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In Search of the Perfect Movie Theater : STARRING : Binx Bolling

September 28, 1987|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — In Walker Percy's novel "The Moviegoer," Binx Bolling goes to the movies to escape. At the movies, Binx feels at home.

But how much at home would Binx feel in the movie theaters of San Diego County? Would the theaters themselves cause Binx to feel alienated?

Would Binx be put off by the popcorn at the La Jolla Village? As with all houses owned by the Pacific Theatres chain, the popcorn is trucked in from remote locations and stored in big plastic bags until it's put out for sale.

And why?

"Cheaper," said the teen-ager behind the counter.

Does that preserve its freshness?

"No," he replied. "But you can't have everything."

Would Binx relish the thought of a $2 double feature at the Clairemont and then gasp at the inappropriate laughter and ceaseless chatter?

Would he look forward to an art film at the newly remodeled Park Theatre, only to find he couldn't park on crowded North Park streets? (This is one theater that may have trouble living up to its name.)

Would Binx resent the thought that large one-screen movie houses are in jeopardy in San Diego, and that multiplexes (two screens or more) are becoming as common as Big Macs? To find a really great multiplex, Binx might have to drive all the way to San Marcos, where the Edwards Cinemas' new sixplex is a state-of-the-art showcase.

Would Binx rejoice at the news that 1987 is already the biggest box-office year in the history of the movies? Would he then be puzzled at the news that the Loma Theatre in Loma Portal may soon close, and the Cinerama in East San Diego will be carved up into several tiny theaters instead of one big one?

Like most movie fans, would Binx wonder:

Why is this happening?

Where Do Moviegoers Go?

Let's follow the mythical Binx on his very real journey and do a check of the movie houses of San Diego County--a kind of consumer's guide, an update of one completed four years ago.

A lot has happened in four years.

Most of it comes down to the label Big House. The ranks of the big houses--the Loma, the Cinerama, the Valley Circle and Cinema 21 in Mission Valley, the Cinema Grossmont in La Mesa--are being thinned. They are and always have been (and probably always will be) the best places to see movies. They're the kinds of places you can most easily lose yourself, and like the truest moviegoer, feel truly at home.

Of more than two dozen people interviewed in 13 theaters, everyone said so. These findings are their findings--opinions based on the interviews.

Multiplexes are a way of life, they say. The predominant feeling: "We'd better get used to it. The damn things are here to stay." Of course, some are better than others, and some of those weren't around four years ago.

George Beltran, 22, is a three-times-a-week moviegoer. His favorite new theater is the seven-screen United Artists complex at Horton Plaza. Beltran, like almost everyone else, gushed over Horton Plaza.

"It's very, very nice," he said, on his way to the popcorn stand. "Most multiplexes have no individuality, but this one does. I like the architecture, very contemporary. It's the type of building that may look good in 75 years."

In the Dark With Strangers

Beltran likes the movies for the feeling they engender. He likes the feeling of sitting in the dark with strangers, in the comfort of a cool, dark space.

"Movies allow you to enjoy experiences you wouldn't have otherwise, and probably shouldn't have," he said. "You get to live and feel vicariously, and be safe. The better the theater, the better the experience. Theaters in San Diego are OK, but none compare to the best in L.A."

Beltran puts the Horton among the best of the best in San Diego. He calls its Dolby THX sound system (available on only one screen) "incomparable, outrageous, crystal clear. The first time I heard THX sound, I realized I'd never been to a movie before--I hadn't heard one like it should be heard. I saw 'Aliens' here and was blown away by the sound."

As much as he likes Horton Plaza--as much as he cares for a multiplex that "tries"--Beltran still prefers the Big House for the consummate movie experience. To hear that the Loma may close and that the Cinerama will become a multiplex is, he said, "ghastly, just ghastly."

He isn't the only one chomping his popcorn with clenched teeth.

Andy Friedenberg is president of the Cinema Society of San Diego. He's especially annoyed over the fate of the Loma, which will become a mall of boutiques if a Point Loma developer follows through on previously announced plans. (The property will soon be transferred from Mann Theatres, which owns it, to local tycoon James Dromgoole.)

Friedenberg said recent Friday and Saturday night showings of "Fatal Attraction" appeared to be sellouts at the Loma.

One-Screeners Are Dying Off

"One-screen theaters are dying off," he said, "not just in San Diego but all over the country. They're becoming like dinosaurs, and it's a pity, because they are the best place to see a movie. Like it or not, multiplexes are in."

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