Sunday, October 5, 2014

Running the Empire

By Lars Trodson

I spent this past season as the manager of The Empire Theater, on Block Island, Rhode Island. The theater has a beautiful dark wood interior. There are two huge posters, one on each side of the screen, advertising live theatrical productions that were performed at the theater in the early 1900s, before the place started to show movies. There is a ticket booth that will conjure images of Fortune Tellers on Coney Island, and a concession stand that consists of one popcorn machine, a soda dispenser with no ice, and a glass candy display case that was built in Philadelphia in 1882 — the year the theater was first built as a roller skating rink. If you want espresso, green tea, or cheese nachos with your movie, then you’ll have to head to the mainland. 

The Empire only shows one film at a time, something that’s always clearly stated on the big marquee outside the theater, but no one reads any more. People ask if they should go left or right to see the movie they just paid for (there are two entrances to the one screen). And, yes, you have to pay in cash. More than one customer has left a down payment (completely unnecessary) as they run off to the nearest ATM machine in order to get enough cash to pay for their bloc of tickets.

Many people ask if they can buy tickets online or ahead of time, and we say no, they go on sale 30 minutes before the movie. These people seem skeptical when we say that there won’t be any problem finding a seat for the next show. When one patron kept pushing the idea of buying a ticket early, I said that was simply the way we did it.

“What’s the matter, you can’t handle it?” the young man said to me.

"No, we can't, " I said, as dry as possible. "We get nervous when sophisticated city folk like you come visit."

Throughout the summer, we’ve had a number of young people play live music just prior to the movie, including some local kids (Delaney, Silas, Elaina and Jake) who were trained by Carrie Todd. There was a young woman from Russia, Oksana, who played classical piano and a young man named Nathan who played the cello. Even young people who came to see the movie were impressed with the live entertainment, and the local kids were almost always the most generous when we passed the hat.

A couple of people became a little nervous when they saw the live performer. “Is this… the movie?” Someone would occasionally ask.

There were a lot of duds this summer, including two with Cameron Diaz (“The Other Woman,” “Sex Tape”), Tom Cruise (“Edge of Tomorrow”), “Godzilla,” “And So It Goes,” a non-comedy with Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton, and Adam Sandler in “Blended.” A couple movies stood out, “22 Jump Street,” a raunchy comedy that people liked very much, and the genial “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the one big hit of the summer. The teen-weeper “The Fault In Our Stars” was an interesting phenomenon. Young women emerged openly crying and the young men they were with tried to disguise that fact. A week or so, "This Is Where I Leave You," with Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda and a large, extremely likeable cast, started playing. That might have been the best movie all season.

A couple of times during the summer, I wondered whether we may, in fact, be seeing the first generation that cannot sit through an entire movie without logging on to their handheld device.
Two pre-teenagers asked me for the password to log onto the wi-fi connection and I think they were truly confused when I said, ‘We’re here to see the movie.’ But it was people of my generation who left a movie most often to take a call. You wonder how we ever sat through anything without being interrupted.

People may silence their smartphones at the beginning of a movie, but they certainly don’t turn them off. Sitting in a movie theater is just another place to check up on your Facebook page, or to make a Tweet, or to send a photo over SnapChat to let your friends know that you are actually at the movies.

A couple of times early in the summer, some kids thought it would be funny to toss in what are known as “Bomb Bags” — smart-alecky toys that make a loud noise after you squeeze them — into the theater during a show. They would make a pop in the theater, which was actually frightening, and we called the cops. I remember one old guy (seemed to be in his 70s, at least) who came running out of the theater, fists clenched, who said, “I’m going to fuck someone up!”

That might have been the highlight of the summer.

People come to the movies to have fun. They are in a good mood when the screen comes down. After a recent showing of the Helen Mirren film, “The One Hundred Foot Journey,” a gentleman walked by me and said, “That was a magical experience.”

Now that I think of it, that might have been the highlight of the summer.