Movie theaters are heart of downtown

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The first movie I ever saw at a theater was the 1971 Walt Disney
family flick

The Million Dollar Duck.

I walked with my dad into the State Theater in downtown
Hollister and felt a little scared, like I was entering some sacred
sanctuary. Movie theaters are kind of like a church. They provide a
place for a communal rite through the enchantment of cinematic
story-telling.
The first movie I ever saw at a theater was the 1971 Walt Disney family flick “The Million Dollar Duck.” I walked with my dad into the State Theater in downtown Hollister and felt a little scared, like I was entering some sacred sanctuary. Movie theaters are kind of like a church. They provide a place for a communal rite through the enchantment of cinematic story-telling.

Perhaps the power of the cinema experience harks back to primitive times. Tribe members gathered around the flickering firelight and communally experienced a range of emotions as they listened to a shaman tell imaginative stories filled with the drama of life. The technology of motion picture projectors now casts that flickering light on a big screen, but our human emotions and imaginations are just as stirred by masterful story-telling.

I can watch movies at home with my DVD player or a cable television carrier. But the TV experience just isn’t the same as that ancient tribal ritual of watching a story unfold with other people in a large, darkened theater.

There’s a ceremony involved with “going to the movies” that TV can’t duplicate. You buy your ticket at the little booth under the marquee overhang, bending a bit to place your money through the little window. After stepping into the lobby, the uniformed usher takes your pass and tears it to show you are among the elect allowed to pass into the cinema sanctuary. Buttery popcorn, Junior Mints, Jujubes and Raisinettes – the holy communion of movie-goers – are displayed behind glass. Coca-Cola pours forth from the sacred soda machine.  After buying your sacrament snacks, you proceed into the holy of holies … the darkened movie theater.

In the State Theater in Hollister, a heavy black curtain hid the screen before the show. When the theater dimmed to darkness and the drapes parted, the projector revved up and cast its image-filled light in a dust-mote beam over the audience. That night when my dad introduced me to the magic of movies, I found myself transported to another world where the drama of a duck that laid golden eggs unfolded before my eyes.    

The State Theater stands no more. Damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, it burned down in an arson fire a few years later. An empty lot now remains where Hollister residents once gathered for their ritual of the holy reel.

Many people living in the South Valley can fondly recall their initiation into the mysteries of downtown movie theaters. Gilroy had its 900-seat Strand Theater. Morgan Hill had its Granada. The town’s first Granada Theater was opened in April 1923 and was located in the downtown building that now houses Dirty’s Tap and Taco. A newer Granada built a block north of the first one opened in January 1952. Its famous red marquee has since then served as a beloved downtown landmark.

That Granada Theater now stands at the heart of a heated debate over how Morgan Hill will redevelop its downtown. Developers plan to tear down the dilapidated structure and construct a brand-new, state-of-the art theater. Organizers of a “Save the Granada” campaign are fighting to preserve and renovate the 1952 Granada for cinema use as well as for performing arts.

Generally, I believe in maintaining historic structures of importance. But I can’t find it in my heart to support the Save the Granada crusade. The old theater is no grand movie palace. Its Art Moderne architecture style is uninspiring. And its historic value is debatable. It says a lot that the Morgan Hill Historical Society doesn’t consider the Granada worth saving. Nostalgia for fond film memories is not a good reason to preserve the building.

What I’d love to see developers give the South Valley is a modern theater letting families experience movie magic through the advanced technology of our digital age. A brand-new Granada could incorporate IMAX film projection that takes viewers to a higher quality of cinematic thrills. That upgrade would bring people downtown for an occasional special night out. Local school students could see educational film in the enhanced IMAX format. The brand-new Granada owner could also partner with Morgan Hill’s Poppy Jasper Film Festival to bring independent filmmakers to the South Valley and showcase their cinematic works in state-of-the-art splendor.

Going to the movies is a secular ritual that unites members of a community. That’s why a modern movie theater in downtown Morgan Hill will help rejuvenate the city’s center. Just as movies moved from silent flicks to “talking picture” to attract audiences, Morgan Hill must upgrade its downtown with a theater enhanced with 21st century cinema technology

We don’t go to the movies because the theater is old. We go because we long for cinematic stories that fill our hearts and minds with wonder and excitement.

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