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As the lights went down at the New Beverly Cinema on Tuesday night, I experienced a sudden lump in the back of my throat. It was unexpected — and the realization hit me like a ton of bricks: I so unbelievably missed going to the movies. And here I was along with dozens of others — finally — sharing that special communal motion picture experience.
Quentin Tarantino’s landmark Los Angeles theater welcomed back guests for the first time in more than a year with a showing of his Oscar-winning Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Tickets for the first week of operation of the movie house located at 7165 Beverly Blvd. sold out in the blink of an eye.
As the sun began to set, a line of fans stretched down the street — some dressed as Brad Pitt’s character, Cliff Booth — eagerly waiting to again enter their “church,” as devoted patron Travis Woods referred to the theater, at the location since 1929. The line would have been even longer, but the theater’s capacity is at 50 percent of the usual 225 seats for the moment.
One of those patrons was actor Giovanni Ribisi, who said he lost count of how many times he had been to the New Beverly through the years, so best just to say “dozens” for accuracy’s sake.
“It’s one thing to reopen theaters as that slowly rolls out, but it another thing to continue showing films on celluloid. I don’t want to sound like a snob, but for me, there is a massive difference,” said Ribisi of the programming at New Beverly. (Most of the 35mm and 16mm prints coming from Tarantino’s private collection.) “It is also important to make the effort to get back to life — and what better way to celebrate it than coming to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s so easy to start thumbing through your life. But to put your phone down, and to pay attention, and to not have the option to fucking pause the movie, it’s refreshing.”
As the smell of the popcorn from the lobby was slightly lifting me off the ground à la a cooling window pie in a Disney cartoon, New Beverly operations manager Jules McLean explained that Tarantino spared no expense on health and safety upgrades, including ultraviolet air purification on all heating, ventilation and air conditioning units and increased minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) air filtration. Seats in the theater are also marked, for the first time ever, for the purpose of reservation placement to ensure social distancing.
“Of course, you want to be safe. You have to take a worldwide pandemic absolutely seriously, but to not have that communal experience of watching a film in a theater was a huge bummer,” said McLean, who has been friends with Tarantino for decades, the two of them having worked together at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach. It was McLean who introduced the film Tuesday evening and used the opportunity to thank her devoted staff for weathering the storm.
Several of the reopening night patrons lucky enough to snag a ticket (including Once Upon a Time in Hollywood editor Fred Raskin) called the theater their second home. So, returning was quite emotional. “We are a tribe without borders, people for whom movies mean everything,” said Woods. “When you’re at the New Beverly, there is an alchemical fusion that happens in the brain when you watch light being shot in 25 frames per second. There is a magic here that you can’t get anywhere else.”
Alison Martino, who runs the popular social media account Vintage Los Angeles, saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood 37 times at New Beverly before it shuttered. She was prepared to cry when the film started. “I love the movie so much, and seeing it here is extra special,” Martino said. “I purposely did not watch it all through quarantine because I wanted to come back and see it here.”
As for myself, I couldn’t help but smile ear-to-ear as the feature began and a huge cheer (and a couple of slight sniffles) went up from the crowd. But it was the sounds of the audience I realized I missed the most: the laughing, the cat-calling a shirtless Pitt, the munching (and spilling) of popcorn and the slurps of soda. Indeed, a small, but important, piece of normalcy had returned. So, like the rest, I relaxed, slumped back in my chair and took in a movie.
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