The Plaza Theatre brings us back to the basics of cinema

Bright blonde hair falls in front of a young painter’s face as she eagerly observes the busy New York sidewalk with her baby blue eyes. She sets up her work among the displays of other aspiring artists, where her paintings sell for just a dollar or two each. This is back in the days when a quarter could buy you a movie ticket and that classic bottle of coke was barely more than a nickel.

Today at the Plaza Theatre, $10 is a small price to pay for the chance to escape from our 21st century lives, and it’s the perfect atmosphere to enjoy movies such as Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, a true story that takes the viewer back in time 60 years into the life of painter Margaret Keane and her tumultuous journey as an artist in New York.

Outside, as night falls on the Kensington streets and Calgary’s nightlife is beginning to bustle, the old fashioned movie sign with hand-placed letters tells passersby which two or three movies they can come in and see tonight at one of the last local independent theatres.

Without the flashy commercial chaos of modern theatres, the Plaza Theatre offers a unique experience that is both mesmerizing and distracting. The focus is on the art. Although the charm of the theatre is in the retro décor and atmosphere, the film still remains central.

As you walk in, the fast-paced modern world is left outside the nearly 100-year-old building and for a night, it’s easy to forget what century you’re in.

The red patterned carpet rolls out across the floor, leading your eye along until your gaze climbs up to the velvety couch, patterned with leaves in a shade of rustic orange. To the right, a refreshment stand is nestled behind the counter, with a neon ‘popcorn’ sign beckoning you closer, and willing customers jingle the loose change in their pockets to pay for their movie snacks.Friends Tyler Rop, Aric Bowers, and Sicily Crosson catch up on a Monday night in the comfortable lobby of the Plaza Theatre before taking in Tim Burton’s film ‘Big Eyes’

Photo by Emily Holloway

If the retro feel of the concession isn’t enough to draw you in, the aroma of fresh popcorn will. It is paired with an antique scent that just can’t be faked, nostalgically reminiscent of your grandparent’s house.

Small lights are sprinkled across a black ceiling, as if imitating the stick-on glow in the dark stars of our childhoods and guiding us back in time.

Upcoming movie posters, some modern and some classic, break up the retro yellow and red lines painted on the walls. In the ladies’ room, the walls are a captivating bright pink, but vibrant posters fight to steal the attention, tacked overtop of every surface and cascading onto the ceiling before crawling back down to the stall doors. They seem to cover everything but the bathroom sink.

Two workers standby, ready to multitask and perfectly capable of handling the quiet Monday night audience. With no fancy printers or automatic ticket dispensers, you’ll receive a small classic ticket stub at the box office before proceeding to the single theatre room.

Familiar monochrome faces such as Marilyn Monroe greet you from prints on the wall as you enter, as if they are here to host you in experiencing their world. People whisper as they find their way through the dim and narrow rows to their seat of choice. The red fabric gives easily to the pressure as you lower yourself into place, well-worn-in by countless others throughout the past 50 years.

The screen fills the space at the front, and at the back, and the 35 mm film projector sits behind a window on a higher level, ready to begin its job as soon as the clock strikes seven.

The doors close and the screen lights up. There are no previews to steal away from the show we came to see. The transformation is complete, and we are lost in a world with push lawn mowers and phones with cords and classic cars in their teal ocean blue.

Neon lights and faded menus offer movie snacks at the cash-only refreshments bar.

Photo by Emily HollowayThe Plaza Theatre is not one of those places that has been made vintage by some clever marketing scheme – or if it is, they hide it well. It simply is what it is. A 1920s automobile shop turned into a neighborhood cinema, maintained as a captivating artifact of history. The 20th century has come and gone, but one thing remains the same: the Plaza is the place to see a film.

eholloway@cjournal.ca