At the movies: Some favorite theaters

I love movie theaters.

Granted, I don’t enjoy some of the modern-day accoutrements of movie theater-going, like people talking, people talking on their cell phones and people coughing directly on the back of my head.

But I have been a lifelong movie fan — even before 1978, when I started reviewing movies — and a lifelong moviegoer.

One of my earliest memories is of going to see a Jerry Lewis movie at the Rivoli Theatre, which would ultimately enjoy its status as the last of the downtown Muncie movie palaces until it was razed in 1987.

CNN International ran a list of the world’s top movie theaters the other day, including the famed Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, as well as some in India and Japan.

The list prompted me to make a list of some of my own favorite movie theaters, both past and present.

To start with the past:

The Rivoli Theatre, downtown Muncie, Indiana: I spent a lot of hours in the Rivoli as a kid and young adult. I saw the re-release of “Gone with the Wind” there as well as Disney classics.

The Rivoli, built in 1927, was a beautiful theater marred only, in its final few years of operation, by a smaller, second theater built inside the larger auditorium. The little theater took up seats in the main auditorium and detracted from the looks of the big theater — jutting out into the line of sight of some seats in the little-used balcony — but the extra revenue probably kept the theater open a little longer. This was the days of the multiplex boom and theaters with one screen were rare.

The Rivoli was demolished in 1987 to make way for a local office building. I reported on the decision to raze the theater and the demolition and it was one of the most disheartening stories I wrote in the early years of my journalism career.

The Eastwood Theatre, Indianapolis: The Eastwood had a comparatively short lifespan for a movie theater. Opened in 1968 and demolished sometime post-1980s, the Pendleton Pike cinema was known for its size — 800-plus seats — and the staying power of the movies it screened. “Star Wars,” opening in May 1977, played for months at the Eastwood. (This was, of course, in the days when movies could play almost indefinitely at theaters. There was no home video, so studios and releasing companies made all their dollars from theatrical screenings. And the longer a movie played, the better percentage of ticket sales the theater received. Not to mention all that popcorn sold.)

I didn’t see “Star Wars” at the Eastwood — that experience came at the Northwest Plaza Cinema in Muncie — but my friends and I saw a number of other movies there, including “The Empire Strikes Back” in 198o and “Return of the Jedi” in 1983. I still vividly remember standing in line to see the “Star Wars” sequels with a big group of my friends and fellow geeks.

The Eastwood, according to the Cinema Treasures website, was torn down — no date specified — and its spot is now a Menards home improvement warehouse.

The Castro Theatre, San Francisco: I’ve only seen one movie at the Castro — “The Third Man” — but the Castro, built in 1922, is in many ways a wonderful example of a neighborhood movie palace. It’s an art movie cinema now, unspooling classics to an appreciative neighborhood and audience.

The Chinese Theatre, Hollywood: One of the most famous theaters in the world, the Chinese is where footprints and handprints in wet cement adorn the courtyard.

On one of my once-regular trips to the Los Angeles area to visit my friend Brian, we saw the 1989 Tim Burton “Batman” movie at the Chinese. Years later, Robin and I saw the movie “Mambo Kings” there.

Built in 1927, the Chinese has been the setting of almost as many movie scenes — remember the climax of “Blazing Saddles?” — as movies that have screened inside.

The Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville: One of my favorite theaters I’ve discovered in recent years is the Tennessee. Opened in 1928, the theater closed in 1977, reopened, closed again in 1978 and was ultimately restored and reopened as home to classic films and live performances.

The Tennessee is a big part of Knoxville’s historic downtown and is worth a visit to see the best case scenario for a downtown movie theater.

Cinebarre, Asheville, North Carolina: Cinebarre is an example, like the Alamo Drafthouse, of what a theater can do to attract customers tired of the worst of the moviegoing experience.

Cinebarre offers not only comfortable movie viewing but the ultimate in movie theater dining. The menu goes way beyond popcorn and warmed-over hotdogs and includes beer, wine, burgers, pizza and more.

Your food is served to you in the auditorium — you eat at a counter in front of your seat; no juggling food on your lap — while the movie is underway. You can even order dessert.

I enjoyed a lot of movies in theaters last year and, with a cool bunch of movies like “The Avengers” on tap for summer 2012, I’ll be seeing plenty again this year. I only wish I could see every movie as comfortably and memorably as my moviegoing experiences at these favorites.


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