What is a skeptical malt ball for if not to express skepticism? With this truth in mind, let us proceed to an evaluation of the modern movie theater. In days of old, people went to the movies to. . .well, to see movies. There were giants then. Citizen Kane, The Ten Commandments, Spartacus. These and other films were populated by actors and actresses who were as larger than life as the titles in which they appeared. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of MGM, studio boss Louis B. Mayer gathered his galaxy of stars around him for a photo op. He had just one thing to say: “More stars than there are in heaven.”
The theaters where the movies appeared were big too. They were palaces filled with glistening and elaborate ornamentation. One such palace featured a rotunda ceiling in which Reela, the goddess of cinema, soared heavenward with an unraveling movie. These weren’t multiplexes. One theater featured one movie. Sometimes they ran double features. And no matter how elaborate the theater, the seats were of basic design. Often adorned in red velvet, but basic. The refreshments consisted of popcorn and candy.
That’s the scene Charlie Chaplin looked out on from those bygone movie screens. When he started in pictures, people sat on benches, and the only sound was a piano player in the back corner. So the basic theater seat was considered a plush advancement. The basic theater seat lasted for generations. Dictators and hair styles came and went, but the theater seat stayed put.
Then something happened. Someone got the bright idea that people might go to the movies for something other than movies. It seemed as counter-intuitive as asking a girl for a date while belching, but a new era was apparently dawning. Today’s movie theaters have as much glamour as the average hospital. They consist of hallways where hapless people wander in search of the door under a sign matching the name on their ticket. These tickets must be bought “online” in advance. If you show up trying to buy a ticket the old fashioned way, you sit with your face pressed against the screen. If you get in at all.
The seats are now three times the size of classic seating, which explains why every show sells out so quickly. They are bulbous recliners that seem more appropriate to napping than to viewing. Sitting in them feels like occupying the chair in the Lincoln Memorial. And who bothers with popcorn when there are servers to take and deliver your dinner order? If the movie proves disappointing, no problem. Just keep downing the alcoholic beverages the theater sells. Let everything melt into a psychedelic nirvana.
What would Mr. Chaplin think were he to peer out from the screen of a modern theater? Let’s not think about it. Happily, he’ll never have to see the contemporary hordes snoozing in their overstuffed recliners, slabs of pizza awaiting their attention on pullout trays, half-consumed beers stuck in the drink holders. Perhaps the best way to state the situation is to paraphrase the words of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Movie going used to be big. It still is. It’s the theaters that got smaller.