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‘Gone With The Wind?’

An historic movie theater in Maine struggles to find its place in modern cinema.

It’s the summer of 1977 and Ogunquit, Maine is teeming with tourists. Flip-flop wearing beach bums are strolling down Main Street, a few families grab an ice cream and go for a picturesque walk along the Marginal Way, while others hit the chilly and choppy waters of the Atlantic. But as the sun sets and the street lights begin to glow, another attraction catches the eyes of red-faced vacationers; the town’s movie house, the Leavitt Theatre.

The original “Star Wars” is opening for the first time in the seaside burg and the Leavitt’s new owner, Peter Clayton, is trying to avoid a disaster; not being able to show the hit film to a sold out crowd.

“I was at the bus station and the bus was late,” Peter recalls. “And I finally got the film and I was stuck in traffic on the turnpike. I think I came running into the theater at about 7:30 with these two big heavy cans of film and everyone was about to leave and they were like ‘when is this show ever going to start?’ ”

Thankfully, everyone got to go to a “galaxy far, far away” that night and to hear Peter tell it, few have left the Leavitt disappointed over the last three and a half decades.

“We have never had to refund people’s money because we couldn’t run the show,” Peter told me as we sat in his office at the Leavitt Theatre; a room that, much like Peter himself, clearly has stories to tell. Movie posters and playbills of all kinds and eras line the walls and litter the floor, as do at least two or three guitars. A vintage tallying machine even sits on the desk, no doubt to count each night’s receipts, instead of simply using a computer. The auditorium serves as a stark contrast to Peter’s office. It’s a true majestic throwback with more than six hundred seats, all wooden with leather backs. The lighting is white, not neon and film tickets are of the “admit one” variety. It’s like the theater has been living in a time capsule and that’s the way Peter likes it. But unfortunately, outside the walls of the Leavitt theatre, time has moved on.

In the seventies and eighties, film was king. Home video and cable came along to play queen in the nineties, but once the internet booted up, all the cards were off the table. iPods, iPads, Netflix, On-Demand TV and hi-tech home theaters all offer quicker and sometimes better viewing experiences for consumers.

“Things have changed so much,” Peter told me. “There’s so much access to films that they’re not as special as they used to be.”

And that’s part of the reason why small, independent movie houses like the Leavitt have become an endangered species. In fact, this historic venue could be just a few years away from extinction. Built in 1923, the Leavitt started out showing silent films and is one of the oldest theatres in the country. Peter bought the place back in 1976 from a Massachusetts lawyer who left the theatre in disrepair. Over the next two decades, Peter brought the Leavitt into its heyday. He typically opens on Memorial Day weekend, goes full-time in the middle of June and then back to weekends after Labor Day. Leaf peepers may even get a chance to catch a flick in the fall, if they are willing to bundle up.

“It doesn’t have any heat and it can get pretty cold in here,” Peter explains with a wry smile. “I have a ‘bring a blanket’ sign for when it gets really cold.”

Peter’s love for this old building has spilled over into his home life. He essentially turned the theatre into a family business. His wife often helps with the concession stand. At the age of seven, his youngest son would rip tickets, and just a few years later he turned into a cashier.

“When he was probably twelve years old, he would be out in the ticket booth selling the tickets himself,” says Peter. “People would go ‘wait a minute, buying tickets from this little kid?’ He learned to deal with the public and had a great time of it.”

In addition to his offspring, Peter says the Leavitt would not be where it is without the help of one incredibly dedicated employee, Kevin Hickey. He has been a projectionist at the theatre since 1974.

“The guy who has run the projection booth since I bought the place,” Peter explains with admiration. “He has maintained the equipment spectacularly and has sort of been instrumental in keeping everything running.”

It’s this small band of brothers that has kept the Leavitt alive and profitable, but for all the blood, sweat and tears they have put in, the last grains of sand are starting to trickle down to the bottom of the hourglass.

The financial machine of Hollywood is churning faster than ever and has little use for the “mom and pops” of the movie world. The Leavitt is still a first-run theatre and in years past, several theatres used to share a new film, shipping it up and down the coast of Maine every few days. But now, many of those theatres have closed (the York Beach cinema was demolished in 2006) and Peter says most studios want him to run a movie for two weeks straight. Meaning, tourists are not given much of a selection and tend to seek out a multiplex instead.

And that is not the only studio requirement hurting the Leavitt’s bottom line. The percentage of ticket sales given to the film companies has skyrocketed. On opening weekend, it used to be split 50/50 and the amount the theatre could retain would keep going up each week. But now, it’s more of a flat rate for the film’s entire run. To Peter, the Leavitt is more than just a statistic, but he knows the film studios do not see it that way.

“There’s none of the good, old-friendly bookers in Boston, knowing that’s a good theatre in Maine,” Peter says frustrated. “Let’s make it so they can stay in business. They don’t care at all anymore.”

And it’s the last studio edict that may bring the lights down on the Leavitt for the final time. In 2013, Hollywood is doing away with 35mm prints of its films. Instead, all of the movies will be digital. Each film will be sent to theatres on a satellite, downloaded onto a hard drive and shown through a digital projector. The Leavitt’s current projectors are from the seventies and not compatible with that technology. And for Peter, an upgrade to a digital projector with a $100,000 price tag, is just not feasible.

“If I said, ‘well, now I have a digital projector,’ you think we’ll get more people to come?” Peter questions. “No. It would just not make sense to purchase one of those projectors.”

That leaves this aging movie house owner in a rather unenviable position; either sell the theatre and risk having it destroyed or drastically change how he runs the Leavitt. He has a handful of ideas, none of them ideal. Recently, he purchased a projector capable of showing blu-ray discs, hoping audiences may come to see older movies on the big screen. Peter’s also considering putting on more film festivals, booking more live acts and even getting a liquor license. Another possibility is having the Leavitt become a non-profit, an option that has worked with varying success for theatres in Booth Bay Harbor and Bar Harbor. Still, it seems, deep down, Peter realizes his days of creating movie magic in this small seaside town are nearly at an end.

“I love it as the old Leavitt movie theatre, the way it used to be,” Peter says with a sense of pride wrapped in nostalgic sadness. “I do know that people will really miss this place when it’s gone.”

posted by Seth Szilagyi in Local Cinema and have No Comments

‘The Shining’ at Coolidge Corner

It’s a film all about time and space. With that opening line, you’d think I would be talking about “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “The Fountain” or even “Back to the Future.” But in fact, I’m writing about another Stanley Kubrick classic, “The Shining.”

I’ve seen this movie at least a dozen times and each screening gives me a new perspective on it. This time out, I had the pleasure of  viewing it at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. Taking in any vintage movie at this iconic theater just outside Boston is always an experience that’s tough to beat. They take care in showing films audiences can appreciate and often give people a unique way to see those movies. I mean where else are you going to sit in a gothic designed theater watching a 31-year-old film with a sold-out and cheering crowd? It’s a cinephile’s playground and I applaud the Coolidge for everything they bring to the community.

But back to business at the Overlook Hotel. At first blush, “The Shining” is simply an adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling novel about a recovering alcoholic that takes a job as the winter caretaker of a potentially haunted hotel in the mountains of Colorado. It’s a well-orchestrated horror film that has several scares and creative camera shots. Certainly enough ammo to make it a cult classic. But look below the surface and you may find there’s much more here than King’s book about a man’s familial struggle.

The film is filled with inconsistencies. Many could be chalked up to careless movie making. And for the first few viewings, I believed that to be true. However, this is Stanley Kubrick. One of the most meticulous directors of all-time. The apparent “mistakes” are so many, that I find it hard to believe that such a heralded filmmaker could succumb to these obvious errors. Instead, I now believe they are all there on purpose.


Let’s start with the physical hotel itself. Looking at the exterior, many have complained there is no way what is shown as the interior could possibly exist. Especially the main room, prominently featured in the movie. From the inside, it has giant windows, but outside no such windows are visible. For whatever reason, this was definitely done on purpose. Kubrick has been quoted as saying he wanted the entire hotel to look different, like a mish-mash of hotels around the country. And what about the hedge maze? It’s nearly a character in the film, yet it’s absent from several exterior shots of the Overlook. Obviously, this could be explained away with an easy argument. A real hotel (the Timberline Lodge in Oregon) was used for those outdoor shots and that did not have a hedge maze. But would it have been so hard to shoot a maze miniature and composite it in to those sparse frames? I’m guessing not.


And the confusing hypocrisy does not end there. At the beginning of the movie, Jack meets with Mr. Ullman in the office area of the hotel. Mr. Ullman tells Jack the story of “Charles Grady” a former caretaker who kills his wife, two girls and himself. However, as Jack descends into madness, he meets up with Grady during a ballroom party at an unknown time or date. It’s seemingly the hotel showing off its “Shine”, but could Jack have actually crossed into a different time? At any rate, Grady dumps drinks on Jack and is forced to clean him up in the men’s room. During this conversation, Grady calls himself “Delbert Grady” not “Charles Grady.” Mistake? I don’t think so.


The timeline blurs further when you consider the “Rashomon” storytelling of the day Jack injured Danny’s arm while he was drunk. When the doctor visits their home at the beginning of the film, Wendy tells the doctor Jack did not have a drink since he hurt Danny five months ago. But later, Jack tells the bartender Lloyd, he has not had a drink in five months. A month after he’d been taking care of the hotel. Minutes later, Jack tells Lloyd he injured Danny three years ago, which would mean he’d been without alcohol for three years, not five months. Again, a horrible error, Jack making his situation seem worse than it was or time inconsistencies that show the hotel shifting through the decades?


Still not buying what I’m selling? How about this? At the very end, where we see Jack’s smiling face in the Fourth of July ballroom photo from 1921. We hear “Midnight, the Stars, and You.” The same song played during the ballroom scene earlier. But that song was not recorded until 1932, eleven years after that scene apparently takes place.


And can we discuss a deleted scene that ended up on the cutting room floor a week after the film was initially released? It took place at the hospital just after the shot of Jack’s frozen face next to the hedge maze. Wendy is in a bed talking with Mr. Ullman. He explains that her husband’s body could not be found and then gives Danny a yellow tennis ball, the same one that lured Danny into room 237. If his body was never found, where was it? Absorbed by the hotel? Sure, that’s the conventional view. Or did the hotel time shift again? Reverting back to a time when Jack was the good caretaker and not embodied as the wife/son killing man frozen in the snow.

So, my hypothesis is simple. The hotel is not only a place of evil, but a place that is constantly shifting throughout its history. Ghosts aren’t really ghosts, but beings popping up in a different time. And not reacting kindly to seeing others infiltrate their territory. Perhaps Jack gets stuck in the wrong year and his family is not really his family at all. After all, he’s always been the caretaker at The Overlook hotel, just like Grady (Delbert or Charles) has always been a butler. Maybe, that’s why Jack never really seems to remember when he hurt Danny, or concentrate on what he’s supposed to be doing. It’s certainly not to write a novel. But he does know one thing, he’s the caretaker.

This is just one theory. And certainly, there are cracks. But all the others have similar gaps in logic. Jack’s soul is absorbed by the hotel, much like Grady. This is the most popular and most sensible. But, was he always there? That just brings us back to time paradox and the notion of time-shifts.

One wild theory that goes along with the deleted scene I mentioned earlier. The possibility that Wendy was the insane one. She imagined all of Jack’s madness and she was the actual winter caretaker. Hence, his body never being found.

Or, Jack’s lack of alcohol, cabin fever and temper just cause him to lose it. You may notice, any time Jack talks to the ghosts, he’s looking in some sort of mirror. The real ghost lies within? A theme this past year’s “Black Swan” used very well.

And all this discussion, this excessive analysis is precisely why “The Shining” is such a great movie. Intentional or not, the contradictions, bizarre moments and head-scratchers give the audience something to argue about long after its director is gone. Was it all done with a grand blueprint in mind or just a filmmaker throwing out several questions without any real answer? Something that could leave moviegoers just as mad as Jack trapped in the mountains of Colorado with only space and time to keep them company.


posted by Seth Szilagyi in Local Cinema and have No Comments

‘Here’s To Swimming With Bow-Legged Women…’

A great quote from Quint in the movie “Jaws.”


If you have never seen one of your favorite movies on the big screen, I suggest you try it. I’ve done it twice now in the past month and the experience is far too good to pass up. Half the audience knows the film so well, they anticipate every line, and yet still enjoy it like an old friend. While the other half hasn’t seen the movie in years and feels like they’re viewing the film for the first time.

“Jaws” is my old friend. I saw the movie for the first time when I was about nine or ten on a neighbor’s borrowed VHS copy. They had HBO, we had four channels. Which is fine because I grew up on Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street instead of the mindless Nick Jr.

Since then, I’ve watched it on every format. A lousy pan-and-scan on dvd, streaming on Netflix and what may be the worst way to see this movie, with commercials on TNT. I’ve wanted to see “Jaws” in a movie theater for years and when the opportunity came up at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, I did just that. And let me say, I was NOT alone.

Sold out. A movie that is 35 years old was sold out! How can this happen? Apparently, I am not the only person out there that appreciates such cinema treasures. And it wasn’t even in 3D, amazing!

It was also great to see the four letters J-A-W-S on a marquee in old-school black letters. The sign at the Coolidge gave me just a hint of what it was like to be alive during this film’s incredible box office run back in 1975. Check it out below, it’s not the best picture though, I snapped it with my cellphone.


It’s hard to define what makes this movie so great, but for me, I think it’s the mixture of humor, horror, fantastic dialogue and suspense. It’s difficult enough for a movie maker to ace one of those, let alone all four. However, Spielberg, along with a wonderful cast and an unforgettable score from genius composer John Williams made it happen.


The atmosphere surrounding these classic viewings is electric. I saw numerous people wearing “Jaws” t-shirts, everyone screamed bloody murder when Ben Gardner’s head came floating out of the hull of his boat, cheers went up when the great white was blown to smithereens and there was a giant ovation when the final credits rolled. This is truly how movies were meant to be seen.

The only hiccup for the night. The audience did get to see one part of the movie twice. Just before the fake shark scare that sends everyone fleeing out of the water midway through the film, the movie jumped to Quint trying to reel in the great white on the boat. How did this happen? Well, the Coolidge must use a two reel projector system. All films come in several reels, typically they are all spliced together and fed into a one reel projector. But under the two reel system, after one reel is nearly finished a “cigarette burn” on the right hand side of the screen comes up and the projectionist must manually thread the other reel in before the first one ends. Obviously the projectionist put in the wrong one. There was a lot of rumbling and about a five minute delay before the issue was fixed, but really, it just added to the old-school feel of the evening.


“So, eleven hundred men went in the water; 316 men come out and the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”

You can check out the nostalgic trailer below and until next time, support local cinema! Keep old theaters like Coolidge Corner alive.


posted by Seth Szilagyi in Local Cinema and have No Comments