It’s Saturday night. You and your significant other plan a night out at the movies. It’s tradition! Most of you plan to see a new release. Cinephiles may be seeing an old movie like “The Godfather” on the big screen. Maybe you’re out with friends, sharing a common interest in a particular movie. A part of the excitement is simply getting cozy in a dark theater with your favorite snacks and drinks. And then take a ‘most excellent adventure’ with the characters on the big screen.
Since Thomas Edison sold a few Vitascope projectors to brothers Mitchell and Moe Mark in Buffalo, New York, movie-goers have been infatuated with seeing movies in the theaters. The Mark brothers called their storefront theater, Vitascope and opened their cinema with seventy-two seats to the public on October 19, 1896.
The State Theater in Washington, Iowa is the oldest operating movie theater in the world, first showing films in 1897. The theater was entered into the Guinness Book of Records on April 21, 2016. It was still operating as of January 1, 2020.
But as you are all unfortunately aware, all movie theaters around the world are closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As a society the entire world has looked to the cinema in good times and bad times. Movies help us escape the daily grind as well as to be informed in times of war and conflict. Technology has placed moving pictures and information into the palms of our hands, but our appreciation and excitement for the big screen will never fade away.
In 1902, the first motion picture theater, Tally’s Electric Theater, popped up in a California storefront. One of the first and most popular films was “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903. It was only twelve minutes long, but it captivated imaginations.
John P. Harris and Harry Davis, in 1905, opened a movie theater in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania storefront, coining it Nickelodeon for its price of admission, five cents or a nickel. By 1908, thousands of Nickelodeons had opened up across North America.
Aero Theater in Santa Monica
Before Nickelodeon theaters were all the rage, people flocked to theaters to watch actors perform vaudeville, a variety show and combination of burlesque, comedy, song and dance. One vaudeville veteran, Buster Keaton, was invited by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle to play a small role in a two-reel comedy he was co-starring in and directing, “The Butcher Boy” in 1917. Keaton found his calling!
Buster Keaton went on to direct and star in films he made famous, “The General,”“Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” “Sherlock, Jr.,” “The Navigator,” “Go West,”, “The Scarecrow,” “The Paleface,” “Battling Butler” and “Seven Chances.” His deadpan face and humorous ways made us laugh at him and with him. He did anything for a laugh. He went to great lengths to perform the most incredible and dangerous stunts just for a laugh. He put his own body through a lot of damage. All in the name of entertainment.
Personally, I grew up admiring lots of characters that stemmed from the early days of cinema when everything was in black and white. Other favorites include Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy and The Three Stooges.
I really liked Charlie Chaplin, but didn’t know the extent of his genius until I moved from New York to Los Angeles, California in 1992. And I barely knew of Buster Keaton really until I moved to LA. The Los Angeles County Museum was screening many of Keaton’s films for a few months in early 1994 I believe. Those screenings literally changed my life. I fell in deeper love and appreciation for the cinema and seeing movies on the big screen that I didn’t know was even possible. And I have Buster Keaton to thank for that. I even ended up making a few short silent films with a friend.
Seeing “The Great Buster” at The Aero with my friend, Sean Kinney, on the left.
Charlie Chaplin was someone I got a kick out of. While Keaton made audiences laugh at his expense, Chaplin’s humor was often politically motivated. “The Great Dictator” is an amazing accomplishment, poking fun at Adolf Hitler while Hitler was still in power. Both comedians took amazing risks in order to reach millions of viewers. Chaplin is known for “The Tramp,” “The Kid,” “The Gold Rush,” “Modern Times” and “City Lights” co-starring Buster Keaton.
Both Keaton and Chaplin along with other film artists such as Harold Lloyd helped kick off the passion that is the cinema. These funny, creative, innovative brilliant minds took us from the days of silent films into ‘Talkies’ an era where sound was added, giving actors a more realistic human feel. Talkies may have ended the silent movie phenomenon at the time, but silent films are still inspiring entertainment today everywhere you look. Keaton’s house falling on top of him, just missing him in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” has been mimicked dozens of times in film,television and commercials.
Los Angeles also has the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood. In the mid-90’s this place screened all sorts of silent films and with live organ accompaniment. It was a really hip thing to attend. There are still events today, but not as authentic as those days in the 90s.
Some of my earliest experiences with the cinema were in Minnesota where I lived as a kid. I recall seeing movies in a drive-in theater. I remember seeing “The Towering Inferno.” And my most endearing memories of cinema involve a gigantic dino-lizard named Godzilla, stomping through Japan and destroying Tokyo. Last year, 2019, The Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, California, did a revival of Godzilla movies and played back-to-back films in 35mm. I…was…in…heaven. Seeing and hearing Godzilla ROAR on the big screen put me right back into my childhood days.
Sidney Patrick Grauman built two of the most elaborate cinema landmarks in Hollywood; the Chinese Theater and the Egyptian Theater. My favorite movie theater to see larger-than-life movies is by far The Chinese Theater. The Chinese Theater opened May 18, 1927. A lot of the elaborate decor is of Chinese nature. And Chinese artisans designed sculptures to enhance the theater’s look and feel. The TCL Chinese Theater, as it’s now called, is absolutely breathtaking! The Egyptian is also quite amazing. Both theaters have very high ceilings like buildings that could have belonged to the Greeks, Romans or even the Egyptians perhaps in between the Pyramids.
When I was about six years old, my father took me to see “Star Wars, A New Hope” in 1977. I was FLOORED! What is this world of rebels, furry characters and dark figures breathing heavily into my face and psyche? I think my Dad, a huge movie fan was taken by it too, because we returned to the movie theaters to see it a second time. I believe we were going to see a different movie the third time, but whatever that movie was was sold out. No matter. I would spend the rest of my life seeing this movie, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” whenever the chance presents itself on the big screen. That’s where these George Lucas movies were intended to be seen and for generations to come with the new Star Wars adventures.
My childhood was also very much influenced by Steven Spielberg. “Close Encounters,” although I didn’t quite understand it until years later, would have a profound affect on me. My sense of wonder about the world and the universe would blossom over the years. Soon it would be “E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial” that warmed my heart. And my sense of adventure was catapulted into existence by “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” All these movies seen first on the big screen is how I’ll always remember and think of them.
In my early adult years, Stanley Kubrick took over my mind. I think he stole it. Kubrick figuratively pulled back my eye-lids like in “A Clockwork Orange” and pulled me in to his worlds. “The Shining” is one of my favorite movies. “2001, A Space Odyssey” continues to affect me. The visual effects are absolutely dream-like and gorgeous. If anything was meant to be seen in 70mm IMAX, it’s “2001.” Much of Kubrick’s films, like Spielberg, were meant to be seen on large screens. Some of Kubrick’s larger-than-life films include “Paths of Glory,” “Spartacus,” “Lolita,” and “Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Another wonderful film worth mentioning is “Full Metal Jacket.” Larger than life characters need to be seen and heard as big as the screens can be made.
The bigger the better! That’s why we need to support the movie theaters when unforeseen events force them to close for a period of time. Los Angeles is especially full of cinema history. And there’s outdoor venues, cemetery screenings, movies in the park, etc. Go see them all, but don’t forget the movie theaters.
Movies That Matter movie Meetup at The Landmark.
When Laemmle Theater chain opens up again I plan to go see a movie to support bringing them back. They’re a smaller movie chain that often shows independent and/or foreign made feature films. Laemmle is just beginning to partner with a streaming company that will offer their movies on demand so they can survive in the meantime. Click here for more info., trailers and more.
AMC Theaters recently started on-demand to coincide with the regular box office theater option. I’ve been a member of their popular AMC Plus Pass which allows you to see three movies a week for $19.95 a month. They’ve suspended the cost for now while the theaters are temporarily closed.
For a few years I had a Meetup group called Movies That Matter LA. Usually I would pick a new release that involved a social issue related story. Often these movies were based on real people and true events. Some movies we saw were “Hidden Figures,” “Miles Ahead” “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and “Snowden.” One of the documentaries we saw was “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power” about climate change. My group would see the movie and then we would discuss it afterwards at a restaurant or coffee shop.
That’s me, Ross H. Martin, in the photo holding a Golden Ticket from “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” one of my favorite movies. This screening with a Q & A took place at the NoHo 7 Laemmle Theater. It was part of a month-long celebration of Gene Wilder films.
Laemmle NoHo 7
Originally called The Pacific Theatres Cinerama Dome, it opened November 7, 1963 with the premiere of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” in 70mm. Cinerama is a process that brings three synchronized movie projectors together displaying one-third of the picture on a wide, curved screen. The curved screen is an added touch to make the audience member feel more connected than watching on a plain flat screen.
What’s your chosen candy? I grew up eating anything chocolate. My go-to was Rasinets, Goobers or Nestle Crunch bars. And of course, popcorn. Although I can’t much popcorn anymore as it upsets my stomach. There’s nothing like kicking back and reclining in a stadium-made leather chair with a drink and snacks and watching a new movie release. I actually miss the old days when you could hear the plastic film running through the projector.
Today, projectors run digitally and very quiet. With technology getting better and better, movies are looking better and sounding better. Having worked at Fotokem post-production the past five years, I’ve witnessed the work being done on 70mm films still being produced by the likes of filmmakers Quentin Tarantino (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) and Christopher Nolan. Just last night I watched “The Dark Knight” on my little TV screen. Yes, I need a bigger TV. But I recall first seeing “The Dark Knight” at the famous Arclight Cinemas in the Dome. Over 75 feet tall, the Cinerama Dome, another favorite theater of mine, is as impressive on the outside as it is on the inside.
The Dome with Godzilla
Today, the Dome seats 800 people. At times, there is a display as a part of the giant white dome. When “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (2019) was released you could see Godzilla’s face breaking out of the top and light shining from it symbolizing his nuclear energy zapping the heavens. The Arclight Theaters is also very big on quest speakers doing Q & As after screenings.
And after writing about these movie theater icons and theater chains, I may have to attend them all once they open back up for business. I’ll go see a movie at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (TCL Theater). Then maybe I’ll catch a movie at the Dome. I’ll definitely go support Laemmle Theaters.
The Vista Theater playing “Wonder Woman.”
And now I’m reminded of another great movie theater in Hollywood. The Vista Theater, opened as early as 1923, holding 400 seats. It plays newly released movies as well as classic movies of the past. Last year, at the Vista I saw “Batman: The Movie” (1966). It was the first time I had seen it in a theater and it was wonderful. All the cheesy dialogue and action made me feel all warm and fuzzy.
At Vista the manager or ‘epic manager’ as he is often referred to as, Victor Martinez, is very much like a showman, dressing up at his premieres. He even recruited Wonder Woman.
Vista Theater Wonder Woman Premiere. My friend, Michael McLaughlin, is on the far right. Manager Victor Martinez, far left.
And finally, with my re-instated AMC Plus Pass, I’ll return to doing what I love most, seeing movies in the theaters.
We in our 40s grew up with so much change at the cinemas. We look forward to bigger and better. Younger people can look forward to those awkward first dates. The movies give them something to break the ice afterwards. Some hand-holding. Sharing popcorn. Maybe a scary horror film makes one lean on the other. These couples will have families and take their children to see the newest animated film and perhaps see them in 3-D. Enjoy!
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