Juggling an enormous cinnamon roll and a cup of hot coffee, I make my way to the table where Mickey McGowan has already set up camp, pouring his own cup of herbal tea from the weather-beaten thermos he carries everywhere he goes. Sitting down, I stir my coffee. He sips his tea. I push the little red button on my tape recorder.
“I was delighted, ” I quickly confess. “Almost shocked. Weren’t you?”
“Oh, sure! It was wonderful,” enthuses McGowan. “It gave me a warm thrill of nostalgia. It reminded me of going to the movies in the 1950s, when it was still a magical experience.”
He sips his tea. I tear off a piece of my roll.
Thus begins our ritual. We’ve been observing this same series of cozy elements–the café, the coffee, the tea, the conversation–since first we met six years ago, at the very same neon-and-chrome movie megaplex at which we rendezvoused today. What’s different this time, is that the film McGowan and I have just seen (the star-studded, relatively enjoyable Playing By Heart) is not what has inspired this spirited verbal exchange.
Instead, we are captivated by what took place just seconds before the film began, when the wide-open screen–featuring one slide-show advertisement after another–suddenly went dark and–as we sat watching in surprise–the curtains slid elegantly shut. After a short pause, the lights in the theater faded, the curtains ceremoniously opened again, and the coming attractions began.
“It was beautiful,” McGowan recalls. “Seeing a curtain open. It was nice to be reminded that once upon a time every movie began with that curtain rising up before us. It heightened our sense of anticipation. The curtain’s rising was always a very special moment.”
McGowan, an accomplished display artist, is the cultural commentator and curator of Marin County’s legendary Unknown Museum. An ever-evolving archive of pop-culture artifacts from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the museum earned itself an international cult-following before losing its home a decade ago. All the artifacts are now in storage, awaiting rebirth in a new location.
“Obviously, some theaters still use curtains,” I remark. “But most theaters use those pre-show advertisements interspersed with dumb trivia questions.”
McGowan nods, “The experience of going to the movies is completely different now. Remember being shown to your seat by an usher in a uniform? With a flashlight? You were treated like royalty. It was always grand and magical. Remember making projectiles out of folded popcorn boxes? You never wanted to sit down front because you’d always be whacked by something.
“That’s how it was at the Paradise and the Loyola in Westchester, Calif., where I grew up,” he recalls. “The Loyola was a gorgeous art-deco classic. It was wonderful–single screen, balcony, lush, gorgeous. I saw Psychothere. Love Me Tender. It Came From Outer Space.
“I visited my home town last week,” he continues. “I was doing the ‘roots’ thing, going back to see the house I grew up in, the school I went to, all of that. It’s the first time I’d been back in years. I went to find the Loyola. It’s been converted to professional offices. And the Paradise Theater is gone. Completely.
“At a moment like that, you feel three things at once,” he explains. “You get this rush of experience and nostalgia, mixed with a sense of dismay and an awareness of change, combined with a feeling of acceptance and a Zen attitude of ‘Life goes on.’
“Nothing lasts forever, you know,” he adds with a resigned chuckle.
As I slowly work towards the matrix of my cinnamon roll, McGowan–after a short tangent on the subject of drive-in movies–pours himself another cup of tea.
“On the other hand,” he murmurs, in a voice that suggests he’s about to offer an alternative viewpoint to his own, “perhaps the experience of going to the movies hasn’t changed as much as we’re saying. The basic experience is pretty much the same, isn’t it? You eventually get to a seat, you’re in a darkened room with a group of other people. It’s like going to church, but the worshippers all buy snacks in the lobby. The screen is still our altar.
“The movies are still sacred.
“In some ways, one could argue that going to the movies is even better today,” he adds, verging on a total about-face from his initial stance.
“How could anyone argue that?” I politely demand.
“Well, the screens are better today,” he points out. “The projectors are better, the sound systems–THX and Dolby and all the rest–are better. The seats are more comfortable than ever. Once the lights go down, the experience is possibly, possibly better than it was.
“And I suppose I’m glad they don’t throw flattened popcorn boxes anymore. There’d be lawsuits. Those popcorn boxes were lethal.”
The ritual is nearing an end.
The roll has been consumed. Our cups and thermoses are empty.
“Bottom line, though” McGowan thoughtfully concludes. “I think it was always the movies that made the magic, not the theaters. Even as a kid, once the lights went down, the movie itself was the final test, wasn’t it?”
“Well, I still miss the theaters,” I half-heartedly grumble.
“Oh, so do I,” McGowan nods. “But if you think about it, you’ll recall that it was the movies themselves that first made a believer out of you. The theaters were just the icing on the cake. I guarantee it.”
[Originally published in the North Bay Bohemian, 1999)