon), the important thing is that they’re theaters in the city. You step in off the busy street and disappear into a dark, quiet—well, quiet as long as there’s no condo construction immediately nearby—space where you lose yourself in a movie, then you emerge straight back out into a city that’s two hours darker, two hours more exciting.

Growing up, I went to plenty of suburban theaters, and had a fine time—but they all tend to blend into each other. In only a few cases do I have the kind of sharp, clear memories of suburban moviegoing that I do of urban moviegoing. Suburban theaters just tend to be less distinctive.

Even more importantly, suburban moviegoing feels less like a special event and more like a trip to Costco. Before and after the movie, you cross a vast parking lot full of cars driven by people who’ve come from anywhere and are going back to anywhere. The lobby experience is all about efficiency: getting people in the door, taking their money, then getting them back out afterwards. Urban movie theater lobbies are smaller—not just because space is at a premium and because there are typically fewer screens, but because there are things to do and see outside the lobby.

Support tends to rally around urban movie theaters only when it’s too late—when one is imminently in danger of closing. There should be the equivalent of a Record Store Day for urban movie theaters: a way for us to celebrate and support our urban movie theaters before they’re in danger of closing. The long-term outlook is good for urban movie theaters: rising generations increasingly like to live in cities, and decreasingly like to own cars. Home video—now including streaming video—has been challenging movie theaters for decades, but maybe that’s exactly why we don’t need gazillion-screen multiplexes. One good screen is worth a dozen mediocre ones.

To make sure we still have great urban movie theaters in decades to come, we need to protect the ones we have now. Existing theaters are highly vulnerable—chances are, the urban movie theater near you has probably had a near-closing scare related to a change in ownership or the need for expensive renovations—and new ones, especially awesome new ones, are hard to build. There are currently no movie theaters in downtown Minneapolis or downtown St. Paul: over the past few decades, a couple have been built and then closed.

Here was one problem with those defunct new theaters, though: in both cases (Block E and Galtier Plaza), they were built as urban movie theaters pretending to be suburban theaters, fronting on enclosed malls and ultimately falling victim to those malls’ woes. When they’re in the city, people want to be in the city. Let’s have more new urban movie theaters, theaters with marquees that invite pedestrians to spontaneously pop in right off the street—and let’s protect the ones we have.

Jay Gabler