Burt Goes to the Movies

Burt Goes to the Movies

by Burton S. Blumert by Burton S. Blumert

"We’re going to see Million Dollar Baby on Tuesday and The Aviator on Thursday. I want to see these movies NOW, not on TV in 2008."

When my dear wife begins to sound like her mother, I know thereu2018s no room for negotiations.

"And, there’s no room for negotiations on this one, Blumert."

"But, we were at the movies just last month," I responded without much hope.

"Last month? It was the summer of 2003 and we saw Seabiscuit. How could you forget? Yours was the only review that panned that wonderful movie. The people at Bay Meadows Race Track, Seabiscuit’s u2018home,’ were so offended that they actually considered barring you from their track."

"Just another example of the Power Elite suppressing dissenting views, but that’s history, and my present concern is dealing with two movies in one week. I have an idea. Let’s see them at the Drive-In. At least we can have a beer and a burger while watching, and if the movie drags a bit, I can take a nap. That Drive-In just south of Candlestick Park is my favorite."

"The last Drive-In anywhere near San Francisco was mothballed by 1991. Get with it, Blumert. We’re going to see Million Dollar Baby on Tuesday at the Cinema 12 Multiplex in the Mall and on Thursday, The Aviator is playing at the new Cinema 47 Megaplex, downtown San Francisco. We will be there."

"Look, it’s not that I don’t enjoy Clint Eastwood and DiCaprio, it’s the multi- and mega- atrocities they call theatres that I despise. They remind me of bus stations, where finding your movie is like locating the platform your bus departs from.”

In the old days, going to the movies was something special. It hardly mattered what film was showing. An evening at your neighborhood movie house was a social event. When I went I never failed to encounter neighbors and school chums. On special occasions, we went “downtown” to the “Roxy,” or “Paramount.” They were breathtaking examples of Hollywood’s Golden Age; magnificent movie palaces of the sort found in almost every major urban center. (A few have been restored, like the Paramount in Oakland, California.)

At New York City’s Paramount in the late 1930s and early ’40s, the customer was treated to more than a First Run movie. You got an Organ Recital AND a star-studded variety show. This was my first taste of "live" entertainment. There they were, I could almost touch them: Louis Armstrong, Danny Kaye, and Sinatra creating memories that endured a lifetime.

Back to reality and Tuesday at the Cinema 12 Multiplex. As my wife had predicted, there we were, standing in the ticket line.

"Don’t forget to tell them that we want to see Million Dollar Baby in Theatre #7 and that you get a senior’s discount," my wife reminded. On a past occasion, I had forgotten which movie we came to see, panicked when asked, bought the wrong ticket and suffered through Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, engulfed by screaming, microbe-infested children.

Our fellow ticket buyers were grim-faced. If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d think we were all waiting in line for a flu shot.

Built in the late 1960s, Cinema 12 was an early multiplex and like many similar across the nation, located near a Regional Shopping Center. I’m no construction maven, but I suspect that they were all slapped together cheaply and quickly.

The Men’s Room was too small; the popcorn too expensive ($4 for a small bucket) and the butter-like substance squirted on the popcorn, close to rancid. The candy bars offered came in super jumbo size only, at super jumbo prices, and every soft drink dispensed was different than the one before or after.

"Small, medium or large," the youngster asked, pointing to varied red plastic cups.

"Can I get a bottle of Coke instead of that thing you’re mixing back there?" I snickered.

Her answer exposed me as a pretentious horse’s rear-end.

"Gee, sir, I don’t know if we have those, but I’ll ask my manager.

We finally located the small room they called "Theatre # 7," which was showing "Million Dollar Baby." It was so dark that we nervously groped our way looking for empty seats. In the process I stepped on one fellow’s foot and almost sat on his wife.

Fortunately, there was little danger of falling down as our shoes were glued to the floor by a sticky, sugary substance that is a nuisance to the moviegoer, but a deadly trap for small animals.

Local gossip has it that Cinema 12 is scheduled for demolition, and if true, it’s not a moment too soon.

"Don’t despair, Blumert. On Thursday, we see The Aviator at the brand new Megaplex in San Francisco. People are raving about the place."

They’re “raving," huh? Well, nobody’s asked, but here is my critique of that monstrosity; the most unusual aspect of watching a movie at the Megaplex is that you might be 800 feet above street level. As Tony Bennett might put it, you’re "half way to the stars."

The facility is built vertically, with each of the 4 levels connected by hundreds of feet of escalator. As we ground our way up to level 4, I couldn’t shake the mental image of being a patron at the Megaflex 47 during an 8.5 earthquake.

The tub of popcorn is $6; the candy bars the most expensive in town and the fancy European-style coffee house, a resounding dud. We had our coffee and biscuits across the street at Starbucks after the show.

"I hate to admit it, Blumert, but I totally agree with your opinions about these dismal modern movie factories and how much more we enjoyed our neighborhood theatres."

"Hold everything. I’ve got to get that on tape. Having you agree with me on anything qualifies for the archives."

From the 1920s through the ’50s every small town in America had a movie theatre on Main Street. In the larger cities, each neighborhood had its own version.

They are all gone; disappeared from the face of the earth. Well, almost all gone. San Francisco had 45 neighborhood movie houses through the early 1950s. Remarkably, 12 still exist. The unusual cultural make-up of San Francisco’s neighborhoods may account for this anomaly, but that analysis is for another day.

Growing up in my neighborhood in New York City, the Waldorf Theatre was our entertainment Mecca. Any kid who could raise the 10 or 25-cent admission showed up for the Saturday matinee.

We got our money’s worth: an Errol Flynn swashbuckler and a Jean Arthur comedy, a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, a Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers chapter episode with the superhero facing sure death every week only to survive at the beginning of next Saturday’s Chapter, a black and white Newsreel, hosted by the avuncular Lowell Thomas that even entertained the kids — and "Coming Attractions" that gave moviegoers a peek into next week’s thrills and spills.

You could sit through the Saturday matinee show 3 times if you managed to avoid the dreaded "Matron." She wore a white nurse’s uniform and was armed with a large metal flashlight that she’d shine on a guilty kid’s face with uncanny precision. She ferreted out those who had been there too long and swiftly rotated them through the exit door. They were not to be seen again until next Saturday.

At some point the more adventurous filmgoer started to cross neighborhood boundary lines and tasted the flavor of another neighborhood’s movie house. In order to keep their old customers and attract new ones, every theater manager became intensely competitive.

The "free set of dishes" promotion caught on fast across the nation. You’d buy a ticket for a movie and get a free glass dish. If you went to 72 movies you could build a complete set. If you missed a week, you might be short a butter dish. Acquiring one wasn’t easy.

I don’t recall many of the movies that I saw at the Waldorf, but I’ll never forget Camille (1936) starring the mysterious Swedish beauty, Greta Garbo. It was a tragic love story and not the sort of movie suited for an 8-year-old. I don’t know what I was doing there, but it was clear mother wanted me next to her.

Garbo’s Camille lies near death from consumption. Her lover, played by Robert Taylor, handsome as a god, conceals his grief at her bedside. The men in the audience suppressed their tears but the women were openly sobbing. At that heart-wrenching moment, my mother’s free soup dish slipped out of my hand and crashed to the floor. The sound of shattering glass resonated throughout the theater. I thought I would never breathe again.

Lew Rockwell tells me that today some of these cheap old dishes fetch big bucks on eBay.

As usual my wife summed up: "Well you’ve told us about grand movie palaces, neighborhood theaters and your childhood — but you never said a word about Million Dollar Baby or The Aviator.

Ok, here’s my review: The Aviator is a technically brilliant depiction of aviation history, and Howard Hughes’s significant part in it. Beautifully acted, although a bit long, the film focused too much on some of the negative aspects of Howard Hughes’s life.

As for Million Dollar Baby, Hilary Swank’s work will be remembered as one of the finest performances EVER.

You’d better see them both.