24 December 2015

I Haz a Sad

I just discovered the fate of the Westgate theater in Beaverton Oregon. It was demolished in 2006.

It was an early multiplex, just three screens, and its largest theater seated over 1,000.

It was also where I first saw Star Wars, and where I first saw The Empire Strikes Back.

It has an interesting role in the lore of Star Wars.

By dint of the demographics of Portland, which obligated both the theater and the studio to continue to show the film until attendance dropped below a certain level, the film was shown, in 70mm on a huge screen, for over 2½ years.

For a much of this time, which was before the time of video rentals and the rise of the VCR, it was the only theater to have carried the film since initial release, and for some of this time, it was probably the only screen in the US showing the form.

When the theatrical re-release happened, the chain owning the theater (IIRC Luxury Theaters) put the film on just about every screen in the area, and it finally stopped running the film.

Before this, any number of Portlanders, myself included, saw Star Wars many many times.

If I were within 200 miles of Portland, I would have driven there to see The Force Awakens.

Today, the biggest movies are released on thousands of screens across the country. In large cities, you have at least a dozen theaters to pick from, and most of those are multiplexes showing it on multiple screens. Not only that, you can go just about any time you want, since cinema chains open around noon every day of the week. A few summers ago, The Dark Knight Rises was easily the most anticipated movie of the year, yet the day after its premiere, my daughter and I were able to waltz into the theater ten minutes before it started and had our choice of the best seats.


Now let's climb into my time machine and transport back to 1977. If you weren't around back then, you might be surprised to learn the biggest movies opened in only one or two theaters in town - 'exclusive engagements' - giving the impression you were privileged they were playing near you at all. And back then, theaters showed matinees only on weekends. Monday through Friday, the box office never opened 'till around 7:00 PM. Not only that, there was no such thing as home video, meaning if you didn't catch a movie on the big screen, it might be years before you saw it on TV. So to see a blockbuster movie usually meant waiting in line.

But Star Wars wasn't simply a blockbuster. It was the mother of all blockbusters, arriving with huge fanfare at only one theater in the Portland area, the Westgate Tri-Cinema, located in the suburb of Beaverton. Since literally everyone wanted to see it (except my dad, who never liked sci-fi in any way, shape or form), this meant there was one 1000-seat auditorium to placate over a million people in the metropolitan area.

I can't speak for how other cities' theaters handled the demand for Star Wars in '77, but at the Westgate, even three months after it premiered (mainly because it took that long to talk Dad into going), we were still required to wait in a massive line to buy tickets, then wait in an entirely different line in get into the theater itself, a total of about two hours (during which time Dad was getting increasingly pissed). It was worth the wait, of course, not only because Star Wars more-than lived up to the hype, but because the Westgate itself was a wonderful place, with huge auditoriums, gigantic screens and plush, luxurious, rocking seats.


Regarding the aforementioned connection between Star Wars and my hometown of Portland...as I said before, it premiered as an exclusive engagement at the Westgate, which enjoyed long lines of eager fans. After roughly eight months, it expanded into multiple theaters in town. Then after all the Star Wars hype began to dissipate, the film continued to play at the Westgate, over a year-and-a-half after its initial release. In fact, the Westgate was the only theater in all of North America still showing the film. And there were Star Wars zealots flying to Portland from all over the world, just so they could check-out the movie on the big screen one more time.
I feel the same way.


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