Another dark day downtown

I am never going to be able to do this ever again. That’s the thought that ran through my mind as I walked into the Park Plaza movie theatre for the last time the other night.

I am never going to be able to do this ever again. That’s the thought that ran through my mind as I walked into the Park Plaza movie theatre for the last time the other night. After more than 40 years showing movies downtown, the big-city mult-screen-multi-plex corporation came in and ate their young. Or their in this case, their old.

It was a sad night — if you happen to get sad about such things, which I do.

I remember the Purnell family well. They owned and operated my favourite theater of all time, The Paramount. A grand place with a huge balcony and four-pound horseshoe suckers that I have mentioned fondly ad nauseam in this column before. I still have a fading old front page of the Red Deer Advocate with a picture of myself and my better-half before we were married, the two of us in a long line up along Ross Street waiting to get into the Paramount to see a new film called Star Wars.

But as always happens with a really good thing, it ended. The wonderful old Paramount was torn down. It was replaced by a remand centre. How fitting.

And that’s not all. The Purnells also owned the 40th Avenue Drive In Theatre. It was torn down and replaced by a church. How appropriate.

Red Deer’s own theatre moguls also had the 2-11 Drive In on the north end of town. And yes, it was bulldozed too. A vacant field remains there, like a graveyard — which is maybe the most fitting of all when a movie theatre dies.

The Purnells built the Park Plaza in 1968, and — get this — it only had one auditorium. What a concept. At least we didn’t have to agonize over what movie to see at the Park in those days.

Five years later the building was renovated and in an ironic foreshadowing of the propagation of the plexes, the one big screen multiplied into seven smaller screens, which meant that you could go to seven times more movies there. Which I promptly did.

The Park Plaza. I used to go here a lot with my friends, countless hours spent safely in a dark room when we could have been out getting into all kinds of trouble. Way back, I went to this place with new dates, shy and uncomfortable, nervous and laughing, our elbows flirting and fighting for the armrest.

And I came here in the tough times. Long before I’d met my future BH and took her to Star Wars, a different girlfriend broke up with me and it was the first time I remember going to a show by myself. She had broken up with me on the phone, no less, and I was so crushed, in the way only a guy crushed by a Dear John phone call can be, that I did the only thing I could think of that would help me escape. I jumped off the 49th Avenue bridge. Just kidding (haha) — of course I went to a movie. I remember exactly what seat I sat in at the Park Plaza, I remember what the popcorn tasted like (it tasted like a broken heart), and I remember the movie was called Deathtrap — painful symbolism that was not lost on me at the time. But somehow the Park Plaza made me feel a bit better.

And much later, it was one of the places where my wife and I took our rotten kids to some of their first movies, when my little daughter would sit on my knee for the entire movie because she was always a bit scared even though it was Aladdin or Honey I Shrunk the Kids. Which, let’s face it, was pretty scary if you were, like, four years old.

And many years after that, I had the rare, magical experience of screening a couple of my own short films at the Park Plaza. Sitting at the back of the theatre, trying not to faint, nervously clutching my requisite bag of popcorn.

And then the other day the paper said it was the last night for the theatre. That the multi-national non-local corporate owners of the Huge-plex half way to Innisfail (who had also owned the Park Plaza since 2006) had decided Red Deer didn’t need a first run theatre downtown.

So on the spur of the moment I went. I sat in a broken chair, stared at the scratched movie screen, strained to hear a garbled soundtrack and tried to concentrate on the movie instead of thinking all those hundreds, no thousands of hours in this building, and how much I would miss it.

At the end of the movie, in that neglected, ragged, sad and empty lobby I watched a young usher rolling up a poster for a souvenir. And I thought: I’m too old for souvenirs. He should have the souvenirs — I have the decades of memories.

And I wished the Purnells could come downtown again and build another movie theatre the way they are supposed to be built and run it like it is supposed to be run.

As I drove away, I could see that the kid was locking the door for the last time, and above him that big marquee didn’t have all the movies listed on it anymore, it had only one word. Six plastic letters. CLOSED.

And then it flickered and went completely dark.

Harley Hay is a local filmmaker and freelance writer. His column appears on Saturdays.