Thursday, August 5, 2010

All Things Must Pass: Spencer’s Theater

| by Justin Thomas |

In 1996 I traveled from the little cow town in Missouri in which I found myself to the Big City of Kansas City? Ever been to KC? It isn’t really a Big City like New York is a Big City, but when twenty years of life had been lived in towns with populations ranging from twelve to seventeen thousand, even something as “big” as Kansas City is a Big City.

I digress.

In 1996 I traveled to KC and did the entire KC thing. The Plaza? Cool. Did you know KC has incredible BBQ? I wouldn’t because the guy with whom I was staying insisted on giving me my first taste of Chinese food. Arrowhead Stadium? It’s about as good a place to see a game as there is. But that wasn’t what got me uber jazzed for the trip. I was going to get to go to the AMC 20 in Independence, Missouri and I’d never seen a place with twenty screens! I’d never seen a town with twenty houses so you can imagine how my mind had difficulty comprehending the bigness of that Big City with its twenty screens. In my little hometown we had a little theater with three screens. Three! Add seventeen to that and asking me to comprehend it would be akin to asking me to explain quantum mechanics.

(Want to hear the best part of the trip to the AMC 20? I got carded for The Frighteners, didn’t have my ID and was turned away. At the time I was twenty but couldn’t convince the pimply face behind the counter I could handle the show.)

So we had a little theater with three screens, but it’s past tense, “had” now. The theater, which was the first thing rebuilt after a massive fire destroyed the town in 1931, closed its doors on Sunday night and is no more. The marquee now reads, “Thank you for the memories” and for the next week or so people will reminisce. They’ll drive past and shake their heads lamenting its passing. Maybe one or two will say, “It’s a damn shame,” but it’ll be forgotten by the time Hawkeye football rolls around.

It is indeed a damn shame.

There’s no way I’d be able to calculate how much time I spent in that theater. In 1978 or 1979 my mom took me there to see Superman: The Movie and I can even now see the destruction of Krypton and remember wondering why the people in white weren’t Storm Troopers. I can remember the lobby, which at that point was then newly remodeled. I can remember going to the bathroom, which looked the same then as it did when the theater closed. Maybe I’m forcing different memories into that first one but, as far back as I can remember, Spencer’s theater is there and part of my life.

My best friend and I would see E.T. each summer when the cheap matinee was shown during the town’s Crazy Days. I frequently went there to see a movie to escape from the Midwestern heat to the comfort of the air conditioning. In 1993 I saw The Sandlot by myself and saw Jenny there with her boyfriend knowing my love would be unrequited that night but not knowing it would be eternally unrequited. I saw Jurassic Park there five times, all alone, marveling at the CGI, thinking I might be seeing the thing that would make the best movies of all time not knowing it would be the downfall of the medium. The night after my last day at high school was spent not huddled around a keg with the rest of my class but at the theater watching Maverick. I saw The Phantom Menace there four times including a 9 p.m. Wednesday show in which I was the only soul in the joint; the only time that’s ever happened. Those are the big ones, the ones I remember.

That little theater made me love movies. It provided an escape from a place where there was a cornfield eight blocks from my front door and made me wonder. It made me think I could write something that might one day appear on screen, and it still might happen because there are still two scripts I cowrote out there with people trying to make them into movies. If not for that rinky-dink little movie theater, I’d have chosen to waste my life in marketing and never wonder about whether I could write a story worth reading.


A trip home over Memorial Day allowed me to see one more movie at Spencer’s theater: Iron Man 2. It will be my last so superhero movies opened and closed my experience with the theater. Superman is the vastly superior movie based on the short Smallville sequences alone but I’m not disappointed Iron Man 2 is the last. This week I got a chance to step inside to see the smallest screen completely demolished and the woman who’d worked there for thirty years, one who would have worked the day my mom took me took my first show, didn’t even try to keep from crying.

No one will rally ‘round the marquee to save it, and the marquee with its simple “Spencer” will be replaced by a Verizon sign or something similar before year’s end. Sadly, this is reality and not a movie, so the city fathers and farmers have sold their soul for the sake of getting the newest Android phone on release day. Change is inevitable, I guess, like death, some divorces and the Taxman, who cometh and that right soon; but I wish this change hadn’t occurred. The marquee is dark, soon it will be gone and Hawkeye football is only weeks away. I hear they have good tailbacks this year.

There will be no “Save Spencer’s Theater” campaign unless you or someone you know is a billionaire industrialist looking for a million-dollar toy smack dab in the middle of nowhere. Then I know of a project that can be turned into a money pit for the sake of me one day showing something I wrote to my fourth-grade teacher.

Please, think of Mrs. Keck, open your huge wallet and save the damn theater.

Spencer’s theater reopened seven years before Hitler invaded Poland and this is what the marquee looked like. This is what the marquee looked like on what is to date my saddest day of 2010 (and 2010 is nowhere near over):

Marquee 2010

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