The Shallow End: Where Did My Theater Go?

ON

A few burgundy-vested employees milled about the theater’s concession island. I asked if there’d still be 9 o’clock showings.

Yeah, but it won’t be very busy.

Well, I mean, I don’t want to keep you here longer than-

-Nah, don’t worry, someone’s gotta stay here till the end anyway.

It was the end all right. The end of the Carmike 7. The reels for the 9 o’clock showings probably hadn’t been loaded, yet the outside marquee already announced “Theater Closed,” and its lightboxes, bereft of posters, glowed like eight blank dominoes along the theater’s façade. Driven by nostalgia, I had to be there for the last showing, the last night, as if I was holding a dog’s paw while the vet put it down.

Posh with comfortable chairs, large screens, and DTS sound, Carmike 7 was The Place to experience a movie in Cedar Rapids, Iowa… during the ’90s. My buddies and I hoped every movie released would screen there. Many of them did, which meant school and home were the only buildings we spent more time during childhood.

Carmike 7 gave me my first midnight movie, R-rated flick, and the Star Wars trilogy in its retina peeling big-screen treatment of ’97. It held memories of birthdays and family outings and afternoons of refuge from sun burns and smoldering summer days, of dates and hand holding and fumbled kisses, and bloated ankles from hours and hours of waiting in line.

Yet, several new theaters hatcheted away Carmike 7’s business over recent years, most notably the 16-screen Wehrenberg erected one mile to the west. That amusement park masquerading as a theater forced Carmike 7 to morph into a second-run movie house. The problem with entering the second-run business was its competition one mile to the east, Collin Roads Theatres, also a bargain theater.

Carmike 7 confronted Collins Road by exhibiting the same films at even lower ticket prices. Yet, the once grand theater of CR wilted to a money-pit of torn, dusty curtains and funky smelling seats, where I’d attend January showings in auditoriums with a busted heater.

In the soup of mawkish memory, I love the Carmike 7 of my childhood. I had no non-corporate alternative to compare to. Yet these days, if a movie played at both second-run theaters, Collins Road was the choice without question. In fact, since Carmike 7 threatened the existence of Collins Road, I’m thankful it went the way of Bruce Willis’ hairline. Competition pummeled Carmike 7, but the corporate apathy pervading the theater was the self-inflicted bullet in the skull juice.

Nostalgic loyalty is for chumps, suckas, and commies as my departed grandmother would often say.

Carmike Cinemas possesses 2,427 screens nationwide. The locally owned Collins Road Theatres houses five screens total. The difference between Carmike 7 and Collins Road is like the distinction between Paul Thomas Anderson and Paul W.S. Anderson; one represents everything right with the film-going experience today while the other epitomizes the opposite.

After buying my ticket for 3:10 to Yuma on Carmike 7’s closing night, I entered an empty auditorium. Several minutes later a middle-aged man with rectangle glasses and fading dark hair swept to the side shuffled in. I recognized him instantly as the owner/operator of Collins Road Theatres, Mr. Bruce Taylor.

“Mr. Taylor?” I said in a weird questioning tone in which the silent equivalent would resemble a cross-eyed dog cocking its head sideways.

“Howdy,” he said in his typical folksy voice.

Mr. Taylor has no idea who the hell I am (and I probably creeped him out by never introducing myself), but I know him from his theater’s weekend night screenings in which he greets the audience and raffles off free popcorn and passes before every showing. Simply said, Bruce Taylor is a folk hero of Lincoln Hawk proportions among my friends and family. Fed up with the lack of bargain theaters in town, here’s a man who bought one of the movie houses Carmike closed down several years ago and reopened it as a model that all cinemas should follow.

It’s a fact. The number of theater-goers is melting away wicked witch-style. Theater chains love to point their digits like a Donald Sutherland pod person at piracy and the ever-increasing home viewing options. Yet, survey after survey shows folks despondent over the corporate indifference towards the movie-viewing experience: 30 minutes of commercials (which contrary to theater chains’ unicorn fantasy stats, every American hates worse than fried kittens in their Happy Meals), listless employees, concession prices that’d empty Bill Gates’ wallet, incompetent film presentation, and unchecked behavior of fellow audience members who can only be described as motherless pigfuckers.

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