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Watching a great movie in a great theater is great fun
Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones wonders, "Why did it have to be snakes?" in this famous scene from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). - photo by Chris Hicks
Back in April while my wife was out of town for a few days, I went by myself to see the 1963 all-star epic chase comedy Its a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in a local theater.

There were maybe 12 or 15 people in the 250-seat auditorium and, this being an old-fashioned farce made more than 50 years ago, I was surprised to see a few younger faces scattered among the sparse audience.

And I was pleasantly surprised to see that they were having as good a time as us older folks, laughing heartily in all the right places and snickering at some of the more subtle wisecracks and sight gags.

The experience reminded me of what I like best about going to the movies: The communal sense of fun.

Actually, that may also be what I miss most in modern movies: that sense of fun. Movies today are a lot of things, but they arent often fun anymore.

Maybe thats because I tend to avoid modern comedies. Its hard to have fun when Im cringing.

Finding Dory was fun. Zootopia was fun. Pixar and Disney still know how to have fun, even if its just in cartoons.

Star Trek Beyond was fun, which I saw with some friends last week.

My better half is picky about science fiction. Oh, she enjoys a good story, even if its convoluted in a weird sci-fi way. But it had better have humor and nothing too weird. Inception, yes. Back to the Future, yes, yes. People with weird makeup or in rubber masks, not so much. So Star Trek in any of its many incarnations, no.

Hey, we agree on most things.

Anyway, seeing Mad World again in a theater last April took me back to the first time I saw it in November 1963 at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles. I was in high school, and my parents packed up the family one evening for a movie event downtown. And it really did feel like an event.

The theater was brand new, with 937 seats (856 now) and a screen built specifically to engulf the audience at a time when movie studios were still worried about competing with television. The bigger-is-better mindset took over in, well, a big way.

There had been plenty of epic movies up to that point, from the biblical to the historical to the Western to the fantasy, and Cinerama was having great success with its three-camera technique for novelty/documentary films, beginning with This Is Cinerama in 1952.

And 10 years later, its two narrative experiments, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won, were spectacular box-office hits.

As was Its a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which was also the first epic comedy, setting the bar high for those that followed The Hallelujah Trail, The Great Race, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, etc.

In addition, Mad World marked Cineramas first foray into filming and projecting a wide, wide, wide, widescreen image with a single camera. And its enormous success led to 70mm becoming a roadshow standard for nearly three decades.

But in 1963, when I was a sophomore in high school, it was a fresh experience. I remember how huge the screen was, curved and enveloping it really felt as if it wrapped around you, especially in those front-and-center seats.

And I remember the laughter that practically shook that premier building.

Now that was fun.

There have been lots of other fun group movie experiences since then. Jaws in June 1975, Star Wars in May 1977, Raiders of the Lost Ark in June 1981 and many more.

Raiders was particularly memorable at a preview screening in the old 1,100-seat Villa Theater on that great old curved screen with a packed house. When the film began and the Paramount logo started to come up, the curtains opened and the painting of a mountain was revealed as it morphed into a movie mountain and the audience literally ooohd and ahhhd. The perfect setup for what proved to be the perfect movie experience.

As Ive written many times, its great to have home access to your favorite movies, to be able to watch them any time you want.

But theres nothing like that moment of discovery in a crowded theater with everyone getting the same thrill or tearing up or laughing together in mutual consent as they experience something new.

Thats what I love about going to the movies.
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