The single-screen cinema, with its balconies and ushers and double features, has joined vaudeville and silent pictures in our hazy American memory. And yet those of us intent on sanctimonious navel-gazing must whine, occasionally, about the good old days, when one saw two carefully paired feature-length films and a couple of cartoons for a buck-fifty in a big beautiful building with just one movie screen in it.
We are old and we are sentimental, and no one is making movies for us anymore, anyway. Sandra Bullock in space? CGI cartoons? The Rock? No, thank you. And so we occasionally sit in quiet reverie, wistfully recalling the Palms Theater on Central Avenue, just south of Park Central Shopping Center, which opened in 1945 and had the distinction of having appeared in the 1969 Sonny and Cher stink bomb Chastity, which was filmed here. The Palms had a jasmine-scented garden, a wishing well, and white-gloved ushers who — at least when the place was new — brought you popcorn popped in the basement so as not to stink up the lobby.
If we have been weeping lately over the news of the impending closing of Harkins Camelview 5, the five-screen Scottsdale art-and-independent film house, we've also been heaving sighs thinking about the tiny Kachina Theater in Old Town Scottsdale, with its giant curved Cinerama screen, or the Bethany West on Bethany Home Road and 23rd Avenue, the first movie house to offer Sensurround, a cheesy '70s gimmick that made loud movies sound even louder (and which led to structural damage of the Bethany West when the management screened Earthquake there in 1974).
And we whimper when someone mentions the long-ago bulldozed Fox Theater on First Street, or the Paramount on Adams (which had previously been the glorious Orpheum Stage Theater, and which has since been renovated and returned to us). Watch as we burst into tears at the sound of the words "Cine Capri," our former movie palace, 16,000 square feet of concrete columned magnificence, its two-story lobby home to billions of jujubes and a monstrous stained glass window, its mammoth curved screen the largest in town. We stopped short of throwing ourselves onto a pyre when the Cine Capri, a Harkins Theatres venue, was torn down in 1998 to make room for a new office complex and reopened (sort of) in both Phoenix and Tempe malls a few years later.
Perhaps no local is more sentimental about the death of old movie houses than Dan Harkins, owner of the Harkins Theatres chain and, therefore, the guy who took the heat over that Cine Capri closing (and who's undoubtedly going to be rebuked for the shuttering of Camelview). Dan was practically born in a movie theater; his father, Dwight "Red" Harkins, owned the College Theater (now the Valley Art), and Dan and his parents lived in the apartment above. He literally grew up in movie houses, working as a projectionist and eventually taking over the company in the mid-'70s. (With 30 locations in five states, Harkins Theatres is now the sixth-largest movie theater chain in the country.)
The difference between our sentimentality over cinema's local past and Dan Harkins' is that, while we lament the death of our favorite old movie houses, Dan is scrambling to keep alive the industry of showing movies in public places.
Because, you know. Going to the movies was once an event — a rare occasion, like air travel or teenaged sex. Today, we pay a dollar or two to download a film that played at the neighborhood multiplex only months ago, then watch it at home. In an era when cinemas are paying six-figure-per-screen fees to convert their screens to new digital technology, Dan Harkins wants to keep movie house doors open.
But those of us who love old buildings — particularly rare, distinctive ones like Camelview with its crazy mix of Deco interior touches, midcentury architectural elements, and those mushroom-shaped canopies out front — just want everything to stay standing. We care about architectural history and the historic integrity of our city and, perhaps most of all, our memories.
One might argue that we're being sentimental in the wrong town. Phoenix and its surrounding cities are known more for bulldozing than for maintaining any sense of local history. We want our mushroom canopies and our Deco-influenced popcorn stands, but the city just wants to survive. The Harkins' lease with Macerich Co., which owns the land that Camelview rests on and leases the facility to Harkins, is up next year, and plans to level the building on the southwest corner of Goldwater Boulevard and Highland Avenue are afoot.
Word is that Dan Harkins, who's not been talking to print media about the situation, plans to relocate Camelview next door, folding it into his Scottsdale Fashion Square multiplex and creating a 12-screen megaplex that will show both first-run blockbusters and the sort of indie, art film, and foreign fare that Camelview screens.
I called Dan last week to suggest that not talking to the press might make him look like the bad guy in the story.
"I know," he told me. "And the irony is that Camelview is very dear to my heart. It's the last theater my dad built before he died in 1974. Its demise saddens me, and when it's torn down, I'll shed tears. But it's not my land, and it's not my decision. As a businessman, a born-and-bred local, and a movie lover, I'm doing as much as I can: I'm moving Camelview next door. I'm making it bigger and better."
Okay. But what about the great big mushrooms out front?
"There will be mushrooms out front," Dan assured me. "I promise, every one of us will have our mushrooms."