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Volume 38 Issue 8 • June 19 - 25, 2008
now in our 38th season

The Democracy of Movie Theaters

by Robert P. Barsanti

The Dreamland remains an oddity.  It is too large for the downtown, too gray for the twenty-first century, and too decrepit for “Indiana Jones” and his digital friends.  The new owners of the Dreamland have wisely cleaned up the front, put some flowers in the marquee windows, and blown off the derelict air that had coalesced around the place. 

For the last several years, the Dreamland has hung like a black hole on Water Street.  Ridiculous and impossible plans followed each other into the recycling bins and newspaper archives, while the building slumped and slumped into the sand and fill.  It had become a peculiar island project; paralysed on one hand by the heavy grip of history and the frantic grasp of the marketplace on the other.  The former owner, with his restaurant dreams and his underground parking delusions, probably hoped some fortunate lightning would strike the place and leave him a valuable plot of land and an insurance settlement.  As someone who would be very happy to see the old building returned to its glory as a meeting house for the Guernseyite Quakers, I hoped that the town would find the funds to restore it.  With both hands frozen, the sun and wind continued to split and warp the clapboard. 

Meanwhile, the tradition of movie-night at The Dreamland slipped away from the island.  To our summer visitors, it must have been inconceivable that an island with six boats a day couldn’t support “Weekend at Bernie’s” and “American Pie 3.”

Off-island, movies have become the sole central touchstone to modern popular culture.  Regrettably, pleasure reading has become the province of airline travelers, beach-sitters, and cultural backwoodsmen who know their way through the forest, even if they lead few others.  Television has splintered like a mirror dropped from maintop.  Everyone gets their own shard and, if they are lucky, their own three months in “The Real World” or a feature on the Food Channel.  The internet has driven the adults into the basement and lit our faces in YouTube’s quaint blue glow, while our sons play MarioCart against a Belgian in the living room and our daughter is texting her friends back in Connecticut.  We have made technological feedbags to strap across our faces and present us our favorite oats, over and over and over again. 

Movie theaters are one of the few places where strangers can sit together and enjoy the same experience.  We sit as a controlled mob; our laughter leads others to laugh, our sobs feed others to sob.  In the best of films and cinemas, we leave amused and connected.  We have something to talk about on the ride home, jokes to share at the lunch counter, and something to write about on our blogs.   

Movie theaters may be the most democratic thing we have left in our society.  Professional baseball stadiums have steadily moved the middle-class fans away from home plate until the reach the bleachers, and then, back to their houses.  American movie theaters have not found a way to charge for a season ticket or a seat license, nor have they brought the balconies and the club seating into the room.  We buy our ticket, we sit down, and we hoot and holler as much as the millionaire to the left and the pauper to the right.  Without the Dreamland, the island lost that common experience. 

Now, my first memory of the Dreamland was watching it close in October.  In my first year on island, the movie theater opened for the weekends throughout the fall until it the weather drew too cold and the patrons too few.  When I went downtown and saw the darkened doors, I knew it was going to be a long winter.  After I made through that first season, I knew summer was close when they opened up for weekends in the spring. 

When the “good” movies came, the line started an hour ahead of time and stretched down to Easy Street before it doubled back on itself.  The longest waits I have had on island came standing there, book in hand, waiting for Charlie, Alexis, and the latest digital wonder from Hollywood.  Once inside, a similar line would wind down from the snack bar to the screen.  In my second year on-island, I learned the secret handshake of doormen everywhere.  At the front door of the Muse, I shook hands warmly with my brethren from the Dreamland.  At the theater, they shook hands with me. 

The Dreamland had, of course, not kept its technology ahead of the pictures it played.  George Lucas’ THX soundtracks ran through the same speakers that played “Gone with the Wind” and “The Poseidon Adventure.”  Annoying kids in the front row could stand and cast their shadows as minor actors in the film.  In the worst of situations, the film would be interrupted by a flash of orange and the house lights would come up for ten minutes or more. 

But we were all there.  My students, my friends, my enemies, and my bartenders sat in the favorite seats along with the rest of us while the sounds and lights washed over.  Afterwards, we had something to talk about over beer besides politics, the weather, and the Red Sox. 

Fortunately, the years of slumping and sagging before the elements have come to an end.  The philanthropists have flown in, opened their wallets, and developed real plans for bringing the Dreamland to the new century.  The new plans involve movies, perhaps an art space and a conference center. 

So much of our island’s prosperity, and survival, depends on being a Dreamland.  For over a century, philanthropists have looked at Nantucket as a place apart.  Out here, change can happen in a way that preserves what we value.  The scale is smaller here, as is the community, and the thanks are larger.   The paintings they buy hang in our museum, the open space hosts our hiking paths, and the buildings they preserve will show our movies.  In another world, we all make enough money to do this for ourselves.  But we don’t live in that world.

Sometime in the near future, the Dreamland will re-open, not as the Easy Street Yacht Club and Residential Club, but as a movie theater we all of us can sit cheek by jowl, eat Raisinets and laugh. I will happily wait in line for that.

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