Earlier this week I wrote about the closing of my hometown movie theater. One could romanticize such things and say the decline and eventual disappearance of small town cinemas is in itself the story of how movies went from being a shared, communal dream to just another time killer, how we went from palaces to multiplexes. That would, however, completely overlook another step in the process, the type of auditorium mostly gone and never mourned: The mall theater.
Movie theaters had been built into shopping centers since the mid-sixties, but the trend didn't begin en masse until the seventies, when mall construction was ramped up under the delusion that these graceless bunkers could be "lifestyle emporiums", offering everything we could ever want--shopping, sure, but also food and entertainment.
Thus, with the same resemblance the offerings at Orange Julius or One Potato Two have to food, mall theaters had almost nothing in common with the grand cinemas that could still be found in most major cities: Two, three, maybe four crackerbox auditoriums, all with small screens, most with poor sightlines; small staffs, made up almost entirely of bored, surly teenagers with little idea how to run and maintain the projection equipment; and worst of all, a dark, dreary ambiance.
Here in Des Moines, showcase theaters still existed throughout the seventies and even into the early eighties. The mighty River Hills and Riviera were reserved for the biggest of blockbusters--Earthquake, Star Wars, Superman and the like. The Capri was for prestige offerings and Oscar bait, as was the Sierra.
The mall theaters were the Valley 3, the Southridge 3 and the Forum 4--or, to honor its neo-Roman logo, the Forvm IV. They mostly showed the types of things people went to see--action, comedy, romance, Burt Reynolds pictures or Chevy Chase vehicles. People may have enjoyed themselves, but the vibe was different. They were no longer going out to the movies--they were going to the mall, and seeing a movie was something they did while they were there, in between swinging by The Gap and stopping at the food court.
Since most of the retail space in malls were targeted to young people, so too were most of the movies. By the mid-eighties, the biggest blockbusters no longer played exclusively in the larger venues. Sure, you could drive all the way downtown to see Top Gun at the River Hills, but why bother, since the Valley was closer, and you could shop at Foot Locker afterwards. The more screens a movie played on, the easier it was to see it--no more lines, no more people being turned away. Consequently, a hit wouldn't play all summer long, like Jaws or Grease. It would have one, maybe two killer weekends, then head for video.
With the rise of disposable hits, theaters expanded, from six and seven screens to the googleplexes we have today. The modern suburban multiplexes dealt a death blow to the mall theaters of old: more screens, bigger auditoriums, stadium seating, digital sound and projection. Those out-of-focus, slightly misframed viewings of Pale Rider at the Valley 3 would officially be consigned to the past.
Miserable as they were, though, these theaters are still where I spent most of my movie-going life. Maybe they didn't produce fond memories of the venues themselves, but they allowed me to see everything from Monty Python And The Holy Grail and Animal House to The Warriors and The Howling. In that sense, they mattered.