A few weeks ago I bought the best item I ever spotted on eBay, a late-summer 1987 calendar printed by The Dayton Movies, an arthouse theater located in downtown Dayton that played a key role in my cinematic education, if sometimes from a distance. A single-house theater opened with much fanfare in August 1986, it brought a selection of foreign, independent, and classic films to a city in which they’d previously been hard to find. And it brought a lot of them: usually three to four different movies each day.
I was 13 at the time, but eager to check it out. That year, I saw my first foreign film in a theater — Jean de Florette — and attended a series of Sunday matinees aimed at younger viewers. (It opened with the young people’s favorite Turtle Diary and included, if I recall correctly, the regrettable ‘80s arthouse staple The Gods Must Be Crazy.) It would be several more years before I could go there by myself. I wasn’t, however, too young to subscribe to their mailing list.
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What delights their calendars promised! Sid & Nancy, A Room with a View, North by Northwest, Working Girls, Vagabond: Old movies and new movies with accents and subtitles (and probably a lot of nudity, too). Mostly I had to imagine what these films were like, or wait to rent them from the video store (if they showed up and if I could sneak the weird, R-rated stuff in with more anodyne selections). But the calendars were transporting anyway.
The one now framed in my office still has that power. Looking at it started me thinking about the various arthouses I’ve frequented over the years. So allow me a brief tribute to the theaters that shaped me.
The Dayton Movies / The Neon Movies (Dayton, OH)
The first downtown Dayton theater built since the 1920s, The Dayton Movies was funded in part by a downtown renovation program and it didn’t last long in that original, calendar-driven incarnation. In 1988, it shut down and reopened the next day under new ownership as The Neon Movies, which has survived to this day. (Later under the name the “New Neon Movies” and now just “The Neon.”) Once we could drive, my friends and I made it a frequent destination, though I now sometimes lament all the movies I could have seen and missed in their theatrical run if I’d just been a little more with it.
Still, I saw a lot of memorable films there, including a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which enchanted some friends of mine for a year or so. (I’m glad I went once, but once was enough for a decade or so. I’m happy this tradition lives on, if less fervently than it used to, however.) Years later, before being split into a duplex, the theater became home to a fully functional Cinerama set-up for a couple of years thanks to some creative engineering and the equipment of a local hobbyist. If you ever get the chance to see a film projected in proper three-panel Cinerama, leap at it. IMAX has nothing on the experience. And, for a long time, the theater erected a semi-realistic model of a camel on its roof to coincide with the restored version of Lawrence of Arabia. The movie left, but the camel remained for years, pushed out of street view but still visible from a nearby parking garage. (The last time I checked, probably in the late-’90s, however, it was gone.)
The Little Art Theatre (Yellow Springs, OH)
I never went to Yellow Springs until going to college in Springfield, OH. Neither is far from Dayton, but where Springfield seemed like a sad kid brother to Dayton, Yellow Springs felt like a welcoming world away from both. A counterculture enclave since the ’50s thanks to nearby Antioch College (alma mater of Rod Serling and a hotbed of the ’60s rebellion), it was (and remains) home to used bookstores, import shops, and the very good, decidedly eccentric Ha Ha Pizza. (Refried beans as a pizza topping!) But it became a weekend destination thanks to the tiny, mighty Little Art Theatre, a shoebox-sized venue where I saw basically whatever was playing on any given week circa 1991 through 1995, be it Gas Food Lodging, Reservoir Dogs, Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation, or 8 1/2. I’m happy to say it’s still around, though I haven’t had a chance to check out its recent renovations.
The Dukes (Lancaster, England)
I spent a year studying abroad at Lancaster University. The campus was ugly but the town, a bus ride away, was not. The Dukes, an 18th century chapel which has served as a combined live theater and movie venue since 1971, was naturally a frequent destination and, as with the Little Art, I ended up seeing what was playing there just because it was playing there, be it the three-hour version of Betty Blue (a rarity at the time), Now, Voyager, The Piano, or 8 1/2. (Fellini’s most famous film was making the arthouse rounds in the early-‘90s.) I loved this place from the first moment I saw the British Board of Film Classification flash on screen (though I do remember it being a bit drafty).
The Orpheum / The Majestic (Madison, WI)
I moved to Madison to go to grad school and stuck around to work at a video store called Four Star Video Heaven and start my career as a writer and editor at The A.V. Club. In the ’90s, many of the era’s arthouse films wound up playing at a pair of aging downtown theaters that had been around since vaudeville: The Orpheum and the Majestic. The Orpheum was (and remains) a cavernous place built in the heart of downtown in the era of movie palaces. The Majestic, located on the far side of Madison’s capitol building, is much smaller. Neither was a great place to see a movie, to be honest. Barely equipped for modern films, The Orpheum suffered from horrible sound and weird sight lines in the main house, and the added-years-later second house felt ad-hoc in its design. The Majestic was cramped and had the worst movie seats I’ve ever experienced. Watching the four-hour version of Das Boot there became an immersive experience in ways Wolfgang Petersen never imagined. I loved both theaters, though. I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (though the marquee read “Cherbourgh”), my favorite movie of all time, for the first time at the Orpheum, and I went to the Majestic on my first date with my wife. (We saw the extremely romantic John Boorman Irish gangster film The General.) I’m sorry to say that neither shows movies anymore, though both remain active music venues. When I arrived in Madison I already felt like I’d missed the golden age of its downtown theaters, which used to line Capitol Square. Now, like in so many cities, they’re all gone.
The Music Box (Chicago, IL)
My favorite movie theater, the Music Box has been going strong for over 90 years now, still hosting screenings that began as early as 11:30 am and as late as midnight (though, because becoming a parent has broken my ability to stay awake, I’m not sure I could do a midnight anymore, much less the always-tempting annual horror movie marathon.) Chicago cinephiles don’t really need to be sold on it (it’s the place), but it helped sell Chicago to me. Before moving here, my wife and I took a trip to confirm this was the city for us, highlighted by a visit to see Rear Window in the Music Box’s palatial main house. I don’t think it was my first visit to the theater, and I’m pretty sure it did not feature the Music Box’s great house organist as pre-film entertainment. But let’s just use a little poetic license and say it was and it did. Reader, I moved here.
I visit it as often as I can and, over the years, it’s played host to everything from Scott Tobias-inspired New Cult Canon screenings, the book-release event for Age of Cage*, and a surprise party thrown by my wife to celebrate my 40th birthday with a screening of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Good place, the Music Box, just like all the other places where it feels like the horizon-spanning unexpected might happen when the lights go down.
* Still in stores. Makes a great gift.
As a fellow Dayton native, agree that both the Neon and Little Art Theatre were the best things about growing up there.
Any favorites in NYC? They're slowly dying out, but there are some good spots, like Film Forum and Quad.
The only arthouse we had anywhere near where I lived in North Dakota was the Fargo Theatre about six hours away. It had an organ that they still used for musical interludes between showings and some of the old vintage film equipment on display. They kept the woodchipper from Fargo for the visitor's center but they also had a chainsaw wood cut of Marge on display as well.
There was an awesome multiplex in Bismarck though called The Grand that got most of the Oscar worthy releases that Minot wasn't big enough for. What made it awesome, though, was the decor. It was largely Egyptian themed, had a statue of Heston as Moses and everything, but then one of the screens had a little lobby area outside of it that had vintage film posters and equipment as well. I either never knew or don't remember why it was so kitschy but I loved it so much. Talking about it now makes me a little misty, honestly, one of the few things I wish I didn't have to leave behind with, well, the rest of living in North Dakota.
Here in Denver, we've got a few of note. I love the decor of the Mayan but the seats can be killer for a longer movie (I'm seeing Badlands there tonight, that's about the appropriate length of time my butt can handle). The people in charge of the Chez Artiste are awesome and do handmade collages of facts and trivia for movies that they're playing which I always love. The Sie is where Denver Film is headquartered and is pretty nice too.