Register Tuesday | December 7 | 2021

Great Movie Theatres I Have Known

A personal history of cinemas


The Essex Junction; Essex, CT

I don't think it's there anymore, but this is one of the first theatres I remember. Not just another asphalt-ensconced megaplex with angling hordes and hard lighting, this place was something more palpably intimate; soft, seductively darkened and full of coy invitations to worlds unimagined. I think it was here that I first became aware of what films really could do to a person. I believe it was also here that I got started on Milk Duds, now so emblematic of my movie-going. This may be my father's influence-he liked them too; he was drawn to the old-fashionedness of them. I haven't done the research on this, but it seems to me that the Milk Duds you get in movie theaters taste better than the ones you get anywhere else. Maybe to me they always will.

The Brattle; Cambridge, MA

A national treasure. Hell, an international treasure. You wouldn't believe the ridiculously cerebral crowd that hangs around this joint. There's the Harvard and MIT gang, and then there are the rest of us who couldn't get in to those places. It was touching how much we all believed in the movies back then, and how we'd all sit together in what were, at least in those days, the lousiest movie-theatre seats in history. I mean, these were hard, unforgiving, spine-wrecking things-but I endured them purposely, with some romantic numbskull notion that it wasn't just the makers of art who must suffer for their creations, but also the appreciators! Such loyalty! It's because the Brattle always showed movies that made one's sore ass a moot point. I think they've replaced those seats now, but the repertory of foreign, classic, contemporary and unfairly obscure gems remains. And the Bugs Bunny Film Festival has been held there going on eleven years. Like many theatres of its ilk, the Brattle's in trouble, unable to take even the renewal of its lease for granted. If we let it go, we let ourselves go.

51 Phillips; Boston, MA

My old apartment. We had a 16mm projector, and we'd cram it as far back into a narrow hallway as it would go to light up the little living room with our film-school ditties. Profound failures and embarrassments, most of them; but when they worked, they worked, and real magic would be afoot. Sometimes we'd use the portable screen I had bought at some garage sale; sometimes we'd just shine them onto the wall. Nothing beat that brilliant beam slicing through the dust, transfixing our loyal audiences. It always seemed like a capacity crowd, standing room only-probably because the room couldn't contain more than ten people at once and we never had enough furniture for everyone to sit down.

The Jane Pickens; Newport, RI

Built in 1834 as the Zion Episcopal Church, this gorgeous gal sits amongst a slew of handsome Colonials on the lip of a gas-lit brick sidewalk, facing a leafy park. It was named for a Ziegfield Follies alumna and Newport socialite, and accordingly always received my attendance with a sly combination of buoyancy and politeness. The Jane Pickens has a distinguished history of independent ownership and independent fare; it is the small theatre you would wish upon any small town. It makes civilized movie-going seem easy and obvious, while never succumbing to the haze of impractical nostalgia. I just learned they have an Xbox 360 in there, hooked up to the big screen for timed rentals. Genius.

The Quad; New York City

Now I'm not saying this stands alone as the pillar of exquisite Manhattan movie houses; that town has so goddamned many good places for watching great, timeless films (and decadently lousy ones) that it almost seems unfair. It's dizzying. What other city can compete-Paris, perhaps? I'm remembering my many sojourns through the Village, dropping in on the Quad in the afternoon and then following it up with the Village Vanguard in the evening for a set of lapidary hard-bop to cap off my flick. I would come out of those nights thinking civilization would probably be okay after all and, what's more, I could die without feeling culturally incomplete. Of course, if I stayed out too late or took a wrong turn in the tangled, grid-less anarchy of those Village streets, the odds of actually dying on a given night would increase-but that only heightened my appreciation. I just checked to see what the Quad is playing right now. Film Geek. Nice.

The Balboa and The Castro; San Francisco, CA

When I lived downtown, it always seemed like a schlep to get out to the Balboa-and a crime not to. I'd get there and never want to go home, and not just because I had a friend who worked in the bar across the street. I think this is the most passionately programmed movie theater in the world. Without ever pandering, it always offers something for everyone-entertainments, challenges, rarities, family fare that neither insults your intelligence nor assaults your senses, and a beguiling aura of urban neighbourliness that defines for me what going to the movies is all about.

The lush, palatial and historic Castro is a monument to sumptuousness, and to its city's highly developed dream life. For crying out loud, it has a working organ, and a guy who plays it to warm audiences up before the big shows. I love how this place really is a beacon of San Francisco culture, and am a little proud of the fact. Such a glorious old queen.

The Crest; Sacramento, CA

A downtown palace with a history of vaudeville, the Crest these days combines gold-leaf majesty with faded-denim easiness. Attending one of its matinées feels like playing hooky, until it occurs to you that what's happening in there may be more philosophically essential than whatever you're skipping out on. Having on many occasions stumbled from its dark depths, squinting, into the generous California sunshine, I've thought that soon we'll all spend every waking moment within quick range of a moving-picture screen. I'm grateful for the ones that have nourished me.