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SPECIAL REPORT: Putting Down Roots : The Times Poll : Theaters Can Vary Almost as Much as the Movies

April 25, 1991|KEVIN BRASS

Going to the movies is what 43% of North County residents say they do when they go out for the evening. It is an activity most popular with newcomers. Of those who have lived in the area two years or less, 57% name it as what they do ; o f those who 've lived in North County more than 20 years, 29% name movies. --The Times Poll

The Wiegand Plaza Theater complex has a cappuccino bar, which pretty well sums up the state of North County movie theaters.

It's the little things that define a theater these days. The old, stylish movie palaces of the past are rare, as the major theater chains use cookie-cutter designs, usually resulting in theaters with all the warmth and sensitivity of a cardboard box with curtains.

Through the years, the giant 70-millimeter screens have also gone the way of the Hula Hoop. The quality of sound systems has improved, but a standardization of sorts has developed, with most theaters looking and sounding relatively the same.

In the North County, there are a few older movie theaters, grand old movie houses. Unfortunately most are either closed or operating as speciality houses. The La Paloma Theater, a Moorish-style building that has been part of coastal Encinitas for 50 years, is a beautiful theater. But it doesn't always show movies, and, when it does, they are usually second-run films, films that have already been shown at other theaters.

Although drive-ins once flourished in the area, only one remains--the Valley Drive-in in Oceanside, which stands as a monument to back-seat parties, questionable sound quality and big screen bravado.

These days, movie fans are forced into the sterile new theaters, where they spend $7 for a ticket but usually can't even buy a cup of coffee. That's why it is kind of stunning to wander into the Wiegand Plaza 6 in the heart of Encinitas and find a cappuccino bar, complete with herbal teas and cheesecake.

And the Wiegand complex is not that unusual in North County, where even the stripped-down operations have a few special twists.

On the face of it, Wiegand, stuck in the middle of Shopping Center Land, could be any one of a thousand 16-in-one complexes that dot the landscape. On any given night, it is overrun by preteen and high school brats from the neighboring suburban housing developments, feeder factories of preteen moviegoers.

However, apparently because of the competition and the higher expectations of the North County crowd, Wiegand has added a few touches. There is the standard snack bar, with popcorn, candy and over-priced soft drinks, and then there's the little counter in the corner, where a more discriminating movie fan can pay $2.50 for a piece of cheesecake and $2 for a bottle of water. Of course, it's not perfect: There are no covers for the herbal tea cups.

Inside, the environment is a step above sterile. There is no music playing before the movie; once a staple of the premovie environment, music is rare these days, even of the elevator variety. But there is a slide show, advertisements mixed with inane movie trivia questions.

The theater is comfortable and clean, though, which in itself is unusual. The curtains are drab but clean, the aisles wide, the seats well-padded with decent leg room.

Best of all, the seats have little rings on the arms to hold drinks. All that is good in movie theaters these days can

be summed up by those little drink rings. It makes so much sense. Instead of having to search under the seat blindly with one hand, running your fingers across God knows what in search of your drink, it is right there, easy to find.

The four theaters in the Flower Hill complex in Del Mar have the drink holders, which almost makes up for the fact that Flower Hill split its one large theater into two smaller ones a few years ago. But Flower Hill, on the road to Rancho Santa Fe, certainly tries hard. The low-cholesterol butter available for the popcorn is a nice touch and clearly reflects the nutritional sensibilities of its patrons. Flower Hill is also one of the most flat-out comfortable theaters in the area. The chairs are cushiony and rock back and forth. There should be a law that all movie theater chairs should rock.

The theaters are clean and patrons are entertained with a little light jazz playing over the speakers before the movie. Wide aisles allow for plenty of leg room and--this is important--the chairs have enough space between them so it is easy to put your feet up, if it is possible to do so without bothering other lounging patrons. At many theaters, they cruelly space the seats just far enough apart so you can wedge your foot in between, but it feels like a Chinese torture.

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