Even though I’ve been writing for Houstonia for several months now, I guess I should admit that I don’t live in Houston anymore. But I still consider myself a proud Houstonian, often feeling nostalgic about the city. Surprisingly, one thing I’ve found myself missing is the movie theaters.
I’ve been to movie theaters in different parts of the country, and while the multiplexes may be as spacious as H-Town multiplexes, none of them beats the theaters in Houston for sheer, excessive, proudly tacky capaciousness. Houston may not boast the best theaters, but they’re definitely the most grandiose.
In the mid to late ‘90s, theater chains like AMC and Cinemark began opening multiplexes that featured an insane amount of screens and an even more excessive amount of seats. I’ve found going to the movies in Houston to be a surreal experience. There’s something a bit off-putting about walking into one of the gigantic main auditoriums at AMC’s Studio 30 one weekday morning, practically half the size of an arena, just to watch something like Crank: High Voltage all by your lonesome.
While I haven’t been to a movie in Houston in quite some time (as you can tell by the mention of that last movie), many of these monster megaplexes are still standing: Studio 30, AMC Gulf Pointe 30, Edwards’ Greenway Grand Palace and Houston Marq*E, Cinemark Tinseltown 290. I was a bit disappointed to hear that Cinemark Tinseltown Westchase—that big-ass purple eyesore off Sam Houston Parkway—shut down a few years back, as well as the Magic Johnson Theatres at Northline Mall, the largest ’hood multiplex I’ve ever attended. (They used to sell buckets of hot wings at the concession stand – if that’s not ghetto …)
I have an odd fascination with these theaters. Many of these stadium-seating auditoriums aren’t just large – they’re hilariously large. There is really no reason for movie theaters to be that freakin’ huge. It mostly shows greediness on the part of the theater chains; they figure the more auditoriums – and the more seats in those auditoriums – they have, the more people will go to them. But while these theaters can be cramped as hell whenever special preview screenings for upcoming movies are held (these screenings are usually populated with freeloading, inconsiderate folk – a colleague of mine calls them “passholes” – whom you’d never want to see a movie with), they are rarely filled to capacity during regular, daily showings.
On many an occasion, I’ve found myself in the back row, just laying out on two, three seats, pulling up the armrests and just lounging my way through a moviegoing experience. Even when the Angelika Film Center (now Sundance Cinemas) opened downtown in the winter of 1997, promising the best in arthouse cinema, their auditoriums were also super-sized. When I’d watch films there – sprawled out over a couple of seats, of course – it amused me to think that the people who built the theater honestly thought they would need stadium-seating auditoriums for all the Houstonians who just looove to watch foreign films.
But it’s not just the currently open theaters I miss. It’s the also the ones that are no longer with us. Lest we forget, a lot of these googaplexes (that’s what I call them) began taking away businesses from such mainstays at AMC’s Meyer Park and Cineplex Odeon’s Spectrum theaters (a.k.a. the theaters of my teenage years). In the late ’80s, those were the theaters. I remember reading a Houston Chronicle article in 1988 which said that, on Saturday nights, Meyer Park’s parking lot resembled an airport on Christmas Eve. Indeed, Meyer Park was the first instance I can recall of a multiplex trying to get as much business as it possibly could with its 14 (eventually 16) screening rooms, complete with riser seating. However, when the opulent Spectrum opened in the summer of ’88, boasting upstairs and downstairs corridors of theaters, some of them equipped with THX sound systems, that also became a movie spot people had to frequent. That was the theater where I saw Die Hard, in all its loud-ass, awesome, 70mm glory. That was truly a transcendent experience.
Unfortunately, Meyer Park (closed in 2007) and Spectrum (demolished in 2001) are no more, joining so many theaters that held on to dear life when all the googaplexes took over the town. Those theaters join other long-forgotten theaters of my youth, like General Cinema’s Gulfgate and Meyerland theaters and AMC’s Almeda and Shamrock multiplexes. These theaters, with their single-digit theater count, couldn’t last a day in these bigger-is-better times. Nevertheless, these cinemas provided me with many moviegoing memories, just as all the big-ass movie houses continue to do.
When I was in Houston a few years ago, I got off the plane and made a beeline to Gulf Pointe to see a Monday-morning movie. I was so glad to be back in town and visiting a familiar multiplex I could get all comfortable in, it didn’t even bother me that the movie I saw, The Last Airbender, kinda sucked. For me, no matter how obnoxiously spacious the movie theater is or how lousy the movie can get, seeing a movie in your own hometown just feels like, well, home.