Monday, February 22, 2010

An exception to every rule

Just as I rushed to explain having watched Paul Blart: Mall Cop in this post, I figured I ought to hurriedly explain why you're seeing Valentine's Day listed among my Most Recently Seen movies.

Simple: It was an out-of-town movie. And when the stars align for you to see a movie when you're out of town, the novelty is such that you hardly care what it is.

Especially if the setting is something as cute as the Ojai Playhouse in Ojai, California, about 30 miles from Santa Barbara and 80 miles from LA.

But the Ojai Playhouse isn't just cute. In fact, it's state-of-the-art, which is a true rarity among the breed of financial losers known as the single-screen movie theater. Because I bemoaned the apparent approaching extinction of these theaters in this post, I was glad indeed to find one that doesn't seem to be teetering on the verge.

Which means the owner is probably taking a bath on it. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

From the outside, it looked like it might indeed be one of those theaters -- dumpy, continuing to exist mostly because they haven't spent any money on upkeep since the 1970s. The movie titles (they had a couple features sharing one screen) were displayed in those letters you hang on the sign using one of those magnetized poles. Having stepped inside, I now recognize it as a retro touch, but at first it struck me as a sign of datedness.

I'm kind of surprised we even got to the point of stepping inside. We were only in Ojai in the first place as a quick, low-cost road trip for my wife's birthday, and I expected we'd spend more of our time exploring the small town's offerings than sitting in a movie theater. Then there was the little matter of the movie playing two hours after our arrival, at 1:30: Valentine's Day, the romantic comedy that had been ripped by critics from northern Maine to southern California. But she found there to be something potentially charming about the theater as well, and surprised me by saying she would be willing to venture a viewing of Valentine's Day. I didn't realize she'd be quite as eager as I was to let circumstances obliterate our standards.

Stepping inside, though, we discovered a theater lovingly kept up by its owner. The snack bar and ticket counter were quaintly gathered into one shared area, raised about a foot above the rest of the lobby. The snack offerings were written out tastefully on a chalk board, with different colors of chalk, and a professional level of chalk calligraphy. The lobby had nice new burgundy carpeting, and posters of several movies coming soon to the theater, in shiny new frames.

The man from whom we bought our tickets was almost certainly the aforementioned owner. He was a smiley man with black hair in his late 40s-early 50s, and he had the math skills of a person who certainly didn't have to sweat every penny. When my wife handed him a twenty for two $8 matinee tickets, he handed her back three fives and two ones. Now, we are trying to save money, but she was too honest to let him charge us $1.50 per ticket. When she told him he'd undercharged us, he took back one of the fives. Which still meant we were getting two tickets for the price of one. We didn't feel the need to correct his math a second time.

The theater was simply stunning. The seats were new and comfortable, leading to the conclusion that the theater had been gutted and refurbished sometime within the last three years, maybe even more recently than that. Along the walls were giant, stately black and white portraits of movie stars -- a young Robert Redford, a young Jane Fonda, a young Omar Sharif. It was all extremely elegant and tasteful.

I needed to relieve myself, and the next surprise was the restrooms. I can't vouch for the little girls' room, but the little boys' was astonishing -- marble counters, black and white tile, fancy soap, immaculately clean. The only -- and I mean only -- reason I was glad that Valentine's Day was just over two hours long was that it allowed me to visit the bathroom again afterward.

On my way back into the theater, I saw a framed, oversized screening schedule for the Ojai Film Society, complete with a picture and a blurb about each film. All very nicely done. And good taste, too. It appears that every week this theater gets a new, acclaimed independent feature, which has a single Sunday afternoon screening in addition to the feature that plays regularly. The Maid was the current selection. They may be a couple months old -- films like Broken Embraces and A Single Man were on there -- but if you're a local in this small artsy community, you'll probably tolerate that wait, perhaps not even notice it. My wife told me she'd seen an ad up for the film society while I was in the bathroom. For a yearly investment of $125, you got to see 36 films. That's right, (basically) first-run features in a beautiful theater for an average of $3.47 per movie, all year long.

And what price did we have to pay for all this opulence, and getting to see a newly released movie for only $4 apiece? We had to pretend we liked it. Upon exiting the theater -- with bleary expressions on our faces, caused by 123 minutes of keeping track of 45 different characters we didn't care about -- we found the man in the exact same place, behind the ticket counter/snack bar.

"So, did you have a good time?" he asked, huge smile still on his face. Not did we like the movie -- but did we have a good time.

"Yeah, thanks," I said. And then, more honestly: "Beautiful theater!"

Would that every small theater could be owned by rich people with poor math skills.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

sounds like a magical place. i have to go there some day.