State of the Art
All Digital, Or All Dinosaur?

In 1969, MGM re-released Ben-Hur for a theatrical run… and it played just down the street from where I grew up, at SRO’s Lewis & Clark theater on Pacific Highway near Seattle-Tacoma International airport.  For those of you who are snickering, this was long before Toronto’s Cinebux Odious chain bought the SRO properties and ran them into the ground, and even well before SRO split the theater into a quad-plex by subdividing the balcony.  (SRO also later added other pill-box auditoriums to the multiplex.) 

No, in those days, the Lewis & Clark was one grand auditorium that seated 3000 people.  Hand-painted murals graced the walls, and the vast balcony featured a “loge” seating section, in which ushers at turnstiles charged an extra dime or quarter for the privilege of sitting with your family (or date!) in the best seats in the house.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t see that Ben-Hur revival in 1969.  Before my older sister got the keys to the car, and before I was old enough to get a paper route, I didn’t see many movies… not unless I managed to scrape together enough allowance or bottle refunds.  It was frustrating living so close to a theater, and being on the outside so much of the time.

But I remember that, for at least one whole weekend, multiple showings of Ben-Hur were sold out in advance: 3000 people inside the theater, another 1500 or so packed in the lobby and vestibule, and another several thousand lined up ten-abreast in the parking lot.  It was literally almost unbelievable.  My dad has distinct memories of that, too.

I remember being part of several similar crowds there in later years, packed in that lobby for screenings of spectacles like Krakatoa, East of Java and Tora, Tora, Tora!  There was nothing quite like the electricity of being part of a crowd that size, all of us sitting down together and watching the same film.  I was reminded of that feeling decades later, when I finally got to see Ben-Hur on the big screen at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre with about 2000 other people.  Magnificent.

In 1970, United Theaters opened the original Southcenter theater—the last 70mm Cinerama-capable single-auditorium moviehouse built in the United States, according to CinemaTour.  It seated over 1200, and featured a sloped floor and an 88 by 32-foot curved screen.  I know I had already seen other movies there, but the first one I remember for sure—thanks, no doubt, to my sister’s new driver’s license—was the 1974 release of Earthquake. SRO, who then owned the auditorium, had it retrofitted for “Sensurround,” an audio system designed specifically for Earthquake (and used later in that same auditorium for Midway), a system that featured a bank of eighteen-inch diameter woofers lined up across the front of the theater.  The first couple rows of seats had to be removed to accommodate them.

The Southcenter theater had a spacious lobby with a circular concession stand, and a large covered waiting area outside.  I specifically remember waiting in line years later to see Raiders of the Lost Ark during my second college summer break.  I also recall revivals of Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, even though the films were not officially in re-release.  The theater was actually too state-of-the-art, and had trouble finding films big enough to grace its enormous screen.

Neither the Lewis & Clark nor the Southcenter theaters exist today.  The former was razed in 2005, and the latter was demolished in 2002.  The last film exhibited at Southcenter was Moulin Rouge, somewhat fittingly.

Thanks to AMC Entertainment, though, Southcenter now has a new multiplex, the “AMC Southcenter 16 at Westfield Southcenter.”  William Arnold, writing for the Seattle P-I, has gone so far as to praise the new moviehouse as being in the tradition of the grand old movie palaces, such as the 5th Avenue.  I think that’s going a bit far.

But the facility is indeed state-of-the-art, and it is quite beautiful.  Courtesy of a local publicist, I was given a private tour through the facility the day before its opening, accompanied by AMC Marketing manager Andy DiOrio, out of the company’s Kansas City offices, a nice young man completely unaware of the area’s cinematic history.

The complex sits atop the Westfield Southcenter Mall, with dedicated roof-top parking and a spacious, grand lobby featuring sweeping views to the south—including a spectacular view of Mount Rainier.  The lobby itself does recall the feel of something like the walk outside Graumann’s Chinese Theatre in L.A.… only indoors.  It’s certainly welcoming enough, and beats the pants off everything in the greater Seattle area except, perhaps, the Lincoln Square Cinemas in Bellevue.

The Sony ProjectorSo what does state-of-the-art mean these days?  100% digital projection.  This theater couldn’t screen a 35mm print if it wanted to… because there are no film projectors! Every auditorium is equipped with a honking four-foot-high Sony digital projector, and the whirring click of projectors one might be used to in upstairs hallways has been replaced with the massive hum of gigantic cooling systems.  All the auditoriums are fed by a single control room, and films are downloaded into the central system from yellow-boxed portable hard drives the size of VHS cassettes.  The home office in Kansas City can bring up a duplicate of what’s showing on each of the 16 screens.  It’s amazing, really.

The auditoriums themselves are quite spacious and comfortable.  Seats are not as tightly packed as they have been in older theaters—a nice feature in this wide-body age, and a welcome change from airline seating practices.  The seats themselves have a nice hydraulic feel to the tilting backs.  Better yet, AMC’s revision of their patented cup-holder armrests has widened the armrest out to the actual width of the cupholder!  No more catching your leg on the cupholder as you get up, and no more fighting over a narrow, hard armrest with your neighbor.  Kudos on that improvement.  Seriously.

But here’s the rub.

State-of-the-art, today, also means smaller auditoriums.  Granted, the smaller the auditorium, the “better” a majority of the seats in the house will be.  But the total seating of those 16 state-of-the-art auditoriums is only 2900: less than that single auditorium at Lewis & Clark!

Will audiences of the future ever know what it’s like to share a cinematic experience with over 2000 other people?  Last weekend’s midnight-opening crowds for The Dark Knight and the new AMC 16 sure had fun, of course… but even then, that was only a few hundred people.  That Ben-Hur experience is getting hard and harder to find… kind of like dinosaurs, alas!

At least I lived while cinematic monsters still roamed the earth… God bless ’em!  And may they rest in peace.