Some time ago, I was struck by this headline in the Business section of The Post: "Circle Theatre Plans 10-Screen Movie House on Wisconsin Avenue."
The implication is that the Circle Theatre organization is building a movie house. That is erroneous. What it is doing is breaking up a space suitable for one spacious theater with one screen into 10 small rectangular cubicles, each with its own screen.
No one actually builds movie houses any more; instead, screens surrounded by walls and little else are added to existing spaces. Since this practice is economically feasible, it is spreading like a plague, not only in Washington but also in other large urban areas around the country.
No one in his right mind would like to see a return to the cavernous art deco movie palaces of the 1930s. But the current trend toward tinier and tinier places in which to view movies is even worse. As an architect friend of mine said, "This is minimalism and miniaturism gone berserk."
The rationale behind all this insanity has been often stated in public by theater en- trepreneurs: Why lose money on a flop in an auditorium seating 1,500 people when you can break up all that space into cubicles with a capacity for 150 to 200 seats, each with its own screen? Furthermore, the rationale continues, creating these film-viewing cubicles won't cost much because the people who attend movies don't care how attractive or comfortable a theater is. They just want a seat.
The result of this entrepreneurial cynicism is evident when the moviegoer enters the theater. Immediately his senses are deadened by drab wall colors, a total absence of ornamentation, unimaginative lighting and an overall plastic ambience. In addition, the moviegoer experiences an unpleasant sensation of confinement as the walls intrude on the seating space.
Then, as if to ensure that movie-viewing will be a totally unpleasant experience, the theater moguls keep their popcorn concessions going full blast. No minimalism there. The result is that movie theaters have become privileged sanctuaries for indiscriminate trashing. The strict laws and heavy fines that are enforced for dumping trash in other public places simply don't apply in movie theaters.
Hovering over this decline in the quality of moviegoing life is the huge teen-age audience, an easy scapegoat for the ills of contemporary life. It is argued that since the teen-agers favor "gross-out" humor in their movie fare, they don't mind being grossed out by the environment in which they watch these movies. But this is an oversimplication. After all, the teen-agers didn't brutalize the theaters; the money- grubbing owners and developers did.
Looking over the Movie Directory in The Post, I note that there are 55 "screens" in the District of Columbia. Out of these 55 viewing places -- one hesitates to call them theaters -- I would say that only five provide the space, the beauty of design and the cleanliness to make movie-going a pleasurable experience for people of all ages.
But who is to say how much longer these precious oases of civilization will be in existence. At any time an individual with nothing in his soul but dollar signs can come along and say, "Let's buy that property and turn it into a 10-screen complex. It's a sure money-maker, and the public will love it."