According to the 2014 Pew Research Center, 36% of Americans attend religious services on a weekly basis, with another 33% going once or twice a month or a few times a year. I do not attend religious services, but I frequent many cathedrals.
Last weekend, I drove by one of my favorite sacred locations and saw an empty parking lot and it nearly brought me to tears. Whereas many of my fellow citizens find comfort, community, and transcendence in the rituals experienced in churches, temples, or mosques, my sanctuary has always been in movie theaters. There, the sacraments take the form of passing the threshold guardians at the box office, the dimming of the lights, the screening of trailers, the procession of studio logos, culminating in the apotheosis of the feature presentation; the shared silence, the gooseflesh and raised hairs on the back of our necks in moments of awe, teary-eyed moments of sadness or joy, the exaltation as the action hero delivers the coup de grâce and the cathartic laughter as it is punctuated with a catch-phrase. With the future of the theatergoing experience in doubt, I would like to give tribute to three theaters that have been essential to my moviegoing life in Houston, Texas.
The Spectrum (Cineplex-Odeon)
In the era of 35mm film fed by sprockets through a projector, the quality of presentation couldn’t have been any better than what was offered at the Spectrum. The Spectrum was one of the first theaters to install digital sound using the DTS format. The booming sound systems in Screen #2 and Screen #8 at The Spectrum were certified by Lucasfilm’s THX - and a part of the religious moviegoer’s experience in those screens was being overwhelmed by the crescendo of the THX trailer - demonstrating the power of those auditoriums - sound you could feel rumbling from the floor and resonating inside your chest. In the 90s, several other locations had THX-certified houses but none of them ever matched the might of Screen #2 at The Spectrum.
I saw many films of note at the Spectrum - but the highlight that most demonstrated the uniqueness of that theater was seeing Jurassic Park on opening night. DTS was new, and that film utilized digital sound in a way that’d never been done before. As the T-Rex stomped, and the pools of water vibrated, the tension in the house was palpable. This metamorphosis of the analog sound era to digital was a transformative moment - moviegoing would never be the same after.
I have many important film memories at that location. I saw Back to the Future III there on release night (as part of a marathon of the entire trilogy) with a packed house. I saw Schindler’s List on its first screening on a mid-day afternoon, with about four other people. The Spectrum was where I saw Stanley Kubrick’s last film and a good friend of mine turned, as I was absorbing the totality of the moment as the final credits began to roll, and my friend said: “the last word ever said in a Kubrick film is fuck!” I saw Casino during my time as a critic for the University of Houston school newspaper and stood on the steps outside in a crisp night, clutching a souvenir poker chip, filled with disappointment - perhaps learning for the first time about getting too overhyped and seeing one of my cinematic heroes underdeliver.
The Spectrum was located next to my favorite burger joint in Houston - Beck’s Prime - and it formed the foundation of what has since become my tradition for any heavily-anticipated film: a trip to Beck’s followed by the opening night movie.
Landmark River Oaks
The River Oaks Theater in Houston was built in 1939 - an art deco classic theater, the old-timey kind with an enormous screen with a large balcony upstairs. In the mid-1980s, the balcony was turned into two smaller theaters, bringing it to a three-screen capacity.
It has been the anchor for art-house cinema in Houston for decades. During the ‘90s, there was a glorious period where they’d expanded into two other unique locations (the Saks and Greenway) - but eventually receded back into the one location. In addition to being the home base for period pictures, indies, classics, and foreign films, on the weekends it often screens Rocky Horror and an assortment of cult Midnight Movie fare.
I’ve seen so many brilliant films in that location, it is my primary moviegoing home. As various other chains have risen and fallen in terms of their abilities to have the best picture and sound quality for mainstream releases, the Landmark River Oaks has always been the place to go for H-Town cineastes.
The greatest experience I had there was seeing Citizen Kane for the first time. Alas, it was upstairs on one of the smaller screens (a crime!) - but that didn’t take away from the enormity of the moment. I walked out of that theater a different person.
It was at the River Oaks that I also saw Hamlet in 70mm, introduced by Kenneth Branagh, as well as Bubba Ho-Tep introduced by Bruce Campbell. It’s where I saw Terrence Malick’s masterpiece Tree of Life. In the past two decades, probably half of my top-10 lists have been filled with titles screened there. I even used it as a primary location in my comic book short story Roger Ebert and Me (art by Rem Broo).
Palladium (renamed to Regal Grand Parkway)
In recent years, the championship belt for best quality presentation in the Greater Houston Area goes to the Palladium (now named Regal Grand Parkway).
Its biggest auditoriums have screens nearly the size of IMAX (and yes, I can remember without having to look up the fact that they are screens #8, #9, #10, and #11).
The Palladium’s projectors are kept bright - bulbs are replaced within the properly expected timeframe (in contrast to many poorly run theaters that let bulbs go too dim before doing anything about it). Their pictures are kept in focus, and the sound systems bring the thunder. The seats are comfortable, and the angle of view is almost never compromised. Many stadium-seating venues have awkward gaps or a limited “sweet spot” zone of only 1-2 rows, but the heart of the biggest screens at the Palladium - there’s about 5-6 rows of unobstructed, clear center-view seats.
The interior? I admit, it’s over-the-top. It even has a bowling alley and a couple of bars, which brings the occasional rowdy drunk patron into a screening. Sometimes meandering to and from screenings can feel a bit like you’re in a weird shopping mall.
But if there’s a movie that calls for the best quality projection, large screens, and packed-house audiences ready to have fun, The Palladium is the best place in town to go.
The pandemic has robbed us of the moviegoing experience for much of 2020. It’s been over nine months since I’ve seen a film in a theater. Several chains are completely closed. Most are struggling. Some industry watchers proclaim this is the death of the theatrical experience. I believe they will be proven wrong, and in the second half of 2021, we will return to theatergoing.
I can’t remember how long ago it was that I started referring to movie theaters as my church, but it’s been many years now. In Joseph Campbell’s works, he describes a strong connection between humankind’s primitive mythologies, the major world religions, and the creative mythologies of contemporary culture - that they can serve the same need. That desire for a collective experience of the numinous.
One key difference from cinematic churches and those of the major world religions is that when we cinema-church types go to our sacred space and go through the rituals, we are often vastly outnumbered by the heathens surrounding us.
Before the pandemic, I must confess to a degree of snobbery and condescension towards the, shall I say, less maniacally-devoted seat occupants next to me in the holy house of movies. When they would talk during the feature, or whip out their phones to send a text or scroll social media, it would irk me. Occasionally enrage me.
But now, after having it all taken away for such a long stretch, I even miss that too. The imperfections and chaotic influences of a random collection of people in the dark are the essential ingredient. There’s something undeniably special and real about the the audience at a movie theater. When a film falls flat, it’s obvious - but when it’s working - oh my goodness, when it’s working - there’s a tangible energy in the room and our connection to it - individually and collectively at the same time - there’s nothing else like it. I cannot wait to experience it again.