The Block Island Times

The First Digital Picture Show

By Martha Ball | Apr 25, 2014

The opening and closing of the movie house and the ice cream shop across the street were once the absolute arbitrators of the summer season. Is is spring, and the opening of the Empire has been announced.

This past fall, after a brief closure, the theatre had a unseasonal opening night. A very few of us witnessed a much-heralded shift in technology gone almost unnoticed once it happened, no longer fed by the energy of the summer.

It was absurdly cold on Wednesday the 13th of November — winter-in-the-wings cold — but it was the first showing of a digital movie at the Empire, an event that will happen but once. The film, “Gravity,” sounded absurd but the reviews and word-of-mouth were both surprisingly good and most of all — the mantra of the evening — it would be history.

Despite knowing better, I left thick wool socks in the drawer, a heavy sweater on the shelf, boots by the door. I had the sense to don my long, wool winter coat, grab a hat and, best, the gloves unworn since spring.

It was absurdly cold and after wavering I took Autumn back into the house assuring her that she really, really, really did not want to come with me. She was a puppy still; were it daytime she might have been warmed by the sun but it was dark and chill and too cold to leave her in the car for the length of the show.

There were not many of us braving the cold but it was an adventure, from the lady in the elegant fur befitting a far fancier opening night to us history geeks who know how close the big old theater came to not existing 20-odd years ago. It was cold, but it was still a surprise there was so little notice of this milestone having been reached and I wondered if technology changes so quickly we no longer pay attention.

My friend forgot her gloves as I forgot the need for heavier socks and we laughed that we were there at all in the crazy cold but, again, it was a chance to be part of history and we could not give it a pass. We did have throws; we know this drill from a fall the years-of-the-life-of-a first-grader ago when the Empire was open deep into November and we went dressed in full winter garb for polar bear movies.

The familiar bubble machine tossed out a few fragile orbs that looked quite intimidated by the temperature, ready to shatter like skim ice, then the film started and for the first few seconds there was only superb audio. It seemed the technician, who departed on the last boat, had left too soon; then a picture flooded the screen, sharp and clear, a preview.

Normally, I see movies so infrequently that even the previews are a treat but it was already getting colder and there was a collective sigh of relief when the feature began to roll, terminology outdated I realized as I wrote the word.

The locale of the film was on the poster; that it took place in space, cold, dark, space seemed appropriate for the premiere. When one actor’s breath was a frosted cloud we all exhaled cautiously. We reached out from under our blankets for popcorn with the speed of a frog going for a fly, and shook water bottles to be sure they were only chilled, not iced. I was grateful the old seats are fabric covered and padded, not as unforgivingly cold as the ancient wood we remember with more nostalgia than they merit.

The fiery re-entry on screen, a staple of every space movie, seemed more inviting than dangerous and by the time of the landing in a place surely meant to be tropical by the lush greenery we were so cold the concept of returning to solid earth was lost on me unless the sun was shining brightly, enveloping our survivor with real warmth. She did not seem to notice the lack of it. She cannot be dead, I thought, there would be sunshine in heaven, but I rarely “get” even the most obvious endings of films.

Generally, I am one of the people who remains in her seat, waiting, watching, reading, as the credits roll, but not on this night when we got up and left, laughing that we lasted so long, sure we did not want to be in space, but glad to have been in this particular place this chilly November night.

It was what they call a soft opening, we speculated, perhaps the real one, with balloons to the rafters and billowing bubbles, would come in the spring when the big barn of a theater is fractionally warmer. Or maybe later when it is less of a challenge.


A day or two later, visiting with the puppy, I had a chance to see the projector, a black box atop a bigger black box. They are both larger than I had expected, but I was thinking of something sleekly modern, a laptop computer. It should have been reassuring that the film still arrives in a battered container, smaller than the canisters which held the reels of film but, again, I was thinking dvds in slick envelopes.

The old projector and the great platter upon which reels of film, spliced into one long strand, were spooled are gone from the booth, moved to a different part of the theater. There was a mechanical elegance to that operation, a pure and simple intricacy of each individual part running smoothly as long as each piece stayed in place, on course.

Perhaps the real beauty of the change is that while the picture is sharp, the sound shaper, beyond the projection booth there is no evidence of the usual mandated loss when new and improved comes to town.


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