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SPOTLIGHT : FOR CRYIN' OUT LOUD : Soundproof Cinema Rooms Let Tots Wail All They Want

August 24, 1995|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to the Times Orange County Edition. Times staff writer Zan Dubin also contributed to this story.

You know it all too well: that high-pitched, nails-on-the-blackboard wail that always-- always-- appears during a pivotal point in the action or in the most tender of intimate moments.

As the sound rises, all the people in the movie theater clench their teeth a bit tighter, shut their eyes and utter a silent plea: "Get that cranky kid out of here."

And the poor parent holding the kid hears that plea with a movie-lover's ears and dutifully whisks the child out--missing two or three epic scenes until Junior calms down.

Nancy Seffron didn't have to worry about any of that when she recently went to see a matinee showing of "A Walk in the Clouds" with her 3-month-old son, Tommy. Tommy could have pitched the fit of his life and no one in the packed theater would have been the wiser. Because between Tommy and cinema-going disaster was a thick, sound-absorbing wall and two sealed panes of soundproof glass: a "crying room."

The room is one of two installed in Edwards' Rancho Niguel 8 Cinema, 25471 Rancho Niguel Road in Laguna Niguel (see Pullout Movie Guide, Page 14). Flush with the wall in the back corner of each of the multiplex's two large cinemas, the rooms are situated just beyond and slightly above the cinemas' back row of steeply raked, stadium-style seats. Users' vision, roughly level with the screen, is unobstructed by viewers seated in the main theater.

The rooms each contain four padded seats and are fitted with stereo speakers and lights that brighten and dim along with the lights in the theater outside the windows.

The rooms probably are unique in Orange County, said Edwards Theatres Circuit chairman and founder Jim Edwards Sr., but they're by no means a recent innovation.

"We [instituted] the crying room about 60 years ago," said Edwards. "We'd been in business about four or five years at that time, in the mid-'30s, and we felt that the crying room would be a great idea in order to give families the opportunity to see a picture with a 2-month-old baby or a small child without disturbing the entertainment of other people.

"We did quite a few of them in our theaters then," Edwards said, citing the defunct Garvey and Ritz theaters and the rebuilt Alhambra, all in the San Gabriel Valley. "They were in a rear corner of the auditorium, they were glassed in, and they had a changing table and a loudspeaker."

The rooms got a lot of use, said Edwards. During and after World War II, much disposable income, often from young parents, went for movie tickets. And Junior often came along.

"When the war came and all building stopped--everything went into the war effort--there were no new theaters at that time," he said. "And the only crying rooms around were the ones we'd built. Business got so good in wartime. Everybody was working, and both husbands and wives had jobs. All you had to do in theaters was open the doors and jump out of the way."

Crying rooms in cinemas fell into disuse not long after the end of the war, said Edwards.

"They became a place for the ushers to go," he said. "People forgot all about them."

The multiplex theater became the theater owner's Holy Grail, said Edwards, and every usable foot of space in every theater was taken up by seats to accommodate paying patrons. Crying rooms were simply not cost-effective.

"I think people didn't have them because the same space could accommodate about 10 or 12 chairs instead of the four or five in the crying room," he said. "And you might want to make room for a changing table, and the room has to pretty much be soundproofed, which is costly."

Too costly, or inconvenient, for live theater and concert halls as well. None of those large performing arts venues in and around Orange County have, or are planning to install, crying rooms.

"Crying rooms weren't worked into our architectural plans at all," said Walter Morlock, a spokesman for the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. "I imagine it would take up a lot of space, and we have only one event a night, so it wouldn't be as economical as it would be in a movie theater."

At both the Irvine Barclay Theatre and South Coast Repertory Theatre, representatives said that parents are discouraged from bringing young children and infants to performances other than those designed for families.

"Part of the experience of live theater is the live performance," said Karen Drews, a spokesperson for the Irvine Barclay. "A movie theater is a little different. There, it's more like watching television. People can be a little more distracted."

At the Orange County Performing Arts Center, policy diminishes the need for a crying room. Every person in the audience must hold a ticket, and any children attending a performance must be old enough to occupy their own seats, said center spokesman Greg Patterson. Parents are not allowed to hold children in their arms during a performance, he said.

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