Wednesday, August 24, 2011

ONCE AGAIN INTO THE LOBBY: A RETURN VISIT TO MY HOMETOWN MOVIE PALACE



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.

12 comments:

Bemis said...

I feel your pain, Dennis. As a former projectionist, I have to say, it's actually a pretty easy job provided nothing breaks. There are basically three things you need to get right - threading the film through the projector, framing and attaching the correct lens. I've been to older cinemas where they centered a scope film on their flat screen, and it was charming and totally forgivable.

The bit about the faux stage struck a nerve too. I can think of several beautiful old movie houses in New England that were carefully restored only to be used for this purpose, with movies projected once a week or not at all. It's like restoring an old church, then only opening it on Bingo night.

Gerg said...

Yeah! McMenamin's would be cool.

Dave said...

I can't vouch for their accuracy, but Cinema Treasures dates the theatre to 1940, rather than 1930.

Given the general veracity of the staff, I'm inclined to believe the website.

Marc Edward Heuck said...

Visiting a place with so many good memories, and having to deal with venal clueless types now working there must be quite a disheartening thing.

I cross posted your essay to the Alger's Cinema Treasures page: maybe this will jump start some quality control.

http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/1546

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Andrew, the thing that kills me about this "conversion" to a community theater idea is its incredible short-sightedness. They did it with no plan beyond a year or so of involvement with people who were actually interested in the idea. Once those people moved on or died or whatever, so did the idea of a community theater. The stage hasn't been used for live entertainment of any kind in at least 10 years, maybe more. And even when they were using it to put on plays and performances, no one ever thought that, hmm, when you have live actors and performances you need room to roam around behind the stage, and dressing rooms too, none of which were ever installed-- there was simply no room. So whenever the plays were performed, the actors had to change clothes IN THE ALLEY or in their cars outside! Ugh.

Gerg: I think doing something like this would be key to making going back to the movies in such a sparsely populated area an event again. How else you gonna get 'em off of the farm once they've seen that their own $1499 home theater system has better sound and picture than the show house?

Dave: I suspect you're right. The sign on the box-office window said "1930," but I don't recall seeing any advertising or pictures from the theater dating back any further than 1941. (I recently posted this one from that year.) 1930 seems just a little too early and too progressive for what I know of my town's history. There WAS another little movie theater a block away on "E" Street that showed silent films as early as the 1910's, but it was long ago converted to a jewelry store and still sits unrecognizable amidst a row of shops downtown. It was documented wonderfully in a book about Irish immigration and the history of Lakeview by local writer Bob Barry called From Shamrocks to Sagebrush.

Marc: Thanks so much for that linkage. It does kill me to see the place in the hands of people who don't know and love the movies. I've often thought of going back and implementing the kinds of changes that would make it a great place once again, but that old bugaboo known as "practicality" always gets in the way. Thanks for helping to promote the idea of quality even in a small venue like this. It is really is important if the Alger and other theaters like it are to remain open.

Jandy Stone said...

Ugh, stories like this just make me upset. I even get angry at wrong aspect ratios on videos uploaded to YouTube - I don't understand how people can't tell it's wrong. For someone calling themselves a projectionist to get it wrong for paying customers just seems outrageous to me.

Glad the sound was good, though! You have a much better attitude about the whole experience than I would have. I would've been up there within the first five minutes yelling at people. (And probably would've just gotten thrown out for my trouble.)

Peet Gelderblom said...

Oh Dennis, you're much to kind. If that were me instead of you, we wouldn't have left the cinema before getting the money of all our tickets back. Little infuriates me more than clueless projectionists and the theatre owners who employ them.

I once sat through an unforgivably blurry screening of Peter Jackson's King Kong (all 3 hours of it) with, oddly enough, razor-sharp subtitles. The theatre's excuse: Something had been wrong with the projector and they could only show one of the two in focus. Imagine, for a moment, the projectionist's dilemma... Nevermind the part of the screen that cost three years and over 200 dollars to put together--let's focus on the sans serif!

Another time, I watched five minutes of Ratatouille in 5.1 surround WITHOUT dialogue. Apparently, the front speaker was off. All of a sudden, there was a loud PLOP! and we heard ONLY the front speaker for the rest of the movie.

Mistakes are human, but in both of these cases, it was ME who had to convince the theater owners that their screening wasn't acceptable. Their first reaction was outright denial. I made sure to get through to them by gradually raising my voice, repeating the facts and demanding my money back. I'm not a bully by any definition, but that's the quickest way to make these clowns sit up and take notice.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I almost got into a fight with a theater employee about faulty projection of a film. One of the corners of the screen was out of focus. When I informed the employer about the problem, his reply was, "It's an art movie", as if I hadn't seen Antonioni or Fellini while he was still in diapers.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Peter: That "art movie" reply says a lot about the contempt with which a lot of these folks regard their customers. Incredible. And yeah, Peet, as long as you can read the subtitles, you can follow the story, right? Who needs the expensive visuals?

I probably could have been much crankier, and I may well have been, had my kids not be in tow. As happenstance would have it, I'm going to have a chance to go back there in a few weeks. I've asked to tour the booth before and been given complete access, so this time I think I might go up in plenty of time to quiz the projectionist beforehand and see for myself if all the lenses they need are screwed on in the right places!

KEVYN KNOX said...

All I can say is - this person is obvious an idiot. But I suppose that is obvious to everyone already.

Randy Dary said...

I am one of the projectionists at the subject theater. I don't think it was me that was showing Harry Potter,but I think I went to the previewing of it. I know that I would have noticed a wildly-distorted picture, so I strain to recall what might have aroused your rather fierce animosity.
It is sad-making to be accused of not caring about film. We do what we can with what we have. In the past 10 years both our projection systems and sound systems have been upgraded, not to what you have in your local suburban multiplexes, I'm sure, but definitely beyond what was here when Mr Cozzalio was "growing up."
We did have a period within the last year or two during which our sound became mysteriously muffled, for want of a better word. Specifically, frequencies in the vocal range seemed somewhat muted --- not a good deal in such a medium! The reason, a technician (from the city! Portland!) found, was that during a roof repair, tar ( or whatever) dropped through and landed, kersplat, RIGHT ON the connecting terminals on the center speaker in back of the screen! So the speaker wasn't even really working; it had been shorted out.
Working with what we have: When Dennis was growing up, the projectionist and jack-of-all-trades at the theater was Lloyd Tatro. Lloyd worked there for most of 60 years! It was Lloyd who showed the current owner and myself how to project. Lloyd retired shortly after installation of the newer equipment. I don't know what he thought of the new stuff. We think that perhaps he missed all the tinkering and prep which needed to be done with the arc lights and dual projector system! Lloyd taught us well, and I personally feel fortunate to have been able to work in both the old and new settings.
Lenses: we have two. One we were told was for "flat" movies; the other is what we use for "Scope" movies. I would say the latter is anamorphic, but there is an adjustment on it which, for instance, also allows us to show flat trailers; so does that make it not strictly anamorphic?. When we dial the lens thusly, however, the resulting picture is smaller: it does not fill the screen.
I suppose it's possible that, on the night you saw HP, the dial on the lens had somehow not gotten put back to its proper position, thereby somehow squeezing the figures and making them appear "eight feet tall."
At best, I suppose the variable lens is only a happy (or not) medium. The other problem our little old theater has is the screen, which apparently is the size they made them back in 1940 or '30 or '50 or whenever the place was built. There probably will never be any other screen because, if you looked around when you were there, you may have noticed that all of that frontal room is used up. I suppose they could put in a screen with modern dimensions, but it would have to be smaller. It would be like watching those movies on TV where you have the black bands over and under.
It seems a bit harsh of you to badmouth an employee (the manager) for not knowing anything about lenses. Why should she? I don't know anything about running the popcorn machine!
So, Dennis, I hear that you"ll be in town again around Thanksgiving. Great! Stop by and chat. We'll show you what we've got and you can make your suggestions, or sympathize with what we have to work with --- or just keep complaining!

Anonymous said...

Dennis, I feel like there is a need for a reality check. I'm going to throw out some facts to help you look realistically at these so called "problems" you have with the Alger Theater. First off, the town has a population of 2600 people and a high school of roughly 230. Barely enough individuals to keep a Safeway and other local small businesses above water. Next, look at the popularity of movies for a small town crowd. That number is not an overwhelming percentage of the overall population of Lakeview. Now, lets look at the Alger Theater itself. It is an old theatre built in the 1930s (not going to argue over something as little as a fact, that no one other than the owners really know). It does not have the high-tech equipment that large cinema complexes have, simply because where does the money come from to purchase this said technology? Certainly NOT in a town of 2600 people. When you talk about renovations or other things you have in mind for fixing up the place, have you put a real world cost on your said renovations that are impossible to have in a small town? Putting in the newest projector and high quality sound systems and sprucing up the building racks up a hefty bill. A bill that will never see the profits necessary to simply come out even on the total costs spent on "fixing up the place". This is where I bring up the question, have you ever owned a business? Or had to work with individuals or customers that always have something to complain about? Yes, the Alger Theater is not in the best shape and it has definite potential, but as everything has potential there is a reality that we all must face. The world revolves around MONEY, and those individuals who voice their opinions on how a small town movie theater should be run has never had real life experience in managing a business. I'm not saying you don't have a right to an opinion, we all do. Simply, I am saying you don't understand how businesses work because you have obviously never had to fork out money on a project that you will never see a profit out of. Which leads me to final question. If you know how the Alger Theater must be run, why not make an investment of your own REAL money and buy the theater? If you have an opinion, figure out how to make it work. Obviously you have expressed that you don't believe the current managers don't know what their doing, even though this theater is still running. We are in an era where going to the movies is not a desired activity, let alone in a small town community. What I am getting at... look up the actual costs of upgrading to new technology and possibly re-evaluate your previous comments.