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I Want My Pre-Pandemic Moviegoing Ritual Back

It's an irreplaceable ritual, just like a Thanksgiving meal, a religious ceremony, or a date with the one you love.  

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Couple watching a movie in the movie theater
Chris O'Riley (Getty Images)
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When I was 11, my parents, brother, and I rounded off Thanksgiving dinner by heading to the Orpheum movie theater in downtown Minneapolis to see The Sound of Music, where a reverent audience shared the communal experience of being transported to 1930s Austria.  

Together, our hearts sang and danced across alpine fields, and we hated the Nazis. The aroma of fresh popcorn and the chewy goodness of Milk Duds eaten in the dark — on top of turkey and pumpkin pie — imprinted themselves on my memory even more indelibly than had the religious ritual of my first communion wafer.  

That tradition had been hard to understand and, frankly, seemed arbitrary and odd. But theater food made sense. It was a central part of the experience. And it was delicious.  

For the next several years, our family returned to the Orpheum every Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. The heavy purple velvet drapes continued to rise for a packed house, and we continued to pack popcorn and candy — Dots or Junior Mints sometimes replaced Milk Duds — into already-full stomachs. Fiddler on the Roof, Hello, Dolly!, Dr. Zhivago, My Fair Lady, Oliver, Goodbye, Mr. Chips — the major motion pictures of that era became the anchor points of my holiday seasons. 

Meanwhile, smaller neighborhood theaters offered artistic films, like Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and multiplexes arrived, expanding my viewing options. As a child, I had been addicted to books; they immersed me in lives and places beyond anything I knew. Now, my fascination for the new and different had been transferred to the screen, where in a few hours, for a few dollars, I could travel and become someone else more fully than my reading imagination had ever been able to conjure.  

At 16, a hopeless film fanatic, I was hired for the concession counter at the new shopping-mall theater near my house. But life gradually drew me away from movies. After a few months, I left the theater for a better-paying library job (ironically going back to books). Then I grew up, got busy with building an adult life and a career, no longer had time for self-indulgence, and suppressed most of my cinephile yearnings.  

I still managed to sneak back to the dark and the popcorn occasionally, but always as a guilty pleasure that my schedule and responsibilities wouldn’t allow often.  

Finally, though, when I was in my late 30s and I met my current husband, I knew he was the one who would help me return to my former self. The first thing we found in common was our love of movies. As a teen, he had worked at his small-town theater, and he had never stopped following the motion-picture industry. His film knowledge was vast.  

Before we were married, we had already established an unbroken Saturday ritual of early-afternoon movie dates, with popcorn for lunch (no butter — why mess with perfection?). 

We rarely missed a Saturday date throughout the decades that followed. Even when we traveled, we found a movie theater (or the bliss of a film festival) wherever we were, and we’ve watched screens in darkened auditoriums from Australia to London. The popcorn quality varies outside the US — it’s often more soggy than toothsome — but we always give it a go. 

When my husband retired, we added Sunday lunch-date movies to the routine. After I left employment and started an online business, we realized our lives were growing short while my self-employment work days had just become extremely long, and we expanded to theater lunch dates on Fridays. Three days a week, year after year, we traversed our metro area and became intimately acquainted with every theater chain and movie house within a 30-mile radius. 

And the theaters became well acquainted with us. We were on a first-name basis with all the regular employees; and like Starbucks baristas, they knew our concession order and started filling it when we walked in the front door: large plain popcorn, medium Coke with no ice, medium diet Coke with light ice. We brought our own reusable straws and a plastic bag for popcorn sharing. We always arrived early, for our choice of back-row seats (where we wouldn’t be disturbed by anyone kicking the backs of our chairs). 

Our dates had become ritual experiences, and we were movie-going pros.  

Then, as theaters across the city started closing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we abruptly lost the tradition that had come to mean so much to us as individuals and as a couple. No matter what else had happened in our marriage, from celebration to the mundane to tragedy, we had always handled it by sharing movie magic. When he broke his leg, he limped on crutches into a theater; I carried the popcorn and drinks. When my mother died, I quietly sobbed through a loud film; he handed me napkins to wipe my tears.  

Our grown children worried about us, knowing a huge hole had opened in the weekly fabric of our lives. They encouraged us to stream online, touted the latest offerings from Netflix, and were reassured by our reminders that we own hundreds of DVDs. 

So when theaters began announcing cautious reopening plans and dates, our kids—finally convinced we were adequately entertained and understandably concerned for our safety—urged us to continue watching films on our small home screen, accompanied by microwave popcorn. 

My husband and I have tried to explain to loved ones the difference between entertainment, escape, and experience. Watching a movie at home, by ourselves, in familiar surroundings and with all the distractions of life? If it’s good, we call it entertainment. When it’s especially good and the environment not overly intrusive, it provides escape.  

But sinking into the seat of a darkened auditorium in the company of fellow acolytes, honoring food customs and shut off from outside reality, completely immersed in a lived story? That’s experience. And irreplaceable ritual, just like a Thanksgiving meal, a religious ceremony, or a date with the one you love.  

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