Normal, Not Ordinary

This is a story I wrote for one of my classes this past semester.  Enjoy.

Living in the Midwest is very disheartening for a movie fanatic.  I have lived in a small town my entire life and have always had to drive nearly an hour just to go see a movie.  This was never a big deal because a night at the movies is an event to me.  I plan my entire weekend around what movie I am going to see and who I am going to be able to drag along with me.  As I have grown older, however, this has become more troublesome.

My interest in film has expanded as I have aged and matured.    I still enjoy the mainstream blockbusters as much as any casual moviegoer, but I have developed more of an interest in independent and classic cinema.  The problem here is that a lot of the independent films aren’t distributed to theaters in secondary markets, which is where I have been driving to see movies ever since I became legally able to do so.

These types of movies tend to open in only the largest cities, like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.  In recent years, it has become a fairly common occurrence for me to drive several hours to downtown Chicago for the opening weekend of a critically acclaimed Oscar contender.  You might think I have a bit of a problem but my level of anticipation for some movies rises to such a level that I simply can’t wait another couple of weeks to see if it expands out to my area, and heaven forbid wait several months to see it when it is released on DVD.

After all, movies are meant to be seen in a movie theater.  The smell of buttery popcorn, the high decibel surround sound and the buzz of an eager crowd are all essential parts of the experience.  So while a lot of my friends are illegally downloading poor quality bootleg copies to watch at home, I will continue driving to the nearest possible cinema and coughing up the $9.50 to enjoy movies to their fullest potential.

One of these movies I was just dying to see for quite a long time is the independent sci-fi film, Moon.  I had been looking forward to seeing it for several months before it came out, but upon its release, much to my dismay, it was playing nowhere near me.  Then, during a weekend visit with my girlfriend in Normal, Illinois, I discovered that there was a theater in her town that was screening it.

You can imagine my joy at this fact alone but that was just the beginning.  The movie was playing at a place called the Normal Theater, which I quickly realized was not your typical movie theater.

As we approached the theater that night, I noticed that a significant portion of the downtown area looked like the remains of Michael Bay movie.  Sidewalks were demolished, and temporary fencing and barricades were set up due to the construction of a new parking facility.  The Normal Theater was a diamond in the rough, with its bright red flashing marquee signaling a safe haven for anyone seeking quality entertainment.

The theater has been open for 72 years, and is still doing things the old fashion way.  It is like a lesson in how to age gracefully.  Nicole Kidman should take note.  The tickets are sold at a booth on the theater’s exterior, the seats are a classy purple velvet, and it still costs just a dollar for pop and popcorn that is sold at a concession stand inside the theater itself.  The green and red neon lighting creates a friendly atmosphere, almost encouraging the audience to socialize rather than sit quietly waiting for the show to start.

I’ve always said that going to the movies should be an experience, and this is unlike any experience I’ve ever had.  The Normal Theater proves that while today’s movie stars aren’t as charming as James Stewart or Cary Grant, that doesn’t mean our cinemas have to suffer the same fate.

The allure of the classic small-town cinema interested me so much that I decided to catch up with the theater’s manager, Dawn Riordan, to find out how the theater has managed to survive while so many others have fallen by the wayside.

The Normal Theater specializes in showing independent, foreign and classic films.  This is what initially drew me to the theater in the first place, and Riordan recognizes this as something that really distinguishes it from the rest of the theaters in the area.  “We just avoid showing the mainstream product – we’re not in competition with the area commercial multiplexes in terms of our programming.  We play the stuff they don’t play,” she explains.

There are enough theaters around playing the latest Twilight or Transformers film that it is nice to have some sort of alternative.  Fellow audience member and Illinois State University student Kaitlyn Cantwell agrees:  “I find the Normal Theater to be a more refined form of entertainment.  At the large movie theaters, it feels more like a circus than a form of art.  It gives me a glimpse of what a ‘night out’ was like for my parents.  My dad still tells me the story about the first time he saw The Sound of Music in theaters. He always claimed going to movies was magical back then. I never understood what he meant until I saw a movie at the Normal.”

The theater manages to keep ticket and concession prices low by booking the films themselves.  They also save money on advertising because the marquee is their best source of advertisement.  Great films promote themselves and are what initially pulls the audience in, but the theater offers so much more that keeps the audience coming back time after time.

As explained by Riordan:  “Another thing that keeps them coming back is the quality of our presentation – cartoons before classic films, a prize drawing before every show, a personal greeting speech, great film exhibition – sharp focus, great sound – it all points to a theater that cares about how it’s run – from the volunteers to the staff and even the audiences feels a certain amount of pride in the Normal Theater.”

I’m not usually a jealous person, but I am jealous of Normal’s residents for having such easy access to a gem like the Normal Theater.

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