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What we'll lose if we lose movie theaters

James Lileks says there's no replacing the communal aspect of watching something together.

There's an importance to the communal aspect of watching movies in theaters. Dreamstime / TNS
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MINNEAPOLIS — The AMC movie chain says it might not survive these Unprecedented Times.

I have lots of memories of the Southdale AMC complex in Edina, Minn. Dropping Daughter off to see a movie, picking her up. Dropping her off, picking her up. Sometimes just picking her up, because she got a ride over.

Now and then I’d actually see a movie. So I might be part of the problem. I haven’t done my part.

Mostly I saw the obligatory blockbusters, the big, noisy, exciting movies that ran three hours and left you deaf and weak. The fate of the world was always hanging in the balance, lots of stuff got blown up and a nonstop parade of impossible things filled the screen. None of it was real, and none of it mattered, but it was a welcome diversion from the problems of the world. Whatever those were in 2019; I’ll have to check my notes.

Daughter and I made our annual Pixar pilgrimage to those theaters, starting when she was young and full of awe, up to the time where we could whisper withering snark at the stupid ads and predictable trailers.


That, however, is nostalgia for a time and a shared experience, not the theaters themselves. They’re just boxes.


  • Grandstand at Red River Valley fairgrounds will show drive-in movies this summer To fill the void left by a canceled fair, the Red River Valley Fair is finding a way to fill its parking lot.

  • F-M theaters expected to remain closed through May The Fargo Theatre and Marcus Theaters do not have opening dates yet, and concrete plans to reopen are still in flux.
  • On with the show for two theater groups working on summer shows after many have canceled With the coronavirus outbreak still a health concern, the stage has gone dark for most summer productions.

Charmless, stripped-down barns with comfy seats. If there were a little palace down the block that showed a cartoon and a crisp 90-minute movie that seemed set in the real world, I’d love to drop in now and then and watch a movie. Just like the old times!
“What’s playing at the Bijou?”

“Well, there’s Bob Hope’s ‘Rumba Down to Rio’ — no, that was last week, now it’s Bob Hope’s ‘Mambo Up to Madrid.’?”

“OK, I’ll put on my hat and get some quarters. Maybe afterward we can stop at the drugstore for a cherry cola!”

Sounds nice, eh? You imagine yourself taking the streetcar, crowding into the lobby with neighbors — “Hey, Bill! How are things down at the Minneapolis Moline plant?”

“I got laid off!”

“Sorry to hear it.” — and settling in your seat. Popcorn and Black Crows. Lights down; here we go. An ordinary Tuesday night.


We gave it up when TV came along, because it was easier. No waiting for the streetcar in the rain, no humid stuffy lobby, no running into Bill who could never keep a job, no metal seat with stiff springs and a thin wooden armrest, no stale popcorn. We could stay home and the world would come to us.

Now we’re tired of staying home and want to go back to the world. We miss Bill. Sitting on the sofa in front of a big TV has myriad advantages, but it lacks something that made movie-watching different from radio or TV: strangers.

The communal experience of watching a movie is important, the way the audience manifests the story in their reactions. You can feel so much when the theater’s dead silent, hanging on every word, drinking in the giant faces on the screen. I saw “Alien” in the theater, and when that thing happened — you know what I’m talking about, the moment of, er, parasitical indigestion — the entire audience lost its composure. The terror was electric.

Then again, when I saw “Citizen Kane” in the theater for the first time, and we heard Kane’s dying words — “Rosebud” — the fellow in the seat behind me leaned over to his date and said, “That’s the name of his sled.” To this day I wish I’d dumped my drink in his lap. I should’ve called the usher. “This man is giving away important psychological insights!”

But the days of uniformed lads with flashlights are long gone. And most of the theaters in which I saw the movies mentioned above are gone. I had a first date once at the Varsity, and saw “Casablanca” for the first time, the way it should be seen, with all its silvery heroes and heroines larger than life. The theater still stands, and sometimes when I pass by, I look in the window and remember. We’ll always have Dinkytown.

Let’s not get too goopy about it, though. The communal experience is great, but you also get clueless people who talk at full volume, light up the aisles with their phones and bring small children to movies they should not see. Sometimes I think I’ll miss the theater only because I’d book two seats in the middle of the afternoon so Daughter and I could have the place all to ourselves. Not exactly a communal experience.

If all the movie theaters were to close, everyone would miss them, but at this point there’s a numbness to all the change. If you read a piece that said doughnuts were going to disappear entirely, you’d think, “Oh, well, it was nice when we had doughnuts, wasn’t it?” And someone on social media would get angry: “There still are bear claws. Stop being dramatic.”

I don’t think doughnuts will go away. And I don’t think theaters will pass from the scene, either.


I can’t wait to see a movie in a theater again, and if you’re wondering how to eat popcorn through a mask — they’ll sell you a popcorn ball you can put in the mask and chew. It will cost $8.95.

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