Commonwealth Journal

December 28, 2013

Somerset bids farewell to Showplace Cinemas this weekend

by Chris Harris
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset — Classic movies stay with us forever.

Sadly, the venues in which we experience them do not.

Which is sad because those venues sometimes carry as much sentimental weight as the films themselves.

On Thursday, Showplace Cinemas announced via Facebook that they would be officially closing their doors as of today.

“I would like to thank our loyal patrons for their many years of allowing us to serve you,” read the post on the theater’s Facebook page. “With our deepest heartfelt regret Sunday December 29 will be our last day.”

This, my friends, is the end of an era.

Much attention has been given over the last decade or so to efforts to restore the Virginia Cinema on East Mt. Vernon Street in the heart of Somerset. The old Kentucky Theater (also known as the Gem Opera House) disappeared a long time ago, giving way to the wrecking ball. The Virginia’s structure has remained, giving hope that it could be resurrected as some kind of community project.

It’s a worthy cause, and there are those among us who best remember taking in movies in those older theaters. But for me — for those of my generation — the theater we remember best is Showplace Cinema. It, for those of us, is what the Kentucky and Virginia were to those who came before us.

It’s true, Showplace has given way to the bigger, the newer, the flashier. Once Somerset Cinemas 8 moved into town, frankly, the writing was on the proverbial wall. And it is really is a grand movie palace for the 21st century. The 3-D technology, stadium seating, advanced sound systems, all of that make it a great place to watch movies, and something culturally fitting for today’s youth to look back on one day and remember fondly.

But my memories — my best memories — remain with the theater in the Somerset Mall, Showplace Cinema.

The movie theater opened in 1981, about the same time as the mall itself. At that time, it only had two screens — which may seem quaint in the age of the multiplex, but was not a bad deal at the time. A couple of years later, it expanded to four screens, which allowed for a wider range of movies to be seen by local audiences that might have otherwise had to go to Lexington to see something.

Brandon Hurley, a Pulaski native and former Showplace employee from ‘98-’04, recalled that tickets were only about $3.57 in the early ‘90s, and that there were $1 movies on Tuesday night — prices a long way from what the average moviegoer anywhere pays today.

“Norma (Leveridge) was the manager from day one, I think,” he said. “She started working in the movie theater biz when a ticket, coke and popcorn was a grand total of $.35 cents for all three.”

Leveridge was as familiar a sight at the theater as the screens themselves. Seemingly ageless, she’d stand at the door and tear the tickets of countless Pulaski moviegoers even into the theater’s latter days, single-handedly (literally) ushering so many of us into special memories — highly-anticipated blockbusters, birthdays, first dates (maybe even first kisses, in the back row of course).

I remember so many films I saw there, so far back — in fact, what I saw at Showplace is a good way to trace the various eras of my life.

I remember going there to see great animated films when I was a child. “All Dogs Go to Heaven.” “The Land Before Time.” “Lady and the Tramp.” “The Little Mermaid.” (Yes, I watched “The Little Mermaid.” She was a pretty redhead. How could I resist?) Kid-appropriate classics, these helped instill a love of the movies inside of me that has molded who I am over the course of my whole life.

By the time I got to high school, the theater had expanded, eight screens. The theaters themselves shrank, but we didn’t mind — the more movies, the better! Adolescent drama played out while seeing “Austin Powers” (about a girl, naturally) and again during “The Fifth Element” and “Great Expectations,” and an empty theater showing “Anaconda” was the perfect time to do a little flirting.

The longest line I remember by far was for the first chapter of the “Star Wars” saga in over a decade-and--half, “The Phantom Menace” in 1999. People were backed up all the way to the front door of the mall. I admit, I cut line, thanks to my friend April helping some of us squeeze into the middle of the queue — Obi-Wan probably wouldn’t have approved, but hey, we all have a dark side.

Things were more pious in 2004, when groups of local believers gathered outside the theater and prayed while there to see the Mel Gibson epic “The Passion of the Christ,” a film that served as a rallying cry for many in the Christian community.

The last movie I ever watched there was “Midnight in Paris,” back in 2011. It was a fitting finale for my Showplace days, a film by the auteur Woody Allen whose movies I might not have discovered had those first flicks I mentioned not engendered such a love of the art inside me in my early years.

Those, of course, are just the ones that stick out to me. And, of course, only mine. Each and every one of us who has lived in this community for longer than a decade or so probably has just as many remembrances of this very special place.

While I was unable to get a comment from anyone currently working at the theater or ownership, I did speak to Hurley and to local movie enthusiast John Alexander, who proudly stated that he would be attended the 9 p.m. showing of “Delivery Man” tonight — the final ever screening at Showplace Cinema.

It’s a bit unfortunate — “Delivery Man” isn’t exactly going to be an AFI Top 100 classic or anything — but just the fact that people would make a point to be there and say goodbye to the place is testament enough to its role in this community over the last 30-plus years.

I was at least able to walk in and take one last look at that marvelous sight on the wall behind the concession stand — a cluster of movie posters from the 1980s. So many films I remember well, so many images that perfectly depict what life was like during my happiest younger days. There’s even one for a film called “Heaven Help Us,” written by the late, great Charlie Purpura — a college instructor of mine on the craft of writing movies, fittingly enough. That poster holds a unique place in my heart for that reason.

I’m not the only one. Hurley said that Showplace Cinema will always be remembered as an “emotional touchstone” to all who enjoyed it and life in Somerset.

“I've been a ton of places since leaving Somerset, but when ever I run into someone from Somerset, no matter what part of the country, Showplace Cinema and the poster wall always gets brought up in conversation by them,” he said. “It was a fantastic place to work, fall in love, hang with friends and enjoy the majesty of cinema. Much like the Virginia and the overpass bridge on Ky. 80, Showplace and its wall are entrenched in the memories of all who ever passed through. She will truly be missed.”

It’s time to lower the curtain on a piece of Pulaski County history. Let the credits roll. Showplace deserves the applause.