Keeping Local Theaters Alive

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An Opinion

Hampton Union, Friday, November 4, 2009

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online]

'Hampton Cinemas Six' in its hey-day.
[Courtesy photo not in original 'Opinion' article.]

A story this past Sunday chronicled the decline of the single-screen movie theaters around the Seacoast and the rise of the multiplex — a situation that while it might be inevitable also reflects a real loss to the sense of downtown and neighborhood theaters.

Theaters such as the Ioka in Exeter and the Strand in Dover are places where the parents and grandparents of today went when they were kids and into adulthood.

They contain memories of Saturday matinees for kids in the summer, places with air conditioning where you sat in your short pants and T-shirts, eating popcorn and watching a western, the material on the seat tickling the back of your knees and your feet not reaching the floor. And, if you or your friends decided to put your feet on the back of the seat in front of you, the usher with a flashlight was sure to catch you in the act.

As teenagers, they were a place to go with a date and maybe hold hands. Boys would yawn to put their arm on the back of the girl's seat and leave it there until well after the circulation had stopped and the arm was in a deep sleep.

For married couples, they were a night out, away from the kids. A dinner and a movie.

All pretty tame stuff in today's culture.

But that was then.

That was when, in addition to the Ioka and the Strand, there was the Olympia Theater, the Arcadia Theater, the Colonial Theater, The Music Hall (named The Civic in the 1940s) in Portsmouth. In South Berwick, Maine, there was the Park Theatre. In York, the York Beach Cinema. In Hampton, the Hampton Theatre.

Only the Music Theater is still open. But the Ioka and the Strand, while not in business, are not completely out of the picture. The Strand was recently sold at auction, but it is not yet known what the new owner plans. There was an unsuccessful effort to sell the Ioka, but the possibility of some sort of revival still lingers.

This is today.

Today, movie viewers can go to the source that helps to drive out theaters — television — and they can watch movies "On Demand" just about the same time as they are being released on DVD at a cost of about a single theater ticket.

Then there's Netflix, where subscribers have DVDs mailed to them for a flat fee, and the films can be mailed back in the same envelope in which they arrived.

These options are not only hurting the theater business, they are hurting video rental stores such as Blockbuster, which has been losing money and closing stores.

An added factor is that screens on home entertainment centers are getting bigger with even better resolution, creating more of a theater effect in living rooms and, in some cases, home theaters.

All of this is not to say that the movie theaters are giving up.

Sales are up at megaplexes that offer many movies at many times during the day.

Some theaters such as the tiny screening room in Newburyport, Mass., which has been in business since 1982, shows what might be called "art" films and documentaries.

The Cinema 95 in Salisbury, Mass. is adding 3-D theaters to the six-screen complex.

We hope that the Ioka and Strand can be saved. We agree with Music Hall film curator Bill Pence, who said if a neighborhood theater closes, "The nostalgic side of me believes they lose a bit of their soul."

And we agree with Jeff Palmer, a filmmaker who grew up in Dover, who said "A local, in-town theater is key to downtown activity and liveliness. We need to re-evaluate what it means to keep one foot in the past while stepping into the future. There's no quick fix to this problem of disappearing downtown architecture, but if a community does nothing, it can expect nothing in return ...;."

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