Peak movie-going, for me, came in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when — a tangle-haired child of that unruly era — I was handed a 10-dollar bill and left to my own devices for entire weekends at a go.
Katie or Cleo or Daisy and I would settle into our seats with a Charleston Chew in our lap, talk back at the screen, and throw popcorn around. The flickers reflected the relative disorder of those years. Movies in which nature attacks: “The Swarm,” “Grizzly,” “Orca.” Movies in which children smoke cigarettes and curse like convicts: “The Bad News Bears,” “Little Darlings,” “Bugsy Malone.” Movies in which chemical spills create monsters: “Barracuda.” I’d give my right arm to go back to one of those rainy Saturday matinees.
Wedged in my wallet alongside my Regal Crown Club membership credentials, today, are two gift cards for Regal Cinemas that I was given for Christmas 2019. That sums up the poignancy of the pandemic for me: unspent movie bucks. The blank and wordless face of the Main Street marquee. I don’t count points on Visa or American Express; I don’t even know what a desirable A.P.R. would be. I’d rather stick a rusty fork in my eye than drive to Riverhead just to get better prices on bulk groceries. But racking up points on my Regal Crown Club card, to ensure free movie admission, is priority.
I’m a bit of a lucky penny when it comes to winning things: My number tumbles out of the tombola and I carry home the basket of cheer from the church fair; if there is a quantity of jelly beans to be correctly guessed, I’ll be the overjoyed winner of the five-foot-tall stuffed Easter rabbit. And so I wasn’t that surprised a couple of years ago, when I moved home to East Hampton from Nova Scotia, to find myself on the receiving end of a magical windfall of Regal Crown Club points. I still don’t understand what happened, but somehow my Cana dian Regal points translated to mega-points in America, and every time I went to the movies for a solid year, I was handed another free movie ticket. I had free admission and free popcorn for an entire calendar year.
Who remembers the RCN card, from the rock radio station WRNC, which got you a discount at the box office? Who remembers “Snack Canyon,” the animated concession-stand advertisement starring parched cartoon penguins who drove through a desert in a jalopy seeking a frosty beverage? (“Sprite, please!”) “Snack Canyon” promised “big savings at the snack bar” but there never were any savings at the snack bar. There are no bargains in Snack Canyon.
The cinema staff in those years were truly long-suffering. I remember a brilliant prank (of my devising? I’m ashamed to say so) that we played on them: You leaned over the side of the concession stand — then positioned outside the entrance to a much larger main Cinema One — and bopped the plunger on the hot-”butter” dispenser with the palm of your hand, so fake butter squirted onto the floor. Incredibly, the man in cinema uniform who caught me red-handed doing this let me go with a warning that I’d be ejected from the movie if I did it again. Did it again? We were bad, bad children.
As Dwayne said to Raj in the sitcom “What’s Happening!” things moved fast in the ‘70s.
Who remembers the Midnight Movie? One of my best teenage memories is of walking home from a late show with a couple of friends between the double-yellow lines in the middle of Main Street, not a car in sight — feeling very bold, feeling very lawless — all the way down.
The Midnight Movie didn’t actually start at midnight. The standing schedule at the East Hampton Cinema for decades was 2 p.m. and 4, then 7 and 9, with a late show at 10 or 11 — but the scene at the so-called Midnight Movie could be degenerate in the extreme. I remember being maybe 13 years old, standing beside the Asteroids video-game console and watching as a young woman, red-eyed and completely naked from the waist up, was ushered out the double front doors by the police officer who used to linger in the lobby.
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Quadrophenia” were classic Midnight Movies, but they showed some X-rated ones, too, including an obscene “Fritz the Cat,” if memory serves. Gross. The old days weren’t all spitballs and freewheeling juvenile gangs on bicycles. The vibes could be sinister. The kids were not all right.
“Please deposit all containers and litter in the trash receptacles located in the theater,” urged the sparkly message in the United Artists’ pre-movie admonishment, as energetic music played: “Courtesy is contagious!” But back then — and my offspring do not believe this is true, and you yourself may have forgotten it’s true, but it’s true — it was normal to throw your bucket and wrappers on the auditorium floor and just stand up, brush the kernels from your shirt, and walk out. Everyone really did that. The fact that this social norm was totally upended to the point of amnesia has long stood out in my mind as proof that society really can change. Things can change.
Obviously, not all the changes in movieworld have been for the better. Where the heck are the dad-gumb chocolate almonds? The lack of chocolate almonds at the concession stand is an outrage. I won’t delve too deeply into another outrage, the removal of the red ropes that organized parched penguins and popcorn-buyers into a proper line (a removal that only serves to permit pushy, pushy people to barge to the front). But who is responsible for the decision, a couple of years ago, to stop listing show times on East Hampton Cinema’s telephone hotline? I believe that the old phone number, 324-0448, was in service for a very long time. It was first mentioned in print in The Star in 1965. Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin were starring in “Cat Ballou.”
I have bad news. If you dial 324-0448 now, you get a spine-chilling recorded message: “The number you have dialed is not in service.”
Now we have to worry that the movie theater will go out of business permanently, and we will be left with a hollow space at the heart of town. Should we organize a GameStop-style stock manipulation to shore up Cineworld Group, the conglomerate that owns Regal? Or should we start forming a nonprofit organization now, to buy the real estate and ensure that future generations get to watch Hollywood’s turkeys and triumphs on the big screen for all posterity?