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Front Page - Friday, December 29, 2017

River City Roundabout: New world unfolds with each new movie

David Laprad, with popcorn in hand, prepares for his latest trip to a galaxy far, far away. - Photograph by Dawn Laprad

It’s May 25, 1977, and my life has just changed. As I step out of a theater in Toledo, Ohio after seeing “Star Wars” and unchain my bike from the rack near the ticket window, I realize I’ve fallen in love.

It feels like the moment several years earlier when I realized girls were pretty. My mind has been opened to a wonderful new experience: the movies.

I’d been to the cinema before. My parents took me to see “Bambi,” “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” and “A Christmas Carol,” among others. Prior to the latter film, my mom covered my eyes as the trailer for “The Exorcist” played. Later, I screamed as Ebenezer Scrooge fell into the pit of hell and saw Death’s skeletal face leering back at him.

While I liked movies, I didn’t connect with them in a big way until I saw “Star Wars.” My spirit was elevated and my mind blown, and as I pedaled home, my bike was Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing, every car was an enemy Tie Fighter and every side road was the Death Star’s trench.

In time, movies became my place of comfort in the world. The peace some people feel when cooking, reading a good book or fishing would settle over me as I sank into a film. From seeing George Lucas’ space opera over a dozen times to buying my first ticket to an “R” rated movie (it was “Porky’s,” and don’t judge me), many warm memories from my youth and early adulthood are about film. Among my favorites are:

-- My best friend and I grinning at each other during the climax of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” when the mothership appeared.

-- My dad chuckling under his breath when Dabney Coleman spilled his pencils in “Nine to Five” so he could peek down Dolly Parton’s shirt.

-- Spilling a large popcorn as the boulder rolled toward Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

-- Seeing “Blade Runner” for the first time and realizing movies – even ones with Replicants and flying cars – could be about more than action and adventure.

-- Standing in line for nine hours to purchase “Return of the Jedi” tickets.

I also grew to love going to the movies. Walking into a theater, smelling buttery popcorn and then settling into a seat, snacks and soda in hand, isn’t just part of the routine, it’s part of the fun. Forty years and countless movies later, I still get excited when the lights dim. Maybe going to the movies is your thing, too, and you know what I mean.

As a creature of habit, I typically go to the same theater when seeing a film. For several years, The Rave, which is now the AMC 18, has been my go-to movie house, primarily because I like the stadium seating and the IMAX auditorium.

Things about the theater began to bug me, though. I lost track of how many times I had to hop up as a movie started to tell someone to turn off the lights, turn on the sound, open the curtains all the way, focus the image and – true story – play the right movie.

But I returned time and again out of habit. I knew the Regal had gutted its discount movie house near Hamilton Place Mall and opened a theater with premium amenities, but I was stuck in my ways.

Then my sister and I went to an AMC luxury theater in Aurora, Colorado (the AMC Arapahoe Crossing 16) during a recent visit to see our dad, who had just turned 80 and denies chuckling at Parton’s breasts.

I felt like a kid walking into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. There was real food, unique candies and other snacks, more drink options than some restaurants have and spacious electric recliners. As I settled into my seat to watch “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” I could stretch all four limbs and not touch another human being.

It was “Star Wars” all over again. I left the theater thrilled and promised myself to break out of my routine and see a movie at the Regal Hamilton Place 8 after I returned home.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” seemed like the perfect opportunity to do just that. I’d been waiting for the movie with the impatience of a child anticipating Christmas, and I thought pairing it with the Regal’s upgrades was too good to let pass.

Walking into the Regal for the first time can be a head trip when you’re accustomed to the standard multiplex, most of which contain a lobby, a concessions counter and a few arcade machines.

The first thing I noticed was the bar to the right, which looks like a small version of what you’d find in a restaurant. There are chairs for bellying up, taps for drawing beer, a fully stocked wine humidor and several shelves of liquor, all set against a colorful backsplash.

You can even take your drink to the theater with you, unless it’s a bottled beverage, allowing you to sip a rum and Coke while watching Gary Oldman rule the screen as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” Given how much Churchill drank, I think he’d approve.

I was expecting an approximation of a bar, but having the real thing in the lobby sets an elegant tone for the Regal. However, I do wonder if drinking a beer there might be awkward. Maybe placing the bar in its own space would allow patrons to feel more comfortable.

I decided to play dumb as I approached the ticket counter. “Is that a bar?” I asked the girl on the other side, who rolled her eyes a little and then smiled and said yes.

After telling the young lady which showing I wanted to see, a seating chart appeared on a small monitor facing me. The girl could tell I was confused, so she explained the layout of the screen and told me to choose a chair. She rolled her eyes again when I instinctively tapped “D15” and told me the screen isn’t touch sensitive. I am sensitive, so I felt better when she said a lot of people make the same mistake.

After purchasing my ticket and walking five feet to the person who would tear it in half (is there a more pointless cog in the wheel of the movie going process?), I noticed something interesting on the employee’s nametag. After her name was the title of one of Sandra Bullock’s early hits: “Miss Congeniality.”

I asked her why it was there – and she said “Miss Congeniality” is her favorite movie. The Regal instantly became a little cooler. Listing your favorite movie on your nametag is a nice touch that made me feel engaged on a deeper level.

I didn’t ask her why “Miss Congeniality” is her favorite movie because, well, it’s “Miss Congeniality.” (I know I’m a snob, but don’t judge me.)

Once inside the lobby, it was time to acquire some in-house cuisine. If you’re locked into the popcorn and soda routine, choosing something from the expanded menu can be overwhelming.

Starters include mozzarella sticks, fiesta poppers and fried green beans – to name a few. From there, you can order a chicken bacon ranch salad, a double cheese pizza, Sriracha steak tacos, a Black Angus bacon cheeseburger and more. It’s not your typical theater fare. If you want a hotdog on a stale bun, I’m sure they’d accommodate you, but why would you?

It took a few minutes but I eventually settled on the chicken bacon club because, well, bacon, and I like chicken strips. I dallied with the idea of ordering a slice of cheesecake until I pictured myself lounging in a recliner, watching a movie and packing away the calories. Some things should be done only in the privacy of home.

Even more amusing was the cost of my food versus my drink. My sandwich and waffle fries came in at a mere 10.99, which is close to what one would pay at a restaurant. The price tag on my small soda, however, was $5.49.

Clearly, Regal Entertainment Group has put some thought into its concessions pricing. Movie theater patrons are accustomed to paying through the nose for drinks and popcorn, which have an 85 percent profit margin, but might wince at shelling out big bucks for a sandwich.

During the transaction, I looked at the nametag of the young man behind the counter. It said,

“Watchmen.” When I asked him why that was his favorite movie, he said he’d grown up with the comics and his favorite band plays a song during the end credits.

“Nice,” I said. “If I worked here, ‘The Hustler’ would be on my nametag.” His clueless expression said it all: “You are old and I have never heard of that movie.” The Regal instantly became a little less cool. (But not by much.)

After I’d placed my order, the young man directed me to the left end of the bar, where hot food is delivered. He also told me my wait would be about 20 minutes. I’d arrived early, so that was fine, but it could be an issue for people who pre-purchase tickets, show up a few minutes before show time and then order off the gourmet menu.

My meal actually emerged from the kitchen (yes – kitchen!) about ten minutes later, boxed up and ready to carry to the theater. I’ll admit my expectations were low – I was expecting puny chicken strips on a tiny bun – so I was pleasantly surprised when I picked up the box and it had some weight.

Finding your seat at the Regal is a breeze. There are large letters on the wall at the ends of each row and easy-to-read numbers on the armrests. There’s also plenty of walking room between rows, so no one has to scrunch their legs as you’re walking by.

Getting comfortable is easy, too. As I pressed the button on the right armrest, which first tilted my chair back and then lifted the leg rest, I entered a new realm of movie Nirvana. The only danger: becoming so comfortable, you doze off.

Once settled in, I opened the box containing my sandwich. My eyes widened. Instead of gazing at paltry fast food fare, I was looking at a thick bun stacked with meaty chicken strips, cheddar cheese and freshly cooked slices of bacon. It took a bit of work to bite into it, but when I did, I was rewarded with the satisfying crunch of fresh lettuce and crisp chicken.

While the strips weren’t as good as one can get in a quality sit-down restaurant, they were tasty enough and there were plenty of them. By the time I was done with my meal, I was full!

So far, so good, but part of me was still tense, even as I sank into my chair. Would the movie play without a hitch? Or would I have to raise my recliner and stomp to the lobby to report an issue?

Despite my apprehension, I felt the familiar thrill of anticipation as the lights dimmed and an ad began to play. (As a side note, I made my peace with theaters playing ads years ago. Profit margins in the film exhibition business are slim and they help to keep theaters in business.)

Then, to my relief, I watched the curtains open just enough to match the film’s aspect ratio as the familiar phrase, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” appeared on the screen.

From there, I was transported back to my teenage days, when I discovered a passion that would remain within me throughout the various chapters of my life.

My only quibble about the Regal would be the lack of stadium seating. The AMC Arapahoe Crossing 16 is tiered, creating the perfect line of site from even a reclined position to the screen. But I was still able to comfortably see the movie, which is why this a quibble and not a complaint.

In the end, I enjoyed watching a movie at a theater that, like Christmas dinner at my house, comes with all the trimmings. While the AMC 18 will still get the nod for certain films so I can watch them in IMAX, I’ve added Regal to my short list of go-to venues.

Whether you go to the movies all the time or are an occasional patron of the cinema, you owe it to yourself to try the Regal. The extras will turn your time there into something a little more special.