Monday, February 16, 2009

The General Cinema Experience

“The movies” looked like a great place to be on this icy winter’s night in 1969. For many folks who grew up in the sixties or seventies (or even beyond), these scenes of a General Cinema theatre should be instantly recognizable. Boston-based General Cinema Corporation was the pioneer of the “shopping center theatre” concept. Originally a drive-in operator, General Cinema (called General Drive-In at the time) started the 1960’s with just a handful of shopping center theatres. By the decade’s end, they had over 114 of them, many of them “twins”, with another 37 in development. By 1972, both the concept and the company were dominant forces in American movie exhibition.

Most of my earliest movie memories took place at the Randhurst Cinema, GCC’s second theatre in the Chicago area, right next to the acclaimed Randhurst Center indoor mall. I saw the obligatory Disney flicks and even a few non G-rated movies, such as “The Poseidon Adventure” there. (It was pretty intense for a 9-year old in those days, but I dug it.) At times, the General Cinema “feature presentation” bumper, that mezmerizing combination of syncopation and “kaleidoscopic, crumpled purple cellophane”, seemed as exciting as the movie itself!

The theatre pictured isn’t Randhurst - for one thing, Randhurst was a single screen unit, not a twin, but all the familiar elements are shown – the red, squatty western-style lettering, the red and purple interior d├ęcor, the funky light fixtures, the sparse art gallery. For that matter, even the ice and snow…

36 comments:

  1. Out here in Cali it was Edwards Cinema. Many of which had similar interiors, as pictured. Very cool post. Don't know why, but I love theatre pics.

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  2. That's interesting you mention the western-style typography. I never thought of that but it seemed like lots of cinemas used it. I wonder how come?

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  3. After seeing this, it's clear that the former 3-screen theater at the Everett Mall in Everett WA was once one of these, and (at least as of last year) still had unpainted labelscars from one of these theaters, as can be seen here:

    http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v320/Vexorg/Sledgehammer/Everett%20Mall/IMG_0989.jpg

    The theater here continued to operate up until a couple of years ago when a new 16-screen theater opened up at the mall. I'm tempted to say there was an 8-screen General Cinema a couple of blocks away from the mall, but I am not entirely certain it was a General Cinema. Both theaters kept operating until both were replaced by the new theater.

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  4. I love, love, love those lihgt fixtures. It is like the way of traveling through a space capsule or time capsule, either or.

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  5. Dave, how could you possibly forget the classic GCC "Feature Presentation" opens?

    The late 1970's version ...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3F_tv1XNoCc

    The early 1970's version ...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6uHhUKURYE

    and the boring modernized version circa 1980 ...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6oc1EYKRlg

    This is a cult classic!!! When I worked at Eastland Mall, after the open had been abandoned, a manager at the GCC theater in the mall told me that after one of their theaters put this back on by mistake, the entire theater erupted in cheering!

    --Dan

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  6. General Cinema was infamous in the Columbus area for the cheap way in which they "twinned" their single screen movie theaters. Usually their theaters had three seating sections, each about equal size, aranged in an ampitheater/semi-circle arrangement. When they twinned the theaters, they basically put a wall down the middle section without bothering to realign the seats. Thus your body was always pointing at one of the sides of the screen instead of the middle after twinning.

    --Dan

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  7. Cinema I-II-III at Tanglewood Mall: my absolute favorite theater! Right next to the Kroger Superstore. How could you not love the '70s?

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  8. I'll be willing to bet that my local mall's (Forest Mall, Fond Du Lac WI) theatre, now locally owned / operated, was once a General Cinema-owned location. Same 'squatty Western-styled' signage outside, still affixed to the building to this day.

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  9. Thanks, Anonymous for the links to the openings! I remember the "twinning" at Ford City General Cinema in Chicago, and not only were the seats misaligned, there was no soundproofing done with the cheap middle wall so you actually had to decide which movie you wanted to listen to while you watched the one you paid for on the screen. Ticket prices may have gone up, but theaters have greatly improved since then!

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  10. Adrienne, you will never know how long I looked for that open before finally finding it. I actually have a better-quality copy on my hard drive. There is nothing like the experience of hearing that kitschy theme music with the blaring harpsichord before the opening of a movie. Now that AMC owns the rights to the open, I'm surprised they haven't tried to get some mileage out of it.

    That open is one of those adolescent memories I cherish. I used to think I was just a weirdo for remembering this kind of stuff, but thanks to the internet you realize that this kind of stuff made an impression on lots and lots of people.

    As to the misaligned seats, I thought it was pretty comical to walk into a theater that had a decent sized section on the right hand side, and a chopped off section on the left, all facing the wrong direction. I beleive there were 7 GCC theaters around here (2 later replaced with 8-screen cinemas) and every single one of them was that way.

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  11. Adrienne, check out this video at 1:45 (I'm sure you'll remember this) and 3:45 (better quality versions of my previous links):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5mNAZ_bGjE

    The policy trailer at 1:45 is simply classic! Cheesy 70's production music ... Brings back lots of memories! YouTube is amazing!

    Enough fooling around, back to work!

    -Dan

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  12. Southland Cinemas I & II (Hayward, CA) in the SF bay area were the General Cinemas I remember going to in the 80's. It had the same funky 60's interior back then and the front facade was equal to the one you have pictured. I recall seeing "Empire Strikes Back" at that theatre and recall GCC logo in the shape of a motion picture camera. The theater was around until early 1990's then demolished a while back.

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  13. Ford City to this day is an odd theatre. I was in there last october. As soon as I walked in I leaned over to my friend and told him it looked 70's like.

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  14. Richard - GCC had cinemas in Northern California all through the 1960's, but didn't have any thing in SoCal until much later. Thanks!

    Gunnar and Sherry - I agree - seems like the "Showcase Cinemas" chain, among others, were trying to emulate the General Cinema look.

    Sledgehammer - It was. Wow, labelscars don't get much clearer than that! Thanks.

    Didi - Their lobbies were much classier than their theater auditoriums, that's for sure!

    Dan - I did link the earliest bumper version (that I'm aware of) on the post. Thanks for providing the links for all of these other versions! And the policy trailers are a riot. I'm sure that if you were to mention the GCC bumper to anyone who lived in their markets and was born between 1960 and 1970, they're all but guaranteed to remember the song.

    I guess I was fortunate that the GCC theatre I went to was never twinned!

    Steven - I guess this post coming right after one on the Superstores qualifies this as a "Tanglewood Series", right ? :)

    The 70's are a lot cooler in retrospect than they seemed at the time. I was into the 50's then!

    Matt - Forest Mall was a GCC theatre. Thanks!

    Adrienne - Two movies for the price of one! (Or 1 1/2 sounds more like it) I agree today's theatres are much better.

    Mr Bluelight - That's the General Cinema experince in a nutshell. And a classic film to go with it! "Empire" was the best Star Wars film by a mile, in my opinion.

    Christopher - I'm guessing that the Ford City theatre hasn't changed much. There hasn't been much investment in that mall in a long time, unfortunately.

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  15. Great post! These pictures are amazing!!!

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  16. You guys must be talking about the AMC theater at Ford City. I went there once several years ago to see the Matrix Revolutions and this was shortly before my retail geekiness began to evolve but I remember walking in and thinking how outdated the color scheme looked. Reds and purplish. Not like any of the other theaters my friends and I would go to. I couldn't wait to got out of there because it was the most boring movie ever and most of the patrons (including us) sat there talking loudly and laughing at unintentially hilarious moments.

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  17. Hey Dan, thanks for that shot of retro! I felt like I was sitting next to my mother at the GC waiting for Escape to Witch Mountain or The Apple Dumpling Gang to start! You're right, I would think that AMC would want to get some mileage out of it, because I know you and I (and all of our friends on this site) aren't the only ones who clamor for this sort of thing. Now, get me a Pepsi-Cola Throwback (or a Mountain Dew Throwback) (coming soon! Made with real sugar, not HFCS!), throw in the bumper and let's watch some REAL movies!

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  18. Dan - I did link the earliest bumper version (that I'm aware of) on the post. Thanks for providing the links for all of these other versions! And the policy trailers are a riot. I'm sure that if you were to mention the GCC bumper to anyone who lived in their markets and was born between 1960 and 1970, they're all but guaranteed to remember the song.

    I guess I was fortunate that the GCC theatre I went to was never twinned!


    All seven theaters here were twinned in the same manner. Yes, i noticed you link after the fact. I guess I was so excited to be able to share the open with people, I glossed over the last part of your article. Everybody I know loves that funky open. Here's yet another link where you can find clean copies of these and other trailers, mostly in 16:9 format: http://www.film-tech.com/warehouse/index.php?category=3

    -Dan

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  19. This post is excellent. I hope you do more posts on dead theatre chains in the future. May I suggest the Sack Cinema chain that was in and around the Boston area for quite a while in the 70s and 80s. I have many fond memories of that chain.

    As far as General Cinema, I was in one once or twice. There used to be one in Stoneham, MA, behind the Caldor that was there at the time. I forget what I saw there. I just remember it being quite small.

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  20. Pat - Thanks!

    Didi - AMC took over the General Cinema theatres. Amazing they still had the red and purple during this decade!

    Adrienne - I didn't know about the "throwback" drinks - very cool! Our local Coca-Cola bottler imports Coke in glass bottles from Mexico, made with real sugar. Not cheap, but it tastes tons better than the standard HFCS stuff.

    Dan - Heh, I probably need to make these posts more succinct. I need a good editor! Thanks again for the great links.

    Panda - Thanks! I hadn't heard about the Sack theatres, I'll have to check 'em out. A Caldor/GCC combo - I'd be into that!

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  21. Hi, Dave! Another great post. I saw a lot of movies at the General Cinema locations in Joliet at both Jefferson Square Mall and Louis Joliet Mall.

    Speaking of Jefferson Square, you have any info? I have seen some online but would love to see more. I wish I had taken pics back in the day when I used to pratically live there as a teenager. :)

    One more thing: I wish that Coke and Pepsi would make those 16-ounce glass returnable bottles again. I miss them so much! I would happily lug them back to the store and pay the deposit!

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  22. The General Cinema theater of my youth was at Britton Plaza in Tampa. It was big enough when originally built that it had been tripled by the time I came around. This meant the seats in the middle theater were actually aligned correctly. (There had also been a balcony, which was closed off and its seats removed. Eventually, the whole place was gutted and turned into an 8-screen theater, with a couple of the screens upstairs.)

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  23. Kim - I have a trade magazine ad from the developer (Melvin Simon Inc.) for Jefferson Square when it was first opened in '74. It's pretty cool! Send me your email address (mine is on the profile section) and I'll be glad to email it to you.

    Jim - Thanks for sharing that memory. It's amazing how they carved out those extra auditoriums from existing theatres!

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  24. We had quite a few General Cinema's in the Boston area as well as Holiday Lanes ten pin bowling which sometimes had Amy Joy Pancake Houses as their food concession. Don't forget Richard's Drive-In Restaurants (Home of the California Twin Burger) were General Cinema's first foray outside of theatre's.

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  25. General Cinema Corporation was also the nation's largest independent Pepsi bottler. Hence, the reason for Pepsi figuring so prominently in their movie theatres instead of Coke.

    -Dan

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  26. You could say that the family remains in the entertainment and exhibition business. Philip Smith was founder of General Cinema and his grandson by his only daughter, Jeff Lurie, is the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles football team.

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  27. You know, I was just reminded the other day that the current Regal Cinemas Fenway 13 in Boston was once a very large General Cinema! My brother was the one that pointed that out after I showed him the old General Cinema feature presentation bumper that was linked here. I actually did see quite a few movies there! Here's some more info for ya: http://cinematreasures.org/theater/10381/.

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  28. Panda, the Stoneham General Cinema started out as a Holiday Lanes. Then they changed it to a Cinema.
    Now that is gone and there is a Shaws Supermarket there and of course Caldors became an Ames for a while but was built as a Gilchrist's. It is about to become an LA Fitness I believe.

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  29. Hello, Larry! Thanks for the update on the Stoneham General Cinema. It's kind of sad to know the theater is long gone, but I AM glad the Caldor is being renovated to an LA Fitness. Anything that promotes exercise and a healthy lifestyle is okay with me! :)

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  30. Dave,

    First off I have to say that your web site is Fantastic. I always look forward to your next featured company!

    Second, having grown up in the Boston area, I always patrionized GCC Theaters. And finally getting to see the Feature Presentation snipe (GCC Logo as a projector) brought back many fond memories. I thought I'd never see that again but thanks to you and YouTube I get to re-live those memories again!

    The night time exterior photo of the General Cinema you posted looks very much like the original GCC theater in Braintree, MA (now a defunct Circuit City) before they moved up the street to a new 10 plex in the early 90's.

    Maybe soometime you could feature a former Boston area supermarket chain I worked at for nearly 20 years, Purity Supreme.

    Keep up the great work!

    -Stephen

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  31. Larry - I put in a link to your page with the Richard's photos - they're fantastic! And I never knew the difference between ten-pin and other bowling types until I researched for this article. Pancakes and bowling...hmm..not bad!

    Dan - I'm going to try to talk about that soon. By the early 70's, GCC thought of themselves as soft drink bottler above all else.

    Anonymous - Thanks - I had heard of Jeff Lurie but never made the connection. They must have invested their General Cinema money well!

    Panda - Thanks, that's a great website! It's amazing how much information can be found there.

    Stephen - Thanks very much, I really appreciate it! I'm glad you like it and that it brought back some good memories. I need to learn more about Purity Supreme - I have quite a bit of info on some companies they associated with or sold out to - Stop and Shop and Supermarkets General - I'll see what I can dig up!

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  32. This General Cinema was just like the one at Lincoln Mall in Matteson Illinois! Ours was a three screen and I remeber that the seats used to "recline" at ours. It was torn down to make way for the mall remodel, but I remember it well!!!

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  33. Anonymous - Thanks! Now I can't remember if the seats at Randhurst Cinema reclined or not. Don't think so, but you've got me thinking about it!

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  34. What *is* the GCC location of the pictures you have posted?

    I too also grew up with the GCC Southland Cinemas in Hayward, CA...

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  35. Anonymous - I'm afraid I don't know in this case. I always try to provide location info for the photos when I'm able to track it down. Sometimes readers of the site are able to supply it, which I'm always grateful for. Sorry!

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  36. Nice work on this site, Having worked for General Cinema for 39 years I can tell you for sure that the two photos are the Braintree Cinema I & II in the South Shore Plaza, Braintree, MA Also, transfering from the General Cinema Bowling Division my first theatre assignment was working in this theatre.

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