First Times: Movie Theaters!

Do you remember your first theater-going experience? What mattered most to you? The film? The experience? All of it? Whether your parents took you or you went with a friend, those first trips to the big screen hold a special place in your memory. Below, we reflect on our first times and why they were special.

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Big (1988)

Four out of 5 Zoltar fortune tellers retroactively predict: the first film I saw in the theater (as recollections and postdictions go) was the Tom Hanks box-office smash, Big. In this classic age-changing comedy, Tom Hanks animatedly plays a 13-year-old forced into “thirty and flirty and thriving.” I was 8 years old, and I clearly remember seeing this flick with my childhood best friend. We travelled to the theater in the back of her mom’s spacious imagination station wagon. I fondly recall lots of dramatic performances taking place in the back of that vehicle. I’d venture to say the second-best seats in the house were in sight range of the rear view mirror, where reflections of us rapt in heroic pretend and episodes of espionage could be witnessed.

Big became another tenant passing through the ever spinning, revolving door of my creativity. My thoughts were encouraged by the prospect of a wish coming true overnight through a straightforward suggestion to an arcade machine. And I began to craft the floor plan for my adult flat complete with double-decker bus bunk beds, every Odyssey game in existence that would work with my console, my own custom KITT with race track, and loft slides. Also, helloooo, I would have all of the soda, pizza, ice cream, and cake!

Of course, my experience wasn’t all “Woo-hoo—toys and wishes!” I also remember going numb-dull in my cranium during the romantic scenes. Anytime romance began to rear its silly, kissy face, we would shift in our seats and swing our hats about in front of the movie screen. Apparently, I was so distracted and indifferent during the breast fondling scene between Tom Hanks and Elizabeth Perkins that my mind merged the actual film scene with a spoof version I later observed in an issue of Mad magazine. In the Mad adaptation, Biggie, Hanks’ character uses a baseball glove to clumsily clutch Perkins’ chest. Even now when I watch this film I expect to see Tom Hanks cupping her bosom with a mitt as though he is warming to pitch the winning strike, and every time I am severely disappointed when I see only Hanks’ hand. (If anyone owns or has access to Mad #284 (January 1989), I would appreciate a verification of this comic strip version of Big aka Biggie.)

As a child reluctantly drafted into early adulthood, I cherish memories like this one—where my biggest accomplishments were goofing off and dreaming with a friend as we allowed our minds to dance alongside the larger than life images projected on the screen. Big allowed me to be what I was supposed to be at the time, a kid.

The War (1994)

My first real theatrical experience didn’t happen until I was in high school. Before that I had, as a child, been to several drive-ins and to one rinky dink theater I really wouldn’t even count. The year was 1994, and the film was The War. It starred Kevin Costner as a Vietnam vet and Elijah Wood as his son, and how both deal with life after The War. I went with a friend from school which made the experience better. I didn’t get too much out of the film, but she seemed to be pretty into it. During one sad scene she cried, and I couldn’t help but laugh at her. Not in a mean way, but I’d never seen her cry so it was funny to me that she got sad over a movie. As it turned out, I’m glad I laughed at her because it lightened the mood and she wasn’t so sad anymore. That’s one of the fun things about movies: how they affect your emotions. This movie, for instance, made my friend cry and made me laugh. It also left me with a happy memory of two friends watching a movie in a theater on a fall day twenty years ago.

The Land Before Time (1988)

I am terrible with memories. Just awful. So when I tell you that my first recollection of seeing a movie in a movie theater is The Land Before Time, take it with enough salt to fill the Great Valley. But that is the first movie that comes to mind, and it does smack of accuracy. Here are some facts that I do know: The movie came out in November 1988, so I would have been six-going-on-seven at the time. Perfect age to go to the theater for the first time. I know that when I was a little kid dinosaurs weren’t dinosaurs, they were DINOSAURS. And I know that I had a terrific mom who definitely would have taken me to see a movie about DINOSAURS. I also know that I saw the movie several times on VHS rental. And while it’s possible that I did this without seeing it in the theater, and perhaps all of those viewings have tricked my poor memory into believing something untrue, it’s slightly more possible — and more fun — that I only did this after seeing it in the theater first and losing my tiny mind over the DINOSAURS.

My wife hates it when I bring up this movie. Maybe it’s different for boys and girls, or maybe I was a little older when I first saw it, but I don’t remember it as the heartbreaking emotional beatdown that she does. Then again, even Roger Ebert took some umbrage with it: “I guess I sort of liked the film, although I wonder why it couldn’t have spent more time on natural history and the sense of discovery, and less time on tragedy.”

I mostly only remember the wonder and the adventure on the big screen. I remember seeing DINOSAURS, animated, amazing DINOSAURS. I remember laughing wildly at Ducky’s antics (“yep yep yep!”); giggling knowingly at Petrie’s fearful clumsiness; being inspired by Littlefoot’s dogged determinedness. I remember wanting to watch it again immediately. I remember being happy. I don’t remember if I was thankful for my mom taking me to see it; but I sure am now.

A weird convergence of three movies from the late 80s and early 90s

In between Bluefield, WV, and Princeton, WV, there once lived a tiny 99-cent theater called Blueprince, and that is where I saw all of my first movies. Three movies run together in my mind as my earliest theater-going experiences: Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988); Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991); An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991). Chronologically, I must have watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit? first, but I was only three in 1988. I know Blueprince often got movies after they had left more mainstream theaters so I have to assume I saw it later than 1988. Regardless, I can only remember Roger screaming “My biscuits are burning!” (OH WAIT, I LOOKED IT UP AND IT WAS YOSEMITE SAM.) I can only remember being really scared of Death in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures. And I can only remember how cute I found Fievel, and how that briefly made me think a mouse would be a fun pet to have.

Honestly, the movies were inconsequential. The experience is what mattered to me. Blueprince was tiny and dingy, but it was the only thing we could afford. I’m sure even then my mom had to scrape to get herself and three kids in. We often went with our cousins, and these movie outings were quite the events. Six kids, two moms, and an almost hour-long drive to even get there. My mom and my cousins’ mom would schedule the trips for the days McDonald’s sold their hamburgers really cheap. They would sneak them into the theater in their purses, and once the lights went down, the burgers were handed down the line. “Be quiet with the wrappers, and pass them back to us when you are done!” My mom and I still laugh about that to this day.

We were poor, and we lived so far out in the country that these movie days remain such a big deal in my memory. I can’t imagine the planning and saving it took on our parents’ behalf, but the couple of hours watching those huge movies with each other were simply priceless. I remember laughing a lot and feeling like it was such an adventure each time. Sometimes I find myself now splurging on a trip to the movies. It’s so easy to spend close to $50 just on tickets and concessions for just two people. The video quality is better. The seats are bigger and sometimes leather. They rock or recline. And yet none of that seems as luxurious or as exciting as those first few experiences in my childhood.