We were towing the Airstream on Rt 101 through Coos Bay OR, when the we spotted something we don’t see much anymore: a downtown single-screen movie theater.
I love those old theaters. They remind me of days past when as a poor student I would go see a cheap matinee for a dollar or two on a hot afternoon, and sit in the coolness of a vast (mostly empty) theater on a worn velvet seat, and marvel at the elaborate Art Deco decorations surrounding me.
I especially like the balconies for what they symbolize. To me they speak of a different age, when one title playing at the theater was all we needed to have an excuse to go out for the evening. We could have little care for what was playing—it would still beat whatever was on TV that night. These days most old movie theaters with balconies have been converted into second-story mini-theaters, if they still exist at all. The bulk of them are gone forever, victims of the suburban multiplex cinema.
In Coos Bay we spotted the Egyptian Theater, and even though it was daytime as we drove by, it was the tall neon sign that caught my attention first. Fantastic design and theme, the type you rarely see these days in a world of corporately-divined “theme” restaurants and entertainment. I’m a fan of old neon too, so an elaborate sign like this one always draws me in.
Amazingly, the Egyptian is still operating and nearly intact inside, with even the balcony lately released from mini-theater bondage. The theater was only showing movies on weekends, so we were lucky to find that on the day we arrived a 7:00 pm showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was scheduled. We had to go back and see it.
Emma, being 16, had not seen nor heard of Psycho, and Eleanor and I hadn’t seen it in many years. I couldn’t imagine a better way to have the experience of seeing this classic 1960 movie than in the type of theater it was originally shown.
So we dropped the Airstream at Bullards Beach State Park (20 minutes south), then turned around to walk the historic lower harbor of Coos Bay and then into the Egyptian. I was immediately a fan. How can you not be, when there’s interior decor like King Tut flanking the stairs to the balcony?
Inside it was everything I had hoped for: stained glass “EXIT” signs, dim and dramatic interior, all sorts of structurally unnecessary but fantastically moody interior design elements and even a “mighty” Wurlitzer Orchestra Theater Organ hidden behind a grand facade high above … but sadly, very few people.
In one sense I like having the place empty and serene, with just a dozen or so avid vintage-movie lovers enjoying glorious black-and-white on the big screen. Emma was certainly entranced. Watching the drama of Psycho unfold slowly, and Anthony Perkins’ wonderfully understated portrayal of Norman Bates in a real theater is much more immersive an experience than on your home TV, no matter how big your screen is.
But I was sorry to see how few other people were there with us. I worry about the few old-time theaters like the Egyptian that still survive. The Egyptian is a remarkable example of the Egyptian style of theater that was popularized back in the 1920s, and lives now by the grace of donors and members of the Egyptian Theater Preservation Association. This place is a treasure—a museum of movie history, in a way—that you can still use the way it was nearly a hundred years ago.
In case you are worried about Emma, she had a great time. The slow burn of Psycho (which I regard as near the peak of Hitchcock’s art) grabbed her like no YouTube video or manga comic ever could; a good broadening experience for a young writer/artist. Popcorn, a classic b/w movie, a great theater, and nice people. It was a night to remember. I hope someday we can go back.