I confess, I haven’t been to a theater in about 3 years, at least. Not because I’m afraid of contracting COVID (I’m vaccinated and have never had the symptoms) or because most of the theaters have been closed and then opened and then closed and then opened again. But, like many of you, my home theater experience is actually quite pleasant, and I can pause the film to get refreshments or check on my Autistic son and make sure he hasn’t lit the house on fire or broken through a window to escape and run up the street or onto the nearby toll road in his pajamas. Okay, fine, I’m joking about the ‘house on fire’ remark.
But it must be said that part of the community or social aspect of theater going, of being part of audience is lost as the theater business struggles to stay alive. Yes, gone or fading into history, are the communal gasps, shrieks, laughter, and sobbing. Those emotions that instantly connected us as a community that came together to feel and react in pretty much the same way. With the advances of home theater technology, we are cut off from that communal movie experience response, and so, unfortunately, America’s sense of community becomes fractured, fragmented, and even more polarized. That’s not a good thing.
Anecdotally, the other thing we all miss with the slow demise of the theater industry are those strange or appropriate or inappropriate or hilarious responses made in the dark in response to something unfolding on the big screen. Here are a few I remember. I’m sure you have others that you’ll never forget.
My brothers and my cousins and a couple of our friends and I were in a theater watching the WWII espionage thriller, Where Eagles Dare. It’s a fun movie. Perhaps a bit unbelievable with its shifting plot contrivances, but for young adolescent boys who would play “war” in the forested areas in our neighborhood, it was a great flick. As we were watching and listening intently to Richard Burton explain that he was a double agent to SS officers being held at gunpoint in a vast, cavernous dining room of the Schloss Adler, a kid behind us whispered to his companion, “I bet Hitler is in the next room.” Wonderful.
In San Jose, I took my oldest brother, who was home from college for the summer, to see Jaws that had been released a few days before. Those were the days of packed houses and lines running for blocks near the theater. In the scene where the young Kintner boy on his raft gets attacked by Bruce, the Great White where all the audience sees is Bruce’s rolling, enormous dorsal fin and a burst of sprayed blood that disappears in a matter of seconds, the audience, as one, appropriately gasped in shock and horror. As the audience was catching its collective breath and began to relax, the boy's deflated raft washes up on the beach, and a lone, young woman in the audience let out a blood-curdling scream that reverberated in the now quiet theater perhaps thinking the raft was the young boy’s body. There was a momentary pause until everyone in the theater laughed, laughter that was as much a relief of the horror of the scene as it was the unexpected and delayed scream of the young woman in the audience.
I was invited to a screening of Carroll Ballard’s wonderful film, Never Cry Wolf, at the Disney studios in Burbank. This beautifully photographed film by the great Hiro Narita and written by Farley Mowat, Curtis Hanson, Sam Hamm with additional contributions from star Charles Martin Smith and others, was problematic for Disney because of Charles Martin Smith’s nude romp with a running herd of elk being chased by wolves. Disney didn’t know what to do with the film and on a subsequent DVD release, the studio removed any Disney markings on the case for fear that some parent would buy this Disney film and expose their innocent children to Mr. Smith’s exposure. As my friend and I watched the film, a young boy, perhaps maybe six or seven years old, seated in the row behind us, upon seeing a black wolf watching Smith in his encampment from a distance, dramatically and importantly announced to all around him, “The Black Wolf!” It was a delightful moment.
When I was in high school and dating, my date insisted on seeing The Way We Were with Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford. I’m sorry but it’s a bloody awful film. Anyway, there’s a scene where Redford looks longingly into Streisand’s crossed-eyes who was looking a bit like Harpo Marx in the scene, and says, “You know something? You’re beautiful.” Someone a few rows in front of us blurted out a contrarian “Hah!” Many of the men in the audience chuckled in concurrence, including me, until I was nudged by my scowling date. My apologies to any Streisand devotees.
Those are just a few memorable movie theater moments, perhaps you have others.
(photo credit: Photo by Krists Luhaers on Unsplash)