What is your favorite memory of going to a movie theater?
I recently discovered this gem of a nonfiction magazine, Pipe Wrench. Its latest edition is all about the movies, and after reading it, I remembered an old column I wrote when I was a writer and columnist for The Clarion News.
I haven’t been to a movie since pre-Covid, and I can’t remember what I saw last. A dinosaur movie with my grandkids, I think? Oh, but I wish I could have taken them to my very favorite, in-all-my-life-favorite, theaters that used to exist in downtown Clarion, Pennsylvania. They were… Well, you decide.
There’s Nothing Like the Downtown (Clarion, Pennsylvania) Cinemas
There’s a tourist attraction near Mount Rushmore called Cosmos that, according to the brochure, is a place in which: “The world is different—topsy-turvy, with nothing in its normal position, including yourself. The laws of nature* have gone completely berserk…(It’s a) most unusual feature, a physical experience you will never forget.”
You don’t have to go all the way to South Dakota to find that kind of excitement in Pennsylvania. For years, people have simply gone to the movies at the cinemas in downtown Clarion. From the Orpheum’s slanted floors and ceiling to the Garby’s tunnel-like theater, going to the movies in Clarion was, and for a short while still is, a topsy-turvy, unusual adventure—one you’ll never forget.
Walking into the Orpheum for the first time, I expected ushers to hand me a rope, pickaxe, and safety belt to scale the grade to the ticket booth. There were no steps, just a thirty-degree concrete ramp. I never drank alcohol before going to the Orpheum because it took keen balance to order popcorn at the refreshment counter, which was nearly level with my head.
The Orpheum had two theaters. My favorite was the theater on the right, which required walking down a long dark hallway to get to the actual seating area. Lacking several seats, it was important to arrive before the lights went down to avoid hitting the floor.
My moviegoing plans were never determined by the weather until the summer I went to see City Slickers in the theater on the right. A torrential thunderstorm sent rain rushing into the theater. Did employees stop the movie? Heck no! They just turned up the volume and we sat cross-legged in our seats.
I was grateful when they installed air conditioning, but I wish they would have included a furnace, too. Although I never saw my breath, I wore mittens and dressed in several layers when going to the Orpheum in the winter.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the Orpheum was the marquee renovation a few years ago. It was turned into an art deco, Miami Vice-like thing featuring pink, yellow, and blue neon lights. The only things missing were palm trees. You don’t often see something like that in Western Pennsylvania.
“Building for Sale” is all that’s showing anymore at the Orpheum, but I encourage anyone who hasn’t seen a movie at one of the downtown theaters before to get to the Garby soon, before its patrons are charmed by the new seven-plex theater opening at the Clarion Mall.
At the Garby, the only light in one of the theaters is a spotlight in the back corner. Akin to an FBI interrogation light, I think it also serves as a heat lamp. You know better than look behind you for fear of burning your retinas, and when leaving the theater, you never look up to see where you’re going. You simply follow the worn carpet to the exit.
Using either cinema’s bathroom is always an adventure. There were times I struggled to unlatch the lock on the only stall in the Garby; the lack of curtains in the window of the Orpheum’s only stall (which overlooked an alley) made for a quick trip in and out; and I never knew either to have hand soap, but there was always a bottle of Ivory dish soap next to the sink.
For all their defects, an eclectic list of titles have graced the marquees in recent years. Both featured films like Age of Innocence and Remains of the Day at a time when movies like Ace Ventura and Terminator were more popular and would bring in more money. I was often one of only a handful of people at a screening. One summer, I was the only person at the 9 p.m. showing of Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Orpheum, and theemployees let me bring in a sandwich from Bob’s Sub. That won’t happen at the fancy new theater, I’m sure of it.
Get to the Garby soon and soak in its character and charm before it becomes a vestige of the past. The topsy-turvy experience will make for great conversation, and you’ll have a nostalgia-quality story to tell your kids and grandkids one day when you take them to a generic multiplex with subtle lighting and real hand soap in the bathrooms.
*Those “laws of nature” are actually all in our minds’ perceptions. But like the movies, it’s real while we’re there in the experience. Read more about it here.