A Story That Disappears: Visiting the Theatre in My Hometown

by: Dominick Mayer

In nightmares, I keep seeing a twisted version of a town in Michigan called South Haven that my family used to visit in the summers. I know it well, I know where things are supposed to be and in the garish dream version of it, I know that things are incorrect. I know that when you turn the corner past the three-screen moviehouse on Center Street, there isn’t supposed to be a winding Escher’s staircase, and that there shouldn’t be a series of dilapidated homes in the middle of the quaint downtown. I enter the theater, the germinal place in which I saw Encino Man at the age of three, the first of thousands of movies I would watch in the next two decades. Sometimes in such dreams, when I’m not fearing being murdered by somebody, or hunting down a love long since disappeared from my waking life, I’m railing against the sudden, crass appearance of a multiplex, flush with color and light, a moth’s lamp that has rendered the whole of South Haven a ghost town in my head and eradicated that first, beautifully simple theater.

Often I’ll wake and frantically go on Moviefone to make sure it’s still open; it doesn’t appear on a site more modern than that. I have a fear that one day, in the middle of winter, one year the disappearance of tourist season will be too much and they will shutter their doors, the majestic main auditorium and its two-staircase ascent lost to time and apathy, the hallway-like side theatres numbered two and three never to accommodate a meager forty viewers again. Each time, I see that the Michigan Theatre lives on (currently showing The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted to what I always imagine are grossly unappreciative day-trippers), and I find a small comfort in this, but that fear of the transience of a place that likely means more to me than most anyone else always lingers in my brain as I go about my day.

Given that this dream has been fairly recurring of late, I’ve started taking this as a weird premonition of what I’ve felt happening to my actual hometown. I hail from a southwest suburb of Chicago called Bolingbrook, Illinois, the village in which I spent the first eighteen years of my life and now see mostly in excursions to see friends or some family members.

As goes the tale of most every suburban kid who develops a yen for one art form or another in his hormonal years, I’ve long had a very romance/contempt relationship (love/hate doesn’t adequately capture it) with Bolingbrook. The stories behind this are meaningful but nevertheless irrelevant at this moment, because they are personal tales, and those are exactly what’re slowly disappearing. Everybody gets replaced, and much has been written by people who no doubt saw their native lands exactly like I am now. I’m not talking about the honest anguish of a displaced people, either; I’m talking about people who left a place for too long, and came back to find that despite their most narcissistic fantasies it had in fact gone on without them, and in most cases survived just fine on its own.

While such a thing makes me feel furiously obsessed with the sight of my own navel, it’s nevertheless the feeling that comes over me when I see spots in town that at one time or another doubled as what Guy Maddin summarized as “the archetypal episodes of my childhood.” That’s from his film My Winnipeg, which also captures this feeling; all I wanted to do from around the age of eight forward was leave, but now I wish I’d have stopped to think about who would protect Bolingbrook when I was gone.

Who would make sure that the bit of concrete near Lindsey and Briarcliff would be preserved, so that marks friends long lost and I made in the newly hardening sidewalk would live on, so that generations of acutely observant children could wonder whose initials had been left, and what they might have done with their lives beyond that point? Does anybody still wander through the tiny manmade woods nearby, out to near the pond that with time became a designated spot for after-school fistfights courtesy of the nearby junior high kids?

Even that school, my alma mater Jane Addams Middle School, looks nothing like it did when I attended. It’s bigger now, cleaner, with an actual baseball diamond for gym classes and even a track. The sidewalks are better paved, and there aren’t as many cops waiting outside for the wayward masses after each school day. There are a series of large rocks out by Jamie McGee elementary, the place I ended up after defecting from Catholic school midway through the fifth grade, and at some point someone moved them, breaking the precarious pattern I would hop out in order to climb the tallest, despite my tiny youthful frame and total lack of upper body strength. Nobody stayed behind to keep those seemingly innocuous things sacred, and now look what’s happened.

Even the old movie theater has seen time pass it by. As visual metaphors go, I can’t find one more potent than the Regal Cinemas 12, which used to be Kerasotes Showplace 12, the hallowed ground in which I lived out a solid majority of my youth. There may not be another place in America that I would risk getting arrested for more. I used to imagine that one day Showplace 12 would risk being shut down like something out of Breakin’ 3: The Suburbs, and I would rally the population of Bolingbrook with my impassioned cries about its importance as a cornerstone of a town, the centerpiece on which the whole western half of my hometown was founded. We’d all link arms and chain ourselves to the building and refuse to move even when the bulldozers rolled in.

But now, it’s kind of dilapidated and few to no people really give a shit. The armed cops perpetually making their presence felt have not only assuaged the white suburban population’s fear of (multiethnic) recklessness, but also made sure that the magic of this theater would slowly wither. Granted, this was accompanied by the fact it hasn’t been renovated since I was around ten except for those damnable 3D projectors, or that Regal’s takeover meant only that such a ramshackle establishment now cost double its original price, but it’s still sad to see Bolingbrook leave it behind.

And then I realize that this theater didn’t mean to many what it did to me, that many merely went there two or three times a year for the big summer movies and never voyaged across the scorching parking lot in mid-July to loiter in Oberweis playing chess (always incorrectly) or engaged in furious, clandestine makeout sessions in the trees beforehand, or rolled into the empty theater on Christmas night to form a new sort of ritual with friends that could maybe outlast even the familial ties of the holidays.

These stories will disappear, much like Bolingbrook has started to, and then others will appear in their place, and those will go as well, until all that remains of us, if we’re lucky, is some etchings in concrete, or hopefully someone who’ll step up and make sure that none of this ever disappears.

Dominick Mayer is a graduate student in Cinema Studies at DePaul University, an associate music editor and film critic at HEAVEmedia, an after-school robot class tutor to small children and a partially disgruntled mailman. He’s also really into professional wrestling and hip-hop and will subject you to tirades should you be foolish enough to broach either subject in his presence. He can be found on Twitter at @HEAVEdom or contacted at dsuzannemayer@gmail.com.

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