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What It Is Like To Be Back To The Movie Theater


Missing the magic of seeing a movie in the theater with a crowd - hardly the most pressing problem right now. Big-screen viewing is not an essential activity, not even for critic Bob Mondello, though he does miss it.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: I attended a critic's screening of the comedy "The Climb" on March 5.


KYLE MARVIN: (As Kyle) If I catch you, I'm going to kill you.

MICHAEL ANGELO COVINO: (As Mike) I know. That's why I waited for the hill.

MONDELLO: That was at a Landmark Theater. Three days later, I was at a Regal Cinema for the drama "Never Rarely Sometimes Always."


SIDNEY FLANIGAN: (As Autumn) I'm just not ready to be a mom.

MONDELLO: The next day, an AMC multiplex to see Vin Diesel in "Bloodshot."


VIN DIESEL: (As Ray Garrison) I'm going to find the man who murdered my wife.

MONDELLO: And on March 11, I was back at the Landmark for the dirt bike movie "Charm City Kings."


JAHI DI'ALLO WINSTON: (As Mouse) Bikes as far as you can see - it's, like, straight up like the hands of a clock when they hit midnight.

MONDELLO: Seven days, four movies - a lighter than average week for me. Then the world changed. That screening of "Charm City Kings" on March 11 was the last time I set foot in a movie theater until now. Have I missed it? Oh, yeah. I'm met by the woosh of air-conditioned air in the Avalon Theatre, a nearly century-old movie house that's cool and dry amid swamp-like summer heat - row upon row of cushy seats, about 400 in an auditorium that once seated 1,300. But hey; Americans have gotten bigger since they thronged to silent films. Up on the ceiling, a church-like mural of an angel tossing a reel of film to cherubs - remember reels of film? Remember throngs of people going to movie theaters?

ANDY MENCHER: It's going to look very different for sure.

MONDELLO: Andy Mencher, the Avalon's programming director, insisted on showing me a movie here even though he's not quite sure when or how he'll reopen because he thought the film really needed to be experienced in the theater and not because the Avalon has a tennis-court-sized screen.

MENCHER: This movie, "Making Waves: The Art Of Cinematic Sound" - and, well, a movie about cinematic sound is probably best heard in a movie theater setting.

MONDELLO: He gestures toward the 14 surround speakers high on the walls.

MENCHER: They're used usually for effects, not usually so much for music but usually for effects that allow us to hear a plane fly from the back and then go across the screen and to the back on the other side. So I thought it would be better if we could sneak you in here and get you to listen to it and watch it, obviously, because any movie-going experience is much better than watching it at home.

MONDELLO: No argument from me. So we settle in, extremely socially distanced. He's about 12 rows away. And the sound is just as theatrical as he said it would be for sometimes surprising reasons.


CECELIA HALL: The jets themselves are not that interesting, so I created a library of exotic animal roars and monkey screeches.

MONDELLO: Got to remember that when "Top Gun: Maverick" gets here. A seat on the aisle is where I am meant to be and where I haven't been for far too long, which raises an obvious question.

When do you think you're going to open?

MENCHER: That's the $100,000 question, right? Obviously, a first thing would be what the city allows us to do.

MONDELLO: The district is currently in phase 1 of its reopening plan with gatherings of up to 10 people permitted, clearly not enough to open a 400-seat cinema.

MENCHER: Phase 2 would allow a gathering of 50 people. Now, that would be really hard to economically make work. Phase 3 would allow a gathering of 250 people, but I think we'd still probably have to be socially isolated in the theater. I don't know if we'll serve concessions.

MONDELLO: Takes some of the escape out of escapism - no? - which is why the industry is holding its breath as next month's big-budget premieres approach.

MENCHER: Trying to operate with all these restrictions - and as much as it would probably feel good to be open, it also might just feel totally strange.

MONDELLO: Strange or no, Mencher is doing his best to stay optimistic.

MENCHER: Every day, every week everything seems to change, and we seem to normalize things that seem very abnormal at first. So maybe I'll come around on that one, too. I certainly long for the day when it's like it was just 2 1/2 months ago.

MONDELLO: So do a lot of us.

I'm Bob Mondello.


KENNY LOGGINS: (Singing) Highway to the danger zone - going to take you right into the danger zone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.