Part 3 In summer of 1988, the three largest movie theaters in Rocket City, U.S.A. had been twinned. This horrendous procedure built a wall down the middle of a large movie theater, resulting in two smaller ones. The wind-tunnel theaters were so long in proportion to their width that for many seats, the screen appeared no larger than the average household TV.
Into this maelstrom of decay was cast the final indignity: the aisle down the center. When the Westbury, the Alabama and the Madison were bifurcated, their seats were positioned along the walls, and a new aisle ran straight down the center of the space. To the casual moviegoer, this was of no consequence — you could still see the screen, hear the jokes, tell the guys at work about the dirty parts. But for film buffs, it was a tragedy. The best seats in the house were gone!
In June of 1988, Cobb Cinemas opened Cinema Center 8, near the intersection of South Memorial Parkway and Whitesburg Drive, and moviegoing in Huntsville officially entered its dark night of the soul.
By the time CC8 opened, movie fans had adjusted their hopes profoundly downward. A grand lobby wasn’t a necessity. Except for the occasional blockbuster, one ticket booth for two or more movies usually wasn’t all that big a hassle. Smaller screens could usually — but not always — be dealt with by sitting closer. But the aisle down the middle continued to be a profound vexation. The heart of the movie theater had been cut out, and there was nothing to do about it.
But hey, fans reasoned, twinned theaters were obviously just a slipshod, stopgap answer to fleeting economic realities. Cinema Center 8 is a BRAND NEW multiplex. Surely they’ll have all that stuff ironed out by now. Let’s go check it out!
First impressions of the facility were not promising. It was in a strip mall, and it was visually less striking than the A&P it replaced. The lobby was low ceilinged, but fairly large. The concession stand was in the center of everything, conducting patrons along either side into a single long, straight hall that led to the theaters.
Nothing in the design, the construction or the operation of the place offered any reason for hope. Still though, the proof of the pudding and all that. Through a metal fire door and there it was — the aisle down the middle.
This was the absolute rock-bottom moment for Huntsville moviegoers. Cobb and other exhibitors often held effective monopolies on movie screens in any given market. We seemed doomed to live out our lives sitting in front of tiny screens, off to one side, pining for a cinematic sweet spot that would never return.
Around Christmas of 1981, two firmly established technologies were radically expanding their commercial presence and altering the very nature of television.
The words, “Live Via Satellite” first appeared on TV screens in 1962. The promise was that satellites would eventually replace expensive telephone-line transmission.
In September of 1975, the promise became reality as HBO began broadcasting continuously via leased access to Western Union’s Westar 1 geosynchronous satellite. They were soon followed by superstations WTBS, WGN and WOR, who broadcast their local programming nationwide.
The set-top box was becoming a fixture as cable services expanded their offerings beyond the 12 slots available on the VHF dial. Well-connected homes were acquainting themselves with names and jumbles of letters that would soon become household words — Bravo, Cinemax, CNN, C-SPAN, ESPN, HBO, The Learning Channel, The Movie Channel, NASA Select, Nickelodeon, USA Network, upwards of a half-dozen religion channels and the pop culture must-have of the moment, MTV.
The videotape recorder (VTR), had been a fixture in television studios since 1956. Now, in 1981, the videocassette recorder (VCR) was making it onto lots of Christmas lists. Adjusted for inflation, the typical VCR would set Santa back a whopping $1,300, but it would give TV viewers capabilities they never had before. They could record favorite shows or historic broadcasts to keep. They could time shift — record shows to watch a few hours later, then record over them later on. They could pause, rewind or save for later anything they recorded. And most disruptively to the entertainment status quo, they could buy and rent movies.
Freed from commercials, editing for time and censorship, the TV set’s relationship to the movie buff would never be the same.
To be continued …