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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

Going To The Movies Has Been A Kansas City Tradition For More Than A Century. Will It Survive The Pandemic?

The view from inside a movie theater might soon be a scene from the past, but dedicated Kansas City film buffs will do just about anything to keep the movie-going tradition alive.
Crysta Henthorne
The view from inside a movie theater might soon be a scene from the past, but dedicated Kansas City film buffs will do just about anything to keep the movie-going tradition alive.

There's one local movie theater standing in Kansas City, and die-hard fans insist there's no replacing it. But after a year spent adapting to home-viewing, it's unclear whether crowds are coming back.

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Just as we were starting to see a glimmer of light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, the announcement came. Yet another staple of Kansas City life would not be seeing the other side. It was curtains for the Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet, a cinema in the Power & Light district.

The revelation was particularly sad for those who experienced downtown's revival through nights at the movies. Going to a rehabbed old theater in the heart of downtown meant choosing the central city not for something with a lot of hype — like a concert — but for something low-key.

Dinner and a movie. A casual night out.

Of course, right now, there's nothing casual about a night out. And for the germ-averse, a movie in a theater no longer promises an hour-and-a-half of escape. It's hard to imagine losing yourself in a great plot when going anywhere means being vigilant. It means not losing yourself.

For the last year, we've watched movies on our couches. We've watched movies in back yards. We've watched movies in our cars. Basically, we've watched movies everywhere except movie theaters.

The Alamo closing leaves just one movie theater within range of downtown. It also leaves a few depressing questions: Is the drop-off in movie attendance temporary? Have people realized how much they miss watching movies in a theater, setting the stage for a revival? Or is the movie-going ritual nearing its end?

Adam Roberts isn't sure.

He's one of the owners of Screenland Armour, the last indie venue standing at the moment. (The Tivoli now programs movies inside the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and Fine Arts Glenwood has plans to reopen eventually).

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Adam Roberts stands in an empty theater at Screenland Armour.

For Roberts, surviving the last year feels like validation — a confirmation that Screenland Armour, housed in a gorgeous art-deco space in North Kansas City, means something special to its patrons. In his 30s, Roberts is one of the youngest movie-theater owners in the country. He knows that if anyone can adapt to the changing entertainment landscape, he can; he doesn't have decades of conventional wisdom to unlearn. But for Roberts, Alamo Drafthouse closing is not a good sign.

"Any theater closing is a sad thing and kind of hits us in a weird position of like, is that us one day?"

This time last year, Screenland Armour shut down for a couple of months, then reopened with restrictions — four empty seats between people, mask-wearing at all times — but even now, only the die-hard fans are showing up. Roberts has added options like outdoor screenings and online rentals, but business is still down about 75% from the previous year.

"Cases are getting low, vaccines are going up, all those things are happening that help retail and food," Roberts says. But releasing a new movie isn't the same as revamping a menu. "Even if there's no cases tomorrow, there's not a movie coming out tomorrow," Roberts says. "And there's not gonna be a movie coming out next week."

So when people finally flock back to restaurants and bars and live music venues, will movie theaters get the same love?

Roberts is optimistic based on data from China, where movie theaters experienced their highest-grossing six-day stretch in box office history when restrictions lifted.

"What that says is, people are craving to get out of the house, get off the couch and still see movies," he says. "I think that there's going to be this revolution for all the arts."

Screenland Armour, Armour Theather, movie theater
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
The lobby at Screenland Armour pays tribute not just to the movies currently being presented but to all movies of all time, with a 1990s arcade vibe thrown in for good measure.

Joan Dean agrees about the coming revolution for the arts. She thinks we're all hungry to get out and be part of an audience. But she's not convinced we'll want to do that in the dark, sitting quietly side by side. She thinks people will favor activities that encourage participation: dancing to live music, cheering for the Royals, protesting in the streets.

Dean is a retired professor of dramatic literature at UMKC, where she co-taught a film class with mandatory screenings at the Tivoli for more than 15 years.

"We insisted that these movies were meant to be seen on a big screen, where you were immersed in a dark room," Dean recalls.

Even 20 years ago, Dean says, getting people to sit through a movie in a theater was a struggle. As someone who once traveled significant distances to see Hitchcock movies, knowing they wouldn't be available anywhere else, Dean marvels that she even had to take attendance, let alone enforce a rule against phone use.

"We would not let people use their phones. And that was the greatest source of resistance. I can remember early on, one woman got a phone call and she pulled her coat over her head and she was talking on her phone and I had to go over and say, 'I'm sorry, there are 200 people in the theater, and we're listening to you.'"

Dean suspects the pandemic has merely sealed the deal for a generation not accustomed to sitting quietly to receive a show.

"Older generations were conditioned for this because, you know, church attendance was much higher and that experience was not unlike the experience of going to a movie theater," she says. "We're just not used to that any more."

After a year of casual movie-watching on the couch, Roberts at Screenland Armour thinks people may have finally realized how their cavalier treatment has shortchanged movies.

"We have what we think is a cinematic experience at our house, but it's not just about picture and sound. So much of going to the movies is the environment around you, the people around you, the oohs and ahs and screams and laughs," Roberts says. "You can't replicate that at home, no matter how hard you try."

He continues: "It is not the same experience because you could hit pause, right? You could pull out your phone. There's no rules. You could talk the entire time. And that ruins the entire experience. Going to the movies gives everything a fair chance. It makes you be quiet. It makes you focus. It's just like a rollercoaster ride, you can't stop what's happening, and that's so important."

Meanwhile, people are setting up outdoor movie theaters in backyards. The drive-in has gone from cult favorite to mainstream solution. People are organizing tweet-along screenings of favorite flicks, resulting in makeshift online "gatherings." The ability to fully customize a movie-watching experience may be hard to let go.

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Kansas City has no shortage of drive-in movie screens and they've seen a revival in the pandemic. The Twin Drive-In in Independence is already open for the 2021 season.

Greg Dedrick is the creator of a Kansas City movie podcast called Nerds of Nostalgia, built around live screenings where people geek out over their favorite 80s and 90s era movies. Dedrick says he's "socially awkward," explaining that if by some mistake he shows up at a party, his preferred move is to stand in a corner and play with animals.

"I realized that my true social interactions came from at work and in the theater. And then last year, around this time, when both of those were kind of taken away, it frightened me. It panicked me," he admits.

Dedrick is a die-hard fan who is actively championing his theater, Screenland Armour, because he realized last spring that he'd be crushed if he ever lost it permanently. But he's the one who leaves me with a thought that comforts me as I face the possibility that movie-going in the way I'm used to might not come back.

The thought is this: Movies are about making real the impossible. Anyone who loves the medium has to believe in that premise.

"I remember vividly my mom and I going back in 1983 opening day for Return of the Jedi," Dedrick says, reliving the moment when the theater went dark. "And then for those next two hours, I'm in a new world. I am somewhere that I never thought I could be."

So what if his movie theater closed? What if all the movie theaters closed?

Dedrick says he'd cry. But then he'd compose himself and figure out what's next, invoking a line from Jurassic Park.

Life finds a way. And movies, too, will find a way.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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