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Moving pictures

Once, great movie houses drew us together. Now they're gone -- and the decline of the big screen diminishes us all.

March 26, 2006|Peter Bogdanovich | Peter Bogdanovich directed "The Last Picture Show," "Paper Moon," and "Mask," among other movies. His most recent book, "Who the Hell's in It," is just out in paperback.

GOING TO THE MOVIES with my parents is one of the great memories of my childhood. I remember getting strong anticipatory butterflies in my stomach long before we'd even leave the apartment. In the late 1940s, early '50s, we lived on Manhattan's West 67th Street, three blocks from two huge "neighborhood" picture palaces: the RKO Colonial and the Loew's Lincoln. Both were spacious, elaborately decorated, very comfortable stand-alone theaters with huge screens and giant, red velvet curtains that parted before the show. Each seated more than 1,000 (with smoking in the balcony).

A typical evening or afternoon at the "nabes" meant a double feature -- two recent films, usually an A-budget movie paired with a B-picture. We never checked for starting times (no one did); we went when we could or when we felt like it.

Normally, therefore, we would enter in the middle of one of the two features. Part of the fun was trying to figure out what was going on. After it ended, there would be a newsreel, a travelogue, a live-action comedy short, a cartoon and coming attractions. Then the next feature, followed by the first half of the other film until that once-proverbial moment: "This is where we came in." (All this, by the way, for 25 or 50 cents a head, often less for kids.) On Saturdays, there was the children's matinee, complete with a white-uniformed matron who chaperoned us and made sure kids didn't put their feet on the seats in front of them.

Both of my old neighborhood theaters have long since been demolished. But recently I've been thinking about them again as I've read about the decline in theater attendance -- down from 90 million tickets sold per week in the late 1940s to about a quarter of that number today -- as people rent movies and watch them at home on increasingly elaborate home entertainment systems. Now, some of the big studios are talking about closing the months-long window that has traditionally separated a movie's theatrical debut from its availability on video or DVD -- a change that some say could lead to the end of the movie-theater experience altogether.

When I was a growing up, there were no ratings -- all pictures being suitable for the whole family. Parents could, if they chose, take the family to serious films such as "How Green Was My Valley," "Citizen Kane" or "From Here to Eternity" without worrying that it might not be "appropriate" for the children. If a couple on screen were going to bed together, vintage movie shorthand took over and the camera panned to the fireplace or to the waterfall, or, during a passionate kiss, there'd be a discreet fade to black. I would turn to my mother and ask what was happening, and she'd say something ambiguous, such as "they like each other" or "they're talking now," which completely satisfied my curiosity.

Movies, when you used to see them on the big screen, had a mystery that they no longer have. For one thing, they were irretrievable: Once the first and second runs were past, most films were not easy to see again. They were much, much larger than life and therefore instantly mythic (screens and theaters were a lot bigger before the multiplex arrived). And they were inexorable; once a film had started, there was no pausing it or in any way stopping its relentless forward motion.

Also, the communal experience of seeing a picture with a large crowd of strangers was a great and irreplaceable happening -- all of us, young or old (if the picture worked) palpably sharing the same emotions of sorrow or happiness. The bigger the crowd around us, the greater the impact.

On special occasions, my parents took me to the greatest movie theater in the country, Radio City Music Hall, which, for $2, would show a first-rate new film exclusively (such as "An American in Paris" or "North by Northwest") plus a live, 40-minute stage show featuring the Rockettes. That's why it meant so much to me in 1972 when my first comedy, "What's Up, Doc?" was booked to open in New York at the Music Hall.

I was so excited I called to tell Cary Grant (a friend of 10 years). "That's nice," he said casually. "I've had 28 pictures play the Hall.

"I tell you what you must do," he went on. "When it's playing, you go down there and stand in the back -- and you listen and you watch while 6,500 people laugh at something you did. It will do your heart good!"

I went, of course, and it remains the single most memorable showing of any of my pictures: The sheer size of the reaction in that enormous theater was like a mainliner of joy. The fact is, it takes at least 100 people to get a decent laugh in a movie -- smaller audiences are just not given to letting go.

On the other hand, a Michigan university student told me recently that one of the few classic Hollywood movies he'd seen was John Ford's version of John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath." He said he'd been looking at a "video of it" and couldn't get his "eyelids to stop drooping."

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