I'm old enough to have mourned single-screen theaters and drive-in theaters, and now I'm ready to begin mourning multiplexes. Of course, just as there are still some single-screens and drive-ins in existence, the beloved box-shaped movie theaters, which we've become so accustomed to frequenting in cattle-like fashion over the last forty years, are not becoming extinct anytime soon. In fact, there are new ones popping up all over the place; they're just newer models with more "luxurious" amenities. But specific multiplexes, perhaps some we have fond memories of, are indeed disappearing.
Well, disappearing might not be the right word, since some of the actual buildings aren't going anywhere just yet. But whole cinemas are shutting down, and it's not because their companies are going out of business or because they're going to be replaced with upgrades. Last week in the Hartford Courant, there was a terrific yet melancholy article about the recent closure of the Showcase Cinemas in East Windsor, Connecticut. The reason, according to its owner, National Amusements (which owns Viacom, too), is that the location was "no longer financially viable."
The problem for the locals is that the giant building and its giant, now-useless parking lot will probably stick around (and stick out) for a while. That is what happened with another Showcase Cinemas nearby in East Hartford; the multiplex shut down two years ago and its empty building still stands. Unfortunately, the deserted areas are only really suited for cinemas, and yet National Amusements apparently won't permit anyone to reopen the locations as movie theaters. But what else could these sites function as? Multiplexes aren't like old single-screen theaters, which are easily turned into music venues, restaurants (or coffee shops, like this Starbucks) and retail shops (such as this American Apparel). And that's if they aren't landmarked as historic properties (hopefully everyone is familiar with Cinema Treasures, the best site for keeping tabs on old movie theaters).
It isn't made clear why the buildings don't just get torn down, but I'm guessing that it's the town's responsibility to do that, and such a pricey endeavor is not feasible unless another business is ready to move into the site and cover those expensive redevelopment costs. Some of these dead multiplexes are in locations off highways and should be prime real estate for something like an Ikea or another big box store, but it seems most of those businesses like to start from scratch in undeveloped areas as opposed to recycling. After reading the Courant article, though, I kind of wish the town would just dig up all that concrete "gray field" and plant some trees and make another pond, returning the land to what it used to be like. As much as I love movie theaters, I do love nature a little bit more, and I definitely prefer parks to parking lots, birdbaths to Bed Bath & Beyonds and apple trees to Applebees.
I must admit that I'm not really mourning the East Windsor or East Hartford theaters. Despite my employment with National Amusements for a number of years (collectively 6, I think), I never saw movies at either of them. They weren't really in my moviegoing neighborhood. But another multiplex that closed earlier this month was. The Showcase Cinemas in Orange, Connecticut, was also permanently shut down for being no longer financially viable. And it is for this theater that I'm (figuratively) wearing a black arm band made of celluloid "leader".
By name, this was the first multiplex I remember going to as a kid. It was at least a half-hour drive from where I lived, but my town only had a few single-screen and double-screen theaters, and multiplexes were the cool new way to see movies with your family. You no longer had to pick one specific movie to see together. Between my brothers and my parents, we could all make completely different choices. So what if most of the time my younger brother and I ended up seeing the same movie, together? We could still feel like we were independent, just like we felt when we went out to a restaurant.
The thing I remember most about the Showcase Cinemas in Orange was how spacious the lobby was. And the best thing about that spaciousness was how, first thing, we would run around to each of the many spread out groupings of movie posters to see if there was anything new. Nowadays, of course, we can see all the movie trailers and movie posters on the internet, pretty much as soon as they're made, but back then you only saw what was put out on display, in those frames with the lit up "Coming Soon" title on top. At the single-screen theaters in town, you might have seen posters displayed for two upcoming movies. At the multiplex, you likely saw around twenty. In the decades before websites like Cinematical and ComingSoon.net existed (or even magazines like Premiere and Entertainment Weekly), it was one of the primary ways of learning about the movies I had to see in the future.
And certainly another great thing about the giant lobby was all the video games. Multiplexes of today still have a few games, I guess, but back in the '80s it seemed that every big cinema doubled as an arcade. As someone who never really bought into Atari or Nintendo or any other home video game system, I was sad to see the day come when my local arcade closed, and I was just as disappointed to see newer multiplexes built with smaller lobbies, partly, I supposed, because they no longer needed to be filled with so many games.
This was actually the fate of the Showcase in Orange, as a matter of fact. In the mid '90s, the original Showcase Cinemas Orange (pictured above in its pre-renovated 3-screen incarnation) was demolished because Bayer (the aspirin company) wanted its site for a new plant (So, yes, this is kind of technically my second time mourning the same multiplex). But Bayer paid for the construction of a new theater across the street, which had a tighter lobby that wrapped around one of those round, centerpiece concession stands (which I hate, regardless of whether I'm a concessionist or a customer). Of course, because a huge pharmaceutical company was footing the bill, it also got the best seats and screens and projectors and whatever else was available at the time.
But more than a decade later, there are better accommodations available. Incidentally, National Amusements is one of the theater owners making huge strides in the industry as far as innovation goes. The company's Cinema De Lux, Lux Level and Bridge cinemas are part of that new kind of multiplex that offers special amenities like wait service, reserved seating and concierge services. It's probably because one of those De Lux theaters opened up two years ago in Milford, the town next to Orange, that the Showcase Cinemas has now been deemed unviable and closed down. Who wants to go to an old multiplex made as way back as the 1990s when there's a 21st century design only a few exits away?
The De Lux will only be the new hotness for a short while, though. Those models are already being outdone by the recently announced Village Roadshow Gold Class Cinemas, which, with their $35 ticket prices, are continuing in the direction of multiplexes as a cool new way to see movies with your sugar daddy rather than with your family.