During my recent trip to Oregon I had a chance to revisit and actually see a movie at my venerated old hometown show house, the Alger. Any return to this theater is kind of fascinating for me, but mixed with that fascination there is almost always a curious tincture of dread. The Alger was never, probably not even in its best, shiniest days, a technically spiffy place to see a movie, and those spiffier, shinier days are definitely in its past. In fact, much comedy and local legend in my circle of friends has been rooted in and enjoyed at the expense of this theater’s shortcomings. But despite all that, the Alger was where I learned to love the movies, and because of that fact it’s still sobering to see the façade, which once boasted not only bright colors and beautiful showcase windows for both current and coming-attraction one sheets, but also a selection of ornately displayed lobby cards and stills on the inner walls leading into the lobby from outside. As you can see from the photo above (and this one), that façade has fallen into disrepair and neglect, a state which began back in the mid'70s. (Vandals shattered the glass on the one-sheet cases, and rather than invest in fixing them the manager boarded them up, a state in which they remain to this day.) As far as the presentation of the movie itself, the last time I went there, some two years ago, I saw Jim Carrey in A Christmas Carol and was appalled by the poor quality of the sound. The picture quality was better, the theater having abandoned the worn-out, unkempt carbon-arc projectors of old with a platter system transplanted from a theater in Coos Bay. But the sound was wretched—no highs, and a completely muddy low-end, making dialogue almost indecipherable.
So when I arrived at the Alger a couple of weeks ago with my daughter Emma and my niece Kamaryn, on a mid-August Saturday night, to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 it would not be an exaggeration to say that my expectations vis-à-vis the technical presentation were on the low end of the scale. The first thing I noticed when I approached the box office window was a sign that goosed my dread in a different direction. It said: “This building was built in 1930. We do NOT have air conditioners. Only fans. Sorry.” It hadn’t been a particularly hot day, and I tried to remember any time when it was uncomfortably warm inside. Then I recalled that in my childhood days when I attended this palace with religious fervor the Alger was never open during the summer. Its doors were locked during the warmest time of the year in favor of the more seasonally appropriate Circle JM Drive-In. So I really didn’t know what to expect in terms of just how stuffy and hot the place could get.
Turns out I needn’t have worried too much. Inside, at the front of the auditorium, were two huge stand-up fans that effectively moved the air about the auditorium and kept things cool enough for relaxing with a summer blockbuster. They weren’t pretty, and they created a relatively deafening hum to compete with the movie’s soundtrack, but they did the job. However, we wouldn’t see them until we sat down. The trailers had already started when we walked into the lobby, and the first thing that struck me was how loud and clear the sound was. It wasn’t THX-approved Dolby Digital 5.1 or anything, but compared to what we grew up with, and certainly compared to the wretched audio soup of two years ago, it was a light-year’s worth of improvement. I was ready to see a movie at the Alger and perhaps for the first time really enjoy the sound at an unheard-of level of quality. My excitement dimmed, though, when I walked through those red velvet curtains separating the snack bar from the auditorium (the same ones that hung there when I was five years old, I’m sure) and saw the trailer for Captain America, a Scope trailer for a Scope movie playing before a Scope feature, squeezed to perfectly fit the Alger’s standard 1.85 screen. That screen is the same size screen that it’s always been, yet whenever a Scope movie would screen there in the past the projectionist would of course attach the anamorphic lens to the projector and the image would be stretched out to its proper aspect ratio. There would be some black (or white, absent masking) visible on the top and bottom of the screen, much the way 2.35 movies look when shown in letterbox format on TV, or even on wide-screen TVs with essentially a 1.85 screen aspect ratio, but I always felt this was an acceptable trade-off. (The screening of a wide-screen movie at the Alger was always a source of “fun” at reel changes too because the projectionist could never manage to get the anamorphic lens precisely in focus for the upcoming reel, so often the blurry, distorted image would take four of five seconds or more to get in focus and in a proper, non-warped rectangular shape once the reel changed over.)
But the sound was noticeably improved, and appropriately loud, so I vowed, when the movie started and was squeezed in the same way, that I wouldn’t allow my fussiness to ruin the evening. After about five minutes “I got used to it” and let it pass. Now, I know, from having seen the movie twice already that it is indeed a Scope movie with a 2.35 aspect ratio (like the entire series), and after the fact IMDb would confirm this. (And, actually, the non-IMAX, non-3D release print of A Christmas Carol was 2.35 as well, but the image was not the problem that night.) But this was clearly not a case of the right lens being on and the screen not being wide enough, as used to happen every time they’d show a Scope movie in one of those shitty rat-traps in Medford or White City, Oregon that I had to endure in the ‘80s. This image was squeezed up to fit 1.85—all the actors were elongated, stretched like taffy, the way they are when someone doesn’t have their fancy HDTV system formatted correctly.
So as I said, I endured and enjoyed the movie, for my blood pressure’s sake as well as for the enjoyment of the kids, who didn’t seem to much notice that Harry seemed taller and thinner than ever before, even before that moving epilogue. But afterward, as the credits rolled, the manager of the theater came down to shut off the two giant fans that would have drowned out the old-school Alger audio system. So I walked up to her and complimented her on the sound. I told her that I’d been seeing movies here since I was about four years old, that I couldn’t remember it ever sounding so good, and that it was a great improvement over the disastrously bad audio I heard in 2009. “Did the audio system get upgraded?” I asked, expecting an enthusiastic answer, the kind given when somebody hears an unexpected compliment from a satisfied, interested customer. “Uh, I dunno,” she mumbled, grinning sheepishly. “Maybe!” For some reason I thought it wise to drop that line of inquiry, and quickly picked up another. “And by the way, is there a reason why the projectionist didn’t show the movie in its proper aspect ratio?” I asked. The storm clouds of confusion began almost immediately to gather darkly over her face. “Huh?” she retorted. “I mean, it was a wide-screen movie,” I offered, “and he didn’t have the right lens on the projector. The image was all squeezed up.”
But instead of answering me, the manager tilted her head up and shouted, “Hey, (whatever his name was), this guy says you didn’t have the right lens on the projector!” I turned and looked up at the balcony, where I saw the projectionist filing through the rows of seats armed with a garbage bag into which he was tossing crumpled-up popcorn bags and the other remaining artifacts of the evening’s show. He stopped and replied: “What?” So I continued: “The picture was squeezed up onto the screen. You need an anamorphic lens to ‘un-squeeze’ the image on the film to its proper proportion.” He paused for a second, imagining, I was guessing, the weirdly skinny people on his own HDTV at home. “No, that’s the way it’s supposed to look.” I laughed. “Uh, no, it’s not,” I said, suspecting this conversation was going to go nowhere fast. “I’ve seen this movie twice before, and never did Harry look like he was seven feet tall.” I tried to explain how, if shown properly on this screen there would be some room at the top and bottom, just like on a letterboxed movie on video. He then tried to explain how the screen was completely filled with movie and therefore everything was the way it was supposed to be, adding for good measure that the lens that was on the projector was, in fact, an anamorphic lens. “Well, no, it’s not,” I offered one last time, “otherwise the picture would have been in the right proportion.” It was then that the projectionist reversed gears completely and told me that, well, they didn’t have an anamorphic lens. Not buying this dodge for a second, I retorted, “What happened to the one you had the last time I was here? Everything was fine with the picture then.” (A slight exaggeration, as this has never entirely been the case at the Alger Theater, but I digress.) “I don’t know,” he speculated, “because this is the one we always use. Besides, the picture looked fine to me.”
Anyone ought to recognize the futility of arguing with a projectionist who likely didn’t even know the meaning of the term “aspect ratio,” much less what an anamorphic lens was, so I bid him well and ended the dialogue. My daughter and niece looked up at me, the end credits having long since ended, as if to say, “You’re embarrassing us.” So I thanked the staff for the excellent sound and we headed out the front door, which was held for us by the manager herself, who was probably thinking that she could have been out of here 10 minutes earlier if it weren’t for me and all my nosy questions. “Thanks for coming,” she muttered, as we walked out into the night air. I smiled and thought to myself, well, at least we could hear the damn movie, a radical change from years of substandard sound at the old show house.
As we drove home, and as I drifted off to sleep that night, I thought of all the things I would do with the place if I won the lottery—new façade outdoors; new seats; take out that phony “stage” they built 15 years ago when some wise guy got the idea to moonlight the Alger as a community theater; maybe even turn it into a McMenamin’s-style pub theater with booths and couches and tables instead of seats, with pizza and beer to go along with popcorn and Pepsi; and a programming schedule that would alternate classics early in the week (lots of cowboy shows, for sure) with the regular sure-fire first-run family fare that has taken over the normal calendar. Ah, dreams. Not exactly the same kind I always used to come away with whenever I visited the Alger, but they were sweet indeed. And they were all unsqueezed and in the proper aspect ratio too.