Suffice it to say I’m a fan of Niantic Cinemas, a local independent theater in coastal Connecticut where I saw so many summer movies. I clearly recall seeing one of the Ghostbusters, not to mention Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing at the Niantic. It was my summer treat in the years when I had a knotty pine cabin nearby, going out afterwards for lobster rolls down the street at Dad’s Restaurant.
With a 2010-Census count of 3,114, Niantic is a small town. The Cinema, which sports a giant mural of Charlie Chaplin above the marquee, is open all year round, but business drops off when the summer crowd — which used to include me — goes home.
Joe Couillard, the current manager, answered the phone, pleased — I could tell — that I wanted to interview him. We were only a sentence in, when he had to interrupt,
“I’m sorry--will you hang on a second?”
In the background I could just make out a woman’s voice,
“Two adults, one child...”
The sound of change hitting a counter, tickets printing. With a staff of eight, he fills in where necessary.
Joe has been at the Niantic since the nineteen seventies, before the theater was “plexed.” His grandfather knew George Mitchell whose family owned the theater and the supermarket just down the street. And so it was that Joe came to get his projectionist’s license and occupy that most exciting of world’s, the booth.
“I’m a huge movie fan still,” he said, “but converting to digital ruined the magic.” Gone are the visiting scout troops, come to the booth to watch as two huge carbon arc projectors grind away, and marvel at the whole mechanical process of light and sprockets and darkness. Some sort of giant wheel was used in those days to raise and lower the house lights — which apparently exciting visiting scouts as well.
According to Joe, the Niantic had been a five-hundred seat house — with an auditorium — from its inception in 1950 until the late seventies, when the first plexing carved it into three theaters (five eventually, after a further renovation).
“I remember seeing John Huston’s The Dead in the upstairs theater, the one that was the original theater’s balcony,” I reflected. How is it, that when you see a really life-altering movie, you remember just where you saw it?
“Yes! You’re right — we did show that movie in the upstairs theater!” Joe replied, pleased to recall being in the booth. The old carbon arc projectors were long gone by then: it was xenon bulbs,and the platter system. That system is gone now too, and even the projectionist is in the techno-junkyard, “You can program all five theaters from one server,” Joe notes a little sadly.
“We’ve got all new curtains, a new carpet, and we’re thinking about custom seats... [he means seats that recline] but they’re expensive.” Speaking of covering expenses, Joe hates having to run ads before the movie, but these days, it’s what you do to keep the doors open.
Privately I think this is where the magic evaporates: that movie theaters everywhere have become a little like television, just when TV takes a backseat to YouTube. What’s next? Will our brains be hard-wired, will a blink summon whatever it is we want to watch?
For now at least, the good news is, that, in a time of disappearing screens, the local privately-owned movie house in Niantic, Ct. seems to be doing just fine. If you’re driving up I-95 any time soon on your way to Mystic, Providence or points north, why not drop out of time at Exit 74 and make a run into town? Just go east on what will eventually become Pennsylvania Avenue, which dead-ends at Long Island Sound. You’ll see the water, just across the railroad tracks. Turn right on Ct. Route 156, and two blocks later, there’s the cinema, Charlie Chaplin smiling over everything. You can cruise by and check the showtimes without even getting out of the car. I recommend a quick lobster roll down at Dad’s. And whatever movie you choose to see, tell them at the Niantic Cinemas that Starts Wednesday sent you!