The Varsity Theater closed its doors last week after 80 years of business in downtown Chapel Hill. A few thoughts . . .
Old theaters charged little for admission and hoped that customers would buy some Milk Duds and a large popcorn after finding parking in an undersized lot. They had thick, worn carpet, dusty curtains and squeaky seats. Arcades and trailer posters new and old enlivened the inside walls with oversized light bulbs. The bathrooms were short of supplies, but nobody complained. The guy behind the counter inevitably visited with a friend while serving the patrons.
Old theaters thrived on the business of telling stories, and business was generally good. They did not record history like a good book but instead let it pass through its doors unbothered. We sensed the past when we walked in but acknowledged that we could not actually know it. The same screen that showed "Gone with the Wind" and "Singing in the Rain" to our forebears showed "Milk" and "Slumdog Millionaire" to our friends last year. Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Hepburn, Gene Kelly, Bob Hope. Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Ann-Margret, Kevin Costner, Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks. Heath Ledger, Ann Hathaway, Michelle Williams, Will Smith. In childhood I frequented The Liberty Theater and wondered at the signed picture of Lucille Ball. I imagined Marlon Brando accepting bills under the window as I handed them over a half century later.
In earlier times movie goers were shorter. Our stature changed along with our culture. But we still piled into the rows and hugged our knees and felt that what we did for two hours inside these nearly spiritual structures was considered "American." We imagined our parents going on their first date as nervous as we were on ours.
"Thank you," she probably said as he fumbled with his wallet. They hesitated to choose seats just like us and rolled their raffle tickets to tiny cylinders in their hands until the lights dimmed and the show was on. Then he reached over to hold her hand, hoping to feel a squeeze back. Sound familiar?
No other building maintained its function like our old movie theater. Old university buildings served as residence, lecture and dining halls, administrative offices and libraries during their tenure. The theater was there for us to escape, and we did for nearly a century. We remember seeing that moderately funny film that our company thought was outrageous. We laughed with them and subconsciously knew them better than we did when we bought the tickets. We scorned cell phone rings. Our parents scorned rude conversation. We revered the films that left us sitting in silence while the credits rolled. But mostly we remember the people with whom we laughed, cried, cringed and jumped in the safe cover of darkness while our history poured out of a visual faucet before dedicated eyes.
We understand that all things change but wish that some things were insured against time. We watched Hector's, Schoolkids and the Rathskellar disappear. And yet all we can do is what that modest marquee seemed to suggest whenever I walked under it; remember the past and hope for the future.