14 May 2013

Oldham 8 Theatres, 1995-2013

Logo preserved and uploaded to the Oldham 8 Facebook page by Jakob Taylor.
I've discussed the Oldham 8 a few times previously in this blog, but I find that now is an appropriate time to revisit some of what I've already shared. The theater opened to the public 8 September 1995, too late for me to see Batman Forever there, but in time for my first ever new release James Bond movie, GoldenEye. I was a junior in high school, so I was at the perfect age to begin going to see movies without my family. I've always been in awe of cinema, a thrill instilled in me from my childhood - even just going to the second-run theater for a matinee showing with floors so covered in spilled Cokes that the bottoms of my sneakers began to stick with each step I took was exciting.

The lights dim, the jingle for the concession stand or the theater chain play, the trailers run...it's all such a tease. I think you have to be a child to get caught up in such pre-feature fare, where each time a clip ends you hope that the next thing to start playing will be the feature itself but...
No! Another trailer! Come on, just show the movie! Wait! What's this movie they're advertising? That kinda looks good. Okay, I might want to see that when it comes out. Oh, yes! I definitely want to see that! Now hurry up and play the movie I came to see! Yes! This is it! No, never mind. Another trailer! QUIT TOYING WITH MY EMOTIONS, PROJECTOR PERSON!
Then finally, the fade-to-black cat and mouse game reaches its crescendo and the feature begins. The studio logo and its music seems so majestic, even if it's just the work of a marketing department for a soulless conglomerate. New Line Cinema always had my personal favorite music, with its sweeping high-range strings. It elevated my emotions just to hear it, and truth be told I always found it jarring when the movie would open with a bad pop song immediately after the logo screen.

Now, you might think I'm discussing childhood reflections but I'm not. I felt this way when the Oldham 8 opened, too. I felt it at every one of the 129 times I saw a movie there, and I still feel it to this day whenever I go to see a movie play on the big screen. If the day comes that I don't go through this private roller coaster at a theater, I'll probably just quit seeing movies at all. I'll also probably be in some kind of serious medical condition so check on me.

The first time I ever went to the Oldham 8 was especially memorable because it was also my first ever official date. I had met a girl at a mutual friend's Halloween party and we both asked our mutual friend about the other. We hit it off over the phone. I can't even remember why now, but for some reason I had actually gone to my dad's the weekend of the date, which was 4 November 1995 - a Saturday. I was stoked to see GoldenEye, but it was two weeks off and frankly, I had no idea what other movies were even out because I paid no attention to such things normally. I still hadn't acclimated to the idea that we had a theater in our small town. I deferred to her - which seemed the gentlemanly thing anyway - and she selected Powder. I didn't know until she was dropped off at the theater that she hadn't actually dressed up at all for Halloween, and wore the goth look regularly.
My date and I were kinda like this, except she was the conspicuous one.
I tried to be all nonchalant about it, though you'd have to ask her how well I succeeded. I was floating on a cloud when we met outside the theater and she let me open the door for her. She was my date so it would have been rude for me to divert my attention, but the truth of the matter is that I was even more attracted to the lobby. It was a movie theater lobby, right there in LaGrange! I could come here regularly!

There were, in those days, two ticket sellers, a handful of concessionaires manning "Cafe D.W." (so named for LaGrange native and cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith). We had a ticket-taking usher, which I had never seen in any of the theaters in Louisville. Buttered popcorn filled our noses, the hustle and bustle of buzzing people filled our ears and excitement filled at least me, maybe her. We bought Cokes and maybe some popcorn. I was amazed that they served hot dogs and nachos which, like the usher, I don't think I had ever seen at a movie theater. A large screen played a loop of trailers for forthcoming features. I'm almost certain they played the trailer for GoldenEye, and that I had to tear myself away from it before I looked like a complete dweeb.
Photo from Oldham 8 Facebook page.
Powder, of course, was a colossal disappointment as a movie and the relationship barely lasted a month, but no matter. My love affair with the Oldham 8 had begun and with it, the dawn of the third significant stage of my maturation. Over the next seven years, I would go to the theater 104 times, including a second viewing of eleven movies. My friends and I would go even if we didn't have a movie picked out ahead of time. Sometimes I didn't even know what was playing, or the first thing about any of our choices. I didn't read the newspaper and we didn't have Internet access at home in those days. These days, audiences already know every plot spoiler about each movie before the director gets into the editing room but in those days you could still live in a bit of a bubble. I enjoyed being in that bubble. Movies should be allowed to use the element of surprise and I try to give them as much chance to use it as I can.

I'm sure a lot of Oldham Countians lamenting the closure of the theater have said things like, "What a shame" and "Tinseltown put them out of business". It's certainly true that Tinseltown, which opened after the Oldham 8 just 20 minutes away in the booming Springhurst area, was tough competition. Tinseltown had more auditoriums, bigger screens and, most significantly, it was located in a happenin' shopping and restaurant district. Parents could drop off their adolescents at Tinseltown and while away a couple of hours dining at O'Charley's, where unlike LaGrange, they could enjoy an alcoholic beverage. They could go shopping, or even see a movie themselves.

Those were advantages that the Oldham 8 never really had. We all hoped its establishment would lead to a brave new LaGrange with new businesses but none ever came to town. There was talk for quite a while of a bowling alley taking over the abandoned Walmart building adjacent to the Oldham 8, but being unable to sell beer to patrons discouraged anyone from ever establishing one.

Eventually, there came to be problems with disruptive youths. By 2003, most of my peers had been taken away from Oldham County by college and job opportunities elsewhere. Coming up behind us was a generation of kids just a bit too young to really appreciate the importance of having a theater. They loitered outside and all around the theater, in large part because it became the de facto weekend drop-off babysitter for a lot of them. Whether they were callous, resentful or just plain poorly mannered, they made a lot of older patrons increasingly uncomfortable. The theater was slow to respond to the issue, initially fearful of alienating the youth demographic known for supporting the movie industry at large.

Soon, though, it reached the point where LaGrange City Police had to be on hand for weekend evenings, and often throughout the summer. However offputting it may have been for some older patrons to have to walk through a crowd of unruly teens to get inside the theater, it was even more alarming to see a parked police car with its lights flashing. It gave the appearance that the theater was a constant crime scene. I don't know what the proper solution would have been to the issue, but it certainly wasn't the combination of spineless appeasement and police visibility that theater management and ownership chose.

The downturn of the economy of the 2000s hit the theater as it hit everyone else. Instead of two ticket sellers and a team of dedicated concessionaires, there were often just two employees who bounced from one counter to the next. Sometimes you'd have to wait for everyone else to finish buying their tickets before the ticket seller could become a concessionaire. The hot dogs were a thing of the past and the popcorn looked like it was the same popcorn from the past. The second concession stand stayed closed. There was no longer a ticket-taking usher, and the screen that used to play trailers in the lobby stayed black. At least one urinal was physically broken in the men's restroom and stayed that way for years, covered with a clear plastic bag and a lot of tape. It took on the appearance and smell of a poorly maintained truck stop.

They stopped even printing tickets, resorting instead to lazily printing out a ticket-formatted receipt. It was just paper. I know most people don't keep their movie ticket stubs or even pay them any heed, but it was one of those little details that declared to those of us who do pay attention that the theater had abandoned its earlier idealism. It no longer saw itself as a vibrant hub of entertainment. Now it was a dismal daycare that just wanted you to get in and out as quickly as you could.
Photo from Oldham 8 Facebook page.
These were probably decisions made by someone in ownership whose business philosophy was to "stop throwing good money after bad". I can picture them insisting to keep offering the same popcorn until it's all gone before they would ever order a new bag, and declaring that being one urinal down in the restroom just meant a lower water bill so why bother replacing or repairing it? The cumulative effect of these "cost saving" measures may have made the ledger look better somehow, but at a dramatic cost to the theater itself. Ownership can blame teen ruffians all they want for chasing away families with younger kids and older patrons and they may be right about that, but they can't blame anyone else for all the business decisions they made.

In 2006, my wife and I moved back to LaGrange but we continued to see our movies at Tinseltown. Not only was Tinseltown properly maintained, but they offered $5 tickets all day long on Tuesdays, whereas the Oldham 8 charged $8.00, then $8.50 and eventually $9.00 a ticket. Even with the admittedly exorbitant price of gas, it was better for us to go to Tinseltown and pay $10 for two tickets than to stay in LaGrange and pay $16+. At Tinseltown, there were up-to-date digital projectors and speakers, a full concession stand and a restroom that didn't make me try to remember the last time I had my booster shots. That's to say nothing of being in a much more interesting and appealing area of Jefferson County as opposed to being in LaGrange.

Had the Oldham 8 been properly managed, we would happily have continued to have supported it. It would have been much more convenient, certainly. If they had just matched Tinseltown's $5 Tuesdays, or even come closer (say, $6), that would have made some difference. It would have been worth $2 to save on the gas if we were just looking to see a movie and not much else, but I just could not perceive the value of the Oldham 8 experience being what I paid for anymore.

Then came new hope. I was thrilled to learn late last year that Regal Cinemas had purchased the Great Escape chain. It seemed fitting, as Regal also owned United Artists, and D.W. Griffith was one of UA's founders. I looked forward to seeing them resurrect the Oldham 8. A spring date was set for the installation of state-of-the-art digital projectors, mandatory to ensure that the theater could continue to screen movies since studios have 86ed film prints. I haven't made it out to many movies since Regal took ownership, but of the few that I've seen in the last six months, two of them were at the Oldham 8. When I was too miserable to go see Iron Man 3 with my friends at Tinseltown a week ago, I decided I'd just see it by myself at the Oldham 8. I felt too miserable each night last week, though, and I just wasn't up to sitting through a movie with a 140 minute run time.
The Oldham 8 welcomed to the Regal Entertainment Group, 4 December 2012. From Oldham 8 Facebook page.
And then I learned on Friday, 10 May, that NOW CLOSED was all that was displayed on the marquee outside. I couldn't believe it. Closed? Surely that wasn't right. Maybe they meant they had to close temporarily to install those new digital projectors? No. If there was any effort made to inform the community that the promise of reviving the theater had devolved into simply snuffing it out, neither I or anyone I know ever heard a word about it. Somehow, I suppose that's befitting the decline of the once-grand little theater though as someone who remembers its glory days I find it troubling. It didn't have to be this way.

As it turned out, the bookend counterpart to Powder was (is?) Oz, the Great and Powerful, which I saw with my niece 30 March of this year. I was disappointed by both films, honestly, though I was excited by both visits. My first visit, of course, I was overcome by what was there; in my last, I had visions of what may come with proper ownership. I never considered that Regal would go all Lucy on me and yank away the football, but they did.

I don't know what lessons ought to be learned, or by whom. I just know that for a while, the Oldham 8 was my preferred house of worship and now I have no choice but to practice my faith elsewhere. It's sad to me that part of our community was allowed to poison the well for all of us, and sadder still that the well owners tended that well as indifferently as they did. Owners from the opening of the theater through the Regal board responsible for its closure may wish to challenge me on this. "Where was your support, Travis? You didn't set foot in the place from 22 August 2002 until 2 October 2006. That's four years where we could have used your patronage!"

Maybe they're right to feel that I let them down about that.

"And then, you went from 31 May 2009 until 4 July 2011 without a single visit, and then didn't come back until 30 December 2012!"

I surely did not visit during those stretches. To be honest, I'm not even entirely sure what kept me coming back as often as I did return from the end of 2006 through the end of May, 2009. Tinseltown remained my primary first-run theater, for all the aforementioned reasons. I watched through those two-plus years as nothing improved from one visit to the next, while there were never any breaks on ticket prices. If you were content being our "slumming it" theater, that's fine but you should have stopped charging "prestigious experience" theater prices. I don't pay Tinseltown money to the Village 8, and that's exactly what the Oldham 8 asked of me. (My apologies to the Village 8, which has actually been well maintained the last several times I've visited.)

I vividly recall the night that Titanic opened. The staff went all out for it, having artificially fogged the skylight window, hung fake cobweb streamers throughout the lobby and all dressed up as ghosts. I adored seeing that kind of effort put into making the place so personable and lively. Now, I contemplate an empty building where a theater used to be. I picture its skylight truly covered in grime, with real cobwebs taking over and the ghosts of our collective adolescence roaming the lobby. Perhaps, though, someone with deep pockets passionate not only about film but our community may see the potential for resurrecting the Oldham 8 and we'll reanimate the place, restoring her to her former glory.

Click here for the complete list of movies I saw at the Oldham 8.

After publishing this piece, it occurred to me that I could do better than "opened in 1995", so I spent some time at the Oldham County Public Library Main Branch.  It took some doing, but I dusted off my collegiate research skills  and scoured through the July-December 1995 Microfiche recording of the Oldham Era until I found it. The theater opened to the public 8 September 1995 with the following show schedule:

The things I do for you, Dear Reader... Microfiche! It was like I had actually traveled back to 1995. I will at some point happily update with the bookend of the theater's final week show schedule, but believe it or not that's actually proving nigh impossible to find. Apparently, neither the Oldham Era or The Courier-Journal still have the longstanding movie review/show clock section that served moviegoers in such good stead pre-Internet. Which actually would be fine with me, except they still list the TV schedule. If you're watching TV, you can find out what is, or will be, on. You don't need the paper for that. Conversely, knowing from the paper what movies are playing at what time and at which theater would be handy to anyone who didn't want to have to go to every theater in person to find out that information. Oh, what's that? The web makes having that information in a newspaper redundant? Sure it does, but that's as true of the TV listings, the sports scores, the forecast, the public arrest records, the obituaries...

Through the miracle of cloning, er, Google Cache, I am able to present to you, Dear Reader, a screen capture of the show schedule from the Oldham 8's final day of operation, 9 May 2013.
Ergo, the first film to play at the Oldham 8 was To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, 8 September 1995 at 1:00 and the last scheduled to start was The Croods on 9 May 2013 at 7:30. The last audience to let out was *probably* 42, with its 128 minute runtime, although it's possible that Pain and Gain and/or Oblivion outran it depending on whether either of those first week releases had more previews. Eight minutes sounds like a long time, but it's really just two trailers these days. 42 was in its fourth week of release, whereas Oblivion (third) and Pain and Gain (second) were newer. It's not out of the realm of reason that 42 wasn't as stacked with trailers. I can only definitively say that The Croods was the last show to begin playing.

Since publishing this piece, new information has been shared with me in the comments section below by David Striegel, former manager at the Oldham 8. I felt it important enough to add to this post rather than leave it to be overlooked in the comments section. He informs me that the reason that Regal closed the theater is that the landlords refused to address maintenance issues of a serious roof leak that led to ceiling tiles falling on people on two separate occasions, and the destruction of more than one movie print.

I still maintain that theater ownership over the years made some dubious business decisions, but that certainly explains why Regal took their toys and went home and I don't blame them. Perhaps it's hoping for too much, but maybe there's another commercial property ownership in Oldham County that isn't so short-sighted that might be enthusiastic about bringing us a new theater soon?

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