Tuesday, September 18, 2012


It's like watching a loved one waste away from some terrible disease.  Bit by bit, the person you used to know disappears, and when they are finally gone, you have no tears.  Your grief has already been spent.

So it is with the announcement that dire financial circumstances forced the oddly-named Big Time Theaters to shutter three of its Iowa properties, including the 3-screen auditorium in my former hometown of Perry.  I'm completely indifferent.  I shouldn't be.

Much of my life has been lived in movie theaters.  I have regarded them with nearly sacred awe, within their walls I found the first stirrings of lust, have had my consciousness expanded, have been challenged and delighted, have been made to believe that magic is a real and tangible thing.  And it all started in Perry.

I was five, and the movie was the heavily-advertised nature documentary Cougar Country.  (Even then, I loved cats!)  I'd never been in a theater, and I remember all the details--the cheap yellow-with-red letters marquee, the glass-encased posters for Coming Attractions (including a reissue of The Wizard Of Oz), the almost overwhelming smell of popcorn in the small lobby, the cranky old guy tearing the tickets, the pop machine outside the auditorium (which struck me even then as odd, since they obviously sold pop at the concession stand), the hand-cranked paper towel dispensers in the men's room.  And the auditorium itself.

Oh, the auditorium.  The walls resplendent with huge WPA-era murals depicting the glories of rural life, as enacted by mostly faceless, godlike figures rendered in the style of Soviet poster art.  Beige curtains down in front, a small stage (never used) before the screen.  It was almost overwhelming to me, so elegant and unlike anything I had ever experienced, and when the movie started--Such a huge screen!  And filled with big cats!--I knew something in my life had changed.  Cougar Country itself faded from my memory almost as soon as it ended, but this experience lingered.  I wanted more.

Obviously, this theater holds a special place in my heart.  But this theater hadn't existed for years.  In the early eighties, it was gutted into a remarkably nondescript two-screener, the stage and the murals gone forever.  Later still, ambitious owner Robert Fridley overhauled it completely, two tiny screens and one would-be showcase auditorium, with curtains and busts of famous composers ringing the screen and stars on the ceiling.  Then it closed for awhile, reopened, changed hands.  And now it's closed again, most likely permanently.

Through all the renovations, it devolved from a shrine to cinema to just another place to see the latest blockbuster.  (The last thing I saw there was The Matrix Reloaded, a deeply unnecessary follow-up to a very well-regarded original, and something that could probably be teased into a metaphor for the moviegoing experience if I tried hard enough.)  Film-going habits have changed over the years, and the small town movie theater is no longer a vital part of the community.  From what I've heard, it hadn't been kept in very good shape, and with the changeover to digital projection, its days were numbered.

No need to mourn, then.  It had a good run, and that's more than enough.