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Unexpected Movie Audience Moments (1 Viewer)

Bad Raptor

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It’s been expressed by others that even before the COVID pandemic lockdowns and shutdowns, the theater industry was already dying. Theater chains and owners were already doing what they could to keep empty theaters full by renting them out to large business meetings, church groups, and opera aficionados that wanted to catch a live performance from the Met in New York from a seat in a theater in Sacramento or San Antonio where unlike the Met, popcorn could be crunched, Coke slurped from bucket-sized cups, and jaws could get a Milk Duds workout.

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)
 

Francois Caron

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Two memorable moments during the 90s, both in repertoire theatres.

The first was Woody Allen's redub of two Japanese spy thrillers called " What's Up Tiger Lily". I was surprised the movie was shown in the larger main theatre of the repertoire house, even more surprised that it was a full house! Everyone enjoyed the movie very much and even stuck around for the funny end credits!

The second was "Catch-22" and the theatre was only a quarter full. As the opening credits rolled, someone in the audience was pronouncing softly the names that flashed on the screen, but not softly enough to prevent the entire theatre from hearing what she was saying. People started to giggle. Then a big name appeared on the screen, and many people said in unison "Orson Welles!"

No more names were called after that, but it did set the tone for the audience to thoroughly enjoy the movie.
 

Johnny Angell

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Not a movie, but my wife and I attended a musical/comedy about Peter Pan and Captain Hook. Captain Hook says “I’ve changed, haven’t it?” Then from the audience comes the clear and distinct voice of a young, innocent girl saying “No, you haven’t.” The entire audience roared with laughter and the actors had trouble keeping a straight face for a couple of minutes. All were delighted.
 

Bad Raptor

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Not a movie, but my wife and I attended a musical/comedy about Peter Pan and Captain Hook. Captain Hook says “I’ve changed, haven’t it?” Then from the audience comes the clear and distinct voice of a young, innocent girl saying “No, you haven’t.” The entire audience roared with laughter and the actors had trouble keeping a straight face for a couple of minutes. All were delighted.
Wonderful!
 

Winston T. Boogie

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One of my most memorable nights in a cinema took place in the 1980s when I was living out in LA. Some friends decided it was a great night to go see a movie. They selected a film, a horror picture, because most of them were horror fans and off we went. I was sort of just along for the ride because my intent was to do some drinking and carousing that night. I did not know what picture we were seeing nor where we were going.

The picture turned out to be a film called Chopping Mall, I saw the title and poster and immediately wanted to go somewhere else. Movie snob I was at that point I knew I did not want to sit through Chopping Mall but I did not drive us there and was overruled and so, in a dismal mood I entered the theater bracing myself for a horrid time.

The first thing I noticed to my astonishment was the crowd for the film was pretty much entirely people of color. Next thing I noticed was the show appeared to be nearly sold out so the place was packed. I was surprised that Chopping Mall was such a draw.

We sit down, the picture begins and within minutes people in the crowd are speaking back at the screen...which in a good film would be an annoyance but in a picture like this was...well...perfect. If I could have an audio recording of the crowd watching Chopping Mall that night it would probably be one of my most treasured possessions. I laughed so hard I was doubled over most of the picture. It was better than any midnight showing of Rocky Horror I have ever been to. There were a bunch of smartass Latino guys making rapid fire comments and arguing with each other, a huge African American woman that seemed enraged by what characters were doing and furiously scolded them. I could not see the screen because I had tears of laughter pouring down my face and spent most of my time glancing around at the people making the comments.

It was just one of the most entertaining nights I ever had in the cinema. I could not tell you a damn thing about the picture because I barely saw it and was so focused on the audience comments.

I've never seen the picture again and really I would not want to. Watching something like Chopping Mall in my home theater could never equal watching it with a packed house of hilarious strangers. It was a bad film but the audience was awesome.
 
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Sultanofcinema

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During one of my many theatrical screenings of 1967's You Only Live Twice... And Twice Is The Only Way To Live! there were two younger girls sitting in front of me. When Bond is getting a massage by Akiko Wakabyashi, she states to Bond who has just told her "the last time I had a massage, it was rudely interrupted by a couple of gunman" and she replies "this time you shall finish it". Connery leans his head up and back to see it's her and they kiss. One of the two girls in front of me very loudly makes the "oooohhh" sound, but not in a positive way. She was upset or confused by the fact that a Japanese woman was kissing a British man. As Woody Allen said in one of his films, "what I wouldn't give for a large bag of horse manure"!
 

Sultanofcinema

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Another great story deals with Altered States, which I opened at one of my theaters. I can't explain why this happened nor could my staff but during the first 7:30 pm show opening night we were sold out. During the scene where you see Hurt's feet and they are not normal, a patron with her boyfriend came out of the theater, stood in the middle of the lobby and threw up in front of my Asst. Mgr and candy staff. During the second showing, and during the same scene, it happened exactly as it did during the first show with a different person. We talked about it for many months and could never figure out what the issue was.
 

Sultanofcinema

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If you went to see Wait Until Dark in April of 1967 at the Radio City Music Hall, it was sold out (I believe 3300 seats). If you've seen the film, you know the ending is a spine tingler. To hear 3300 people scream at the same time is one heck of a thrill and something no one ever forgets!
 

Sultanofcinema

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During my screening of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a bomb threat was called into the theater. The lights came up and we were all evacuated to the parking lot only to have the bomb squad find out it was a hoax. Because it was a 35mm print, there was no starting over, digital etc and we had to "pick it up" where we left off before the threat. I had to go back the next evening to see it straight thru to enjoy it.
 

Sultanofcinema

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During one of the screenings of Tales From The Crypt in 1971 at the Colonial Theater in Pompton Lakes, N.J. The Saturday evening show was sold out. There was a loud scream from the balcony and every one was trying to figure out what they didn't see in the film. It turns out someone stabbed another person in the balcony.
 

Sultanofcinema

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When I ran R rated films, I would walk the lines outside the theater letting everyone know that because the film was rated R you had to have either a wedding ring or pistol permit to purchase a ticket. I had 10 kids on line with a guy and obviously, his girlfriend. The got to the box-office and the guy purchased 12 tickets. I asked the guy if he was going to sit in the theater with the kids he had just purchased the tickets for and he said yes. After 10 min, I told my usher Scott to go in and see where the kids were that came in with the guy. They were all in the front row and he was in the back row with his girlfriend. I told Scott to bring the kids out. They came out wanting their money back and I told them to get it from your father when he comes out. They all had a dime and used the payphones to call their parents to pick them up. Read the back of your ticket: The Theater Manager has the right to..............
 

Matt Hough

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If you went to see Wait Until Dark in April of 1967 at the Radio City Music Hall, it was sold out (I believe 3300 seats). If you've seen the film, you know the ending is a spine tingler. To hear 3300 people scream at the same time is one heck of a thrill and something no one ever forgets!
Absolutely was the communal experience I was going to relate. At that one shocking moment, literally the entire theater sprang out of their seats with a deafening scream. There was screaming and lots of hubbub at Psycho when I saw it, but I don't remember an audience leaping from their seats almost in unison ever before or since.
 

Johnny Angell

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Absolutely was the communal experience I was going to relate. At that one shocking moment, literally the entire theater sprang out of their seats with a deafening scream. There was screaming and lots of hubbub at Psycho when I saw it, but I don't remember an audience leaping from their seats almost in unison ever before or since.
Yes, this was a cinema moment to chill the spine to absolute zero. I will never forget it.
 

Johnny Angell

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When I ran R rated films, I would walk the lines outside the theater letting everyone know that because the film was rated R you had to have either a wedding ring or pistol permit to purchase a ticket. I had 10 kids on line with a guy and obviously, his girlfriend. The got to the box-office and the guy purchased 12 tickets. I asked the guy if he was going to sit in the theater with the kids he had just purchased the tickets for and he said yes. After 10 min, I told my usher Scott to go in and see where the kids were that came in with the guy. They were all in the front row and he was in the back row with his girlfriend. I told Scott to bring the kids out. They came out wanting their money back and I told them to get it from your father when he comes out. They all had a dime and used the payphones to call their parents to pick them up. Read the back of your ticket: The Theater Manager has the right to..............
You were a hard ass. A little R never hurt anyone.
 

Sultanofcinema

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You were a hard ass. A little R never hurt anyone.
Johnny,
You know what it was. I had the same repeat audiences coming to my theaters every week because I ran films the right way and they didn't have to deal with kids. They used to comment this to me. No one ever remembers a good show but they always remember a bad show. Most parents would drop their kids off for us to babysit while they went out to dinner or shopping.
 

Mysto

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My favorite audience moment came when we were at the Redford Theater in Detroit. The Redford is a revival theater and the home of the Detroit Organ Club. We tried to go when ever a silent movie was playing with organ accompaniment. This time it was a collection of Laurel and Hardy silent shorts. The audience was a mixed bag of old and young. When the movies started - the laughter just grew and grew. I look around and saw teenagers and young children roaring in laughter. I left hoping that some would remember that good movies are good movies even in black and white - square screen - and NO DIALOG.
 

Peter Apruzzese

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Another great story deals with Altered States, which I opened at one of my theaters. I can't explain why this happened nor could my staff but during the first 7:30 pm show opening night we were sold out. During the scene where you see Hurt's feet and they are not normal, a patron with her boyfriend came out of the theater, stood in the middle of the lobby and threw up in front of my Asst. Mgr and candy staff. During the second showing, and during the same scene, it happened exactly as it did during the first show with a different person. We talked about it for many months and could never figure out what the issue was.

Can confirm this story (I was Joe’s assistant manger). The first guy came out moaning “The feet…the feet!” before heaving.
 

Peter Apruzzese

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A couple of memorable audience reaction experiences as a programmer/projectionist:

Running a gorgeous print of Singing in the Rain for our Saturday morning classics series and hearing a huge round of applause after Donald O’Connor’s “Make Em Laugh” number.

Running Chaplin’s The Circus and, just after it ended, hearing a kid say to his mother, “That last part is like really famous, isn’t it?” (Chaplin kicking away the handbill and walking away as the iris closes on him).

Getting a hug from a teary-eyed woman after showing Portrait of Jennie who asked if I was responsible for showing it (she saw me putting the film cans down in the lobby, so it was an easy guess). I said “You’re welcome?” and she said “It was my mother’s favorite movie and we watched it every time it was on TV.” Took me a minute to process what I think she was saying.

Not an audience reaction, but my own: watching the trip sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey while standing next to Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, who we had as special guests for a Q & A after the film that night. They had just finished setting up their autograph tables in the lobby and heard the scene start and Keir said “I gotta see this!” It was surreal watching it with the two of them.
 

benbess

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I saw Star Wars in 1977 a few weeks after it opened, when I was 12. That theater had probably the most interactive audience I've ever heard. It was the first time seeing it for me and my friends, but clearly other people were already seeing if for the second or third time, because when Darth Vader came on the screen there were theatrical hisses, and then little laughs. There were laughs at the funny parts of the movie, and then toward the end of the movie there were huge cheers and lots of clapping. I was swept up in it, and participated a bit more during the next six or so times I saw it that year.

I saw Halloween on opening night in 1978 with some friends, and there were screams in that theater like I'd never heard before, and I'm embarrassed to say sometimes I screamed too. I still haven't seen that movie again since then all the way through, although I've always meant to.

But my biggest and most visceral audience reactions for all time for a movie were at a preview of Alien in 1979, a week or two before it opened wide, which I went to with my older sister and several of her friends. There were gasps and screams throughout the movie at our sold out showing at the huge Edwards Newport theater in Newport Beach, California, which was showing the movie in 70mm with six-track Dolby sound. Hearing two thousand people scream and squirm in their seats all at once, when you're gasping and squirming too, is almost impossible to describe. Afterward I felt almost like I had ptsd lol! The older friend of my sister who was driving me home after we left, after night had fallen, had a Toyota Celica hatchback, and the light in the cargo area had shorted out and was flickering. It looked a lot like the flickering and flashing lights in the movie at the end, and we were a bit freaked out.

The audience reaction was almost as strong on opening day for Cameron's Aliens in 1986, and the woman I was dating at the time ended up in my lap for much of the movie.
 
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