Monday, December 15, 2014


My brother and I weren't talkers, so all we did was listen.  People babbling excitedly about the movie they were waiting to see, or other movies they'd seen recently, why they were here, where they were from.  It was December of 1980, and we were waiting in an increasingly long line on this cold winter night for the massive Plaza Theater to open its doors so we could all pile in and get our first look at Robert Altman's Popeye.

The Plaza was the only theater in town showing this particular blockbuster, a fairly common practice then.  If you wanted to see a movie, you had to go where it was playing, because it wouldn't be playing at two or three or ten auditoriums in every multiplex in town, because there were no multiplexes.  Sure, there were three- or four-screen theaters, but every screen played something different.

So since the number of locations showing a movie was limited, seating space was at a premium.  Lines formed, and in those lines little communities developed.  People got to know each other, there was a shared anticipation, a communal ritual known as "going to the movies". 

The Plaza was one of several remaining stand-alone theaters Des Moines had in the seventies and eighties.  There was the mighty River Hills, originally built for Cinerama, and its neighbor, the classy Riviera, its auditorium resplendent in rose and white hues.  There was the Capri, a vision of early sixties modernity, the location for most middlebrow Oscar bait.  There was the Wakonda, a nondescript neighborhood theater that miraculously transformed in 1980 to The Movies, the same auditorium with the addition of a fifty seat adjunct called the Screening Room.  The Movies would become Des Moines' first repertory theater, and there I saw Once Upon A Time In The West, The Red Shoes, Dark Star, The Seven Samurai, Pink Flamingos, Eraserhead--a roll call of what would become my all-time favorite movies, in often battered prints that nonetheless looked beautiful on the big screen.

All these theaters are gone now, except for the Plaza, which was renovated and renamed the somewhat less elegant Merle Hay Mall Cinema, and which features a colossal sixty-foot screen and the first THX-certified sound system in the state.  Well, it has those features until tomorrow night, when it closes forever.

The closing was immediately prompted by the opening of a new bar/restaurant/theater right next door, but the end has been coming for a long time.  The last movie I saw there was Guardians Of The Galaxy, and though it was a real treat to see such a thoroughly modern blockbuster projected in 35 mm--complete with cigarette burns to mark the reel changes!--it felt strangely incongruous.  Guardians is a wonderfully entertaining movie, but in the modern blockbuster style, meant to be consumed and enjoyed but nothing more, a fun ride while it lasts but not the shared dream we use to experience in giant temples built to honor the cinematic gods.

And I tell myself that's okay.  It's the movies that matter, not where you see them.  But I think of seeing Apocalypse Now on the 70-foot curved screen at the River Hills, and I know that's not true.