Movie theaters have, over the years, lost a bit of their luster. They no longer have the cache of an event like they used to, not in the age of 60-inch flat screen TV and surround sound home audio.
It occurred to me that, even in my most vivid memories of theaters, the actual qualities of watching the movie might be better in the home setting now, but could never match some of the experiences.
Fade in ... to the corner of Highway 35 and Palmer Avenue. A large building faces the highway. Before it stands a marquee that has seen better days. Emblazoned atop the sign is the name UA Movies at Middletown, a part of the United Artists' chain. This building once was a one- and two-screen affair.
But competition forced the owners to break down the second auditorium for square footage, build an extra wing of smaller screening rooms off to the right and expand its capacity to six. They called it a multiplex theater; but in those days of nouveau multiplexes, it was more like cubicles instead of offices in the corporate world.
Don’t bother looking for the theater now. It’s been the Target department store for more than a decade. But back in the mid-1990s, there once was a magical event at that took center stage once a week at that very spot where the infamous UA sat. We called it the Thursday Midnight Movie.
If, back then, you could be out (or sneak out) at ungodly hours of the night and you knew someone who worked there, you got to sit in on the “test run” of the films. The test-run was done after the regular screening hours, and was not for the general public’s entertainment. It was to make sure the film ran smoothly in the projectors, offering the management the opportunity to fix frayed or broken reels. Because this was considered a maintenance function, the viewing was free.
I had two connections: both my brother John and my friend Justin briefly worked there. And “briefly” seemed to be the tenure all employees "enjoyed" there. Taken in by the promise of all the movies you could see and all the popcorn you could secretly slip into your pockets, all for a paycheck, it would have seemed the ideal job – were it not for the working part.
It’s funny how even these perks could be unbearable when paired with obnoxious patrons, upper management that doesn’t understand, and the unwritten truth that, even though you had nothing to do with the Arnold Schwarzenegger flick being so bad, your role as an esteemed employee of the theater made it all your fault.
But these patrons were not there at the Thursday Midnight Movie. Neither was the concessions crew. But the lack of a concession flunkie to pour overpriced fake butter over our pricey popcorn was never a problem.
Instead, our motley band of cineastes trooped over to the QuikCheck, just to the right of the theater, to quench our movie munchies thirst. For a fraction of a large soda’s price we returned with bags of Doritos, satchels of Reese’s peanut butter cups, submarine sandwiches the size of an eleven-year-old child’s arm, the biggest cups of coffee available to us and, if I’m not mistaken, on one occasion John had an extra large container of French onion soup.
When the movies were good, they were very good. We watched Martin Scorcese’s Casino, Seven, and on a wintry Thursday-into-Friday we saw 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam’s mind-bending time travel film. When the movie was over, the theater was dead silent, not with disappointment, but with stunned awe from what was just given to us.
As we left the theater, our once unimpeded vehicles all had a two-inch veneer of snow atop them. It was, in a strangely real way, the bunch of us entering a profoundly different world from the one we’d left for the screening room. We saw Happy Gilmore there, and while many might not call it on par with the previous titles, we all laughed and quoted the film for weeks to come. The recollection of Bob Barker punching Adam Sandler in the stomach still makes me smile.
Let it not be said that every movie was a winner though. We also had Father of the Bride 2, and we prayed that after that one that the marriage would be a happy one and we’d never have to suffer through Father of the Bride 3 — Wed Harder. There was How to Make an American Quilt, or as Justin renamed it, How to Make an American Sleepy.
And sometimes, when the movie wasn’t fun, we made our own fun in the lobby by flipping on the arcade games or fishing poster tubes and empty cups out of the garbage for a rousing game of Lobby Hockey.
I’m afraid I never made the draft for the UA Theater Lobby Hockey teams; but I was perfectly satisfied with being a spectator.
Toward the end of our Midnight Movie access era, the films got less interesting but the screenings became more engaging. One of the last was the epic classic Big Bully starring Tom Arnold and Rick Moranis; it was epic because we knew, going in, that this couldn’t possibly be a good movie. It probably wouldn’t even rank as a passable TV movie, and so we shed our gloves, our etiquette and whatever social graces our parents had taught us and proceeded to be the most awful, rudest, most heckling audience in the history of projected entertainment.
That night, we raised a terrible comedy into the realm of high performance art. It was a shame that nobody caught the event on video but, as we all know, no cameras are allowed in the theater.
Poor attendance, faulty equipment, leaks in the roof, emergency exits that wouldn’t allow you to emerge (and others that one could never actually shut) conspired to make the UA Theater a losing proposition. It was just a matter of time, and now a generation knows nothing of the building except, perhaps, what they’ve been told about it.
For them, Target has always been there, and that’s the awkward beauty of an evolving town. It will never be the same thing for any one person at any one time-frame.
But for us lucky few, we had the nights, the best Hollywood had to offer as well as the worst, all to ourselves. We had an experience that could never be duplicated in our modern theater structures where digital projection has rendered test-runs unnecessary, and midnight screenings are offered for profit from anyone who wants to be “the first.” At least for us, the UA Theater Thursday Midnight Movie never has to end.