The concession stand at Cinemagic movie theater in Westbrook seen through the window in August. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

RIP, Cinemagic. You were big, loud, pretty clean, and utterly necessary. The announcement last week that all of the New Hampshire-based theater chain’s locations (including those in Westbrook, Saco and South Portland) would be extending their pandemic-related temporary shutdown into forever was understandable, surely. But it also hit me surprisingly hard. 

I have no special connection to Cinemagic’s nondescript locations themselves. Seeing a movie there was always like settling into a well-maintained rental car — the little touches are appreciated, but I’m really here to get where I have to go. And, as everyone who reads this column knows, I’m more a fan of the kind of local, single-screen, barely-scraping-by art cinema, where seeing a movie is part and parcel of the experience of simply being there. And, sure, that means your rental doesn’t have bluetooth or GPS or satellite radio, but you emerge from your ride feeling uniquely refreshed in a way that mere, mundane corporate efficiency can’t rival. 

Still, any time a movie theater closes is like a little funeral bell for a community. Something essential has died, and its loss is likely to be felt a lot more profoundly as the years creep on. The pandemic is the real reason why this seemingly sound vehicle for moviegoing abruptly cut out on Mainers last week — this pernicious (and still deeply dangerous) disease is racking up business casualties commensurate with its horrifying human toll. And I admit to not helping the issue, putting out a long explanation in this very column for why going to a packed movie theater during an unprecedentedly contagious outbreak would be deeply irresponsible for everyone involved. (I stand by that – with vaccines curbing this thing at last, don’t be the dope who starts celebrating before he gets to the finish line. That never ends well.)

But movie theaters are especially vulnerable already. Movie studios have embraced even shorter windows between actually going through the trouble of releasing a film to theaters and slinging it to V.O.D., eroding attendance in a way that previous threats like TV and cable could have only dreamed. A movie theater’s margins are ridiculously thin, with an ever-shrinking fraction of ticket sales going toward keeping the lights on, and the rest going back to the studios. (That, I have always told myself, is why there’s no guilt in splurging for the concessions.) Any rise in costs to run a theater is maddeningly hard to offset. A year where people are (rightly) afraid to set foot in a theater is once-in-a-lifetime catastrophic. 

There are ways we can help, of course, many of them born from theaters’ desperate need to generate revenue. Any indie theater worth its popcorn salt has learned how to offer first-run features through an online “virtual video store,” with part of your rental tiding the theater over until the world gets its act together again. (Watch movies this way through Maine-based venues like The Apohadion Theater, PMA Films, Railroad Square Cinema, Frontier, The Strand and others.) There are always gift certificates, because hope is a thing. But what’s most vital to the survival of moviegoing as a part of our lives is a recognition of its unique value. 

A story. I grew up – a long time ago in a suburb sort-of far away – in Saugus, Massachusetts, in a time when movie chains would routinely open and operate smaller theaters. Maybe one screen, or, in the case of the Saugus Cinema 1 & 2, two. It was a hike on foot, being located across Route 1 in the shopping center, but we could manage if we made a day of it. And we did, friends all pooling cash to seek out anything – whatever was playing on those two screens with those perpetually sticky floors and crackly sound system. And, without cable (never mind nonexistent streaming), we were not just grateful, but thrilled at the prospect of simply being there. I remember seeing something in 1981 called “Earthbound,” a risibly cheap “adventure film” about a crashed alien family in Utah, starring Burl Ives and an unfortunate chimp that’d been dyed green, since it was a space monkey. 

I didn’t complain. Or, rather, our persistent, piping complaints as we walked home in the summertime afternoon (or, if we were lucky, in the back of a parent’s car) partook of the same excitement we’d felt when watching the dumb thing. Going to the movies was, and is, an event. A destination. An experience. “We went to the movies!” was pretty much the most enviable answer you could have when someone asked how your day went, and if the Saugus Cinema 1 & 2 had hosted a really great movie, we chattered like excited monkeys, for days. (Something, readers will note, I still do.) We saw “Airplane!” pretty much every day of its weeks-long run at the Saugus Cinema in the summer of 1980 and to hear this gaggle of boys stumbling home wheezing with laughter and over-repeated movie quotes, you’d have thought we’d just had the greatest experience of our lives. And we had. 

Now, Cinemagic’s streamlined, cruise ship-like multiplexes were, as noted, cleaner, more efficiently run and decidedly less sticky. And, sure, nostalgia colors everything a flickering, movie-screen hue. But we have lost something here. There’s a reason why one of the most profoundly affecting American movies is “The Last Picture Show,” where the death of the local theater sounds the end of innocence and childhood. And, hey, here’s to improbable dreams of some artsy, well-heeled type swooping in and turning the Clark’s Pond Cinemagic into his/her vanity project, showing nothing but indies, art films, oldies, cult movies and foreign films, instead of it being torn down or repurposed into retail space. I’m old now, but, it seems, a lifetime of going to the movie theater has left me with an undying affection for fairy tales. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

The empty parking lot at Cinemagic movie theater in Westbrook in August. Photo by Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

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