Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Forest Theater's Last Show

Our family said farewell to a community friend tonight: The Forest Theater. For 57 years, the Compston Family made it possible to watch first-run movies at a price everyone could afford. When we moved to town 18 years ago, admission was $2.50 per person and popcorn was $.50. Tonight our tickets were $4 each, and Gary Compston, the theater owner, was handing out popcorn for free.

In many ways, Gary was the theater. He set the tone - a collegial, neighborly atmosphere where he soon remembered your name and maybe even your usual order at the candy counter.

Going to a movie at The Forest Theater meant you would automatically attend with friends, because people you knew were waiting to pay for a ticket with you, standing in line for popcorn and candy with you, and sitting in seats around you as a small child (who Gary had chosen from the concession line earlier) started the movie by pushing two buttons inside the theater office. When the ads for local businesses began showing on the screen, you remembered why the town now felt like a hometown.

What I'll remember about The Forest Theater:

• Driving by the theater during the day to remind myself of what would be playing there that night.
• Being able to enjoy a date night for less than $12, movie munchies included.
• Being able to walk to and from that date night so the magic lasted just a bit longer.
• Listening to the change machine and watching the 50-cent pieces roll down its slide after handing Gary $3 for a $2.50 admission.
• Sitting in the cry room with my infant son, wondering why all movie theaters didn't provide such a gracious spot to watch a movie with a restless or tired little tyke.
• Hearing Gary tell patrons with a large concession order how to carry the items so they won't spill.
• Hearing Gary caution patrons not to spill when it seemed he doubted their ability to carry items to their seats.
• Joking along with Gary every time he told me I owed him $40 or $50 for the $16 admission for our family entourage.
• Watching children and youth (mine included) fight for spots in the front row.
• Listening to the paper popcorn bags nearly drown the beginning sounds of movies with quiet opening scenes.
• Listening to Gary and Mark talk after the show about changes occurring in the movie industry because of the digital revolution.
• Watching my oldest son glide down to his spot in the front row as his wheelchair coasted into position, and then rhythmically push his tires when it was time to ascend the full length of the aisle's incline after credits had finished.
• Wondering what six movies would be on the next flyer to grace our family refrigerator.

Thanks for the memories, Cathy and Gary Compston. You missed taking a lot of vacations so we could escape for a few hours - week after week, month after month, year after year. May you enjoy each of those trips you have planned as a way to launch into retirement. You have left our community quite a legacy. I hope someone dares to step forward and carry that legacy into our community's future.

You will be missed.

You will not be forgotten.

Note: I hope the video helps you feel like you were there on the last night. I particularly enjoyed having Gary show off the projector room one last time as the last movie rolled. Seemed incredibly historic. With the advent of digital film, that machine will likely never roll a film again. I loved hearing the tick of the reels. Pretty poignant.


Craig Larson said...

Thanks for doing this. I found your video through a Facebook posting. I've got many, many memories of 100s of hours spent watching movies at the Forest theater. Very sad day that they're closed down. I moved to Forest City in 1972 and can remember lots and lots of first-run movies there, like The Towering Inferno, Chinatown, Network, etc. Used to go to Saturday matinees all the time when growing up. I'm a lifelong film devotee and I would certainly credit the Forest and the Compston family with stoking that interest. Hopefully someone will come along and re-open the place.

Joy said...

Thanks for commenting, Craig.

I had gone with only the intent to enjoy the show but soon became overwhelmed with nostalgia and just had to take out my Flip camera to capture the last night that would ever be like this one. I, too, hope someone buys the place, but it likely won't maintain the capacity to connect current moviegoers to a sense of cinematic history.

Bob Fenske said...

In 2009, when we packed our bags and moved from Forest City to New Hampton, I knew one thing I would miss was the Forest Theatre.

I just didn't realize how much I would miss it.

Some of it, to be sure, was the relatively low-cost entertainment it provided us as a family.

I'm guessing in the last couple of years we lived in Forest City the boys saw 30 to 35 movies a year, and I saw 10 to 15 movies a year.

But what I really missed were those nights when I was walking home and would stop in to give Gary grief (although let the record state that Gary gave it as well as he took it!). We'd talk about everything from Gary's Navy days to the current movie playing.

One of the things I appreciated about Gary is that I could call him and ask him if this movie or that movie was appropriate for my kids. I knew I'd get a straight answer. On several occasions, he would say, "Not a good one for the boys," and forsake a few extra bucks that a less honest owner would have gladly accepted.

Over the years, we had tons of fun with Gary. We once did a humor page for Puckerbrush in which it had been announced that Gary was going to allow folks to put their feet up on chairs and use their cell phones, and I will always remember the good humor he showed after we printed our page.

Movie theaters, I believe, are places where memories are made, and I leave you with one of my favorites.

Like most parents who dropped off their children for a movie, I would pop in, pay for the tickets and find out what time the movie ended.

On this night, "Marley and Me" was showing, and although I wanted the boys to walk down to the Summit after the movie was over, I still wanted a ballpark time I could expect them.

"7:08," Gary said, and when I asked him to remind the boys that they needed to walk to the office, he laughed, "That'll be two extra bucks."

Around 7:15, the boys still had not arrived, and the phone rang.

"Bob," Gary said, "they're on the way, but if you want to see how good this movie is, go outside and watch the boys walk down the street."

I stepped outside, and there was Josh and Noah walking slowly down the street. Josh had his arm around his little brother and as they got closer, I could see Noah was crying.

"Dad," he sobbed, "it was a great, great movie ... but ... Marley ... didn't make it."

I, as I so often do in my life, had gotten busy and would have missed that "magical movie moment" if not for the owner of the best little movie theater in all of Iowa.

Joy said...

What an incredible story, Bob. Thanks so, so much for posting it here. I ended reading it with tears in my eyes. Now I miss the theater more than ever.

Anonymous said...

grew up in Forest City and have many fond memories of going to the movies there and my children also enjoyed the theatre. I was sad to see it's closing and know it will be truly missed. Thank you Gary for all the great memories!!!

Mrs. Olson said...

What a great post, Joy! Thank you so much for it. I lived at that theater growing up. Each Saturday there was a matinee for 50 cents. Those Godzilla movies rocked! My favorite moment: sitting in the front row for Star Wars. Small town Iowa is changing, and in so many ways, that is a sad thing.

Anonymous said...

When I was about 5 years old, we could see the fire which burned down the previous theater. Then later after the "new theater" was built we saw "King Kong", from perhaps the 30's, and there was a huge, perhaps 12 foot tall King Kong statue in front of the theater. At that time the theater had a hole in the canopy by the front doors that accommodated a tree growing through it. I don't remember how long that lasted....Later my brother and I would go to cowboy matinees for 20 cents and we could buy popcorn for 5 cents....that was a long, long time ago.

Joy said...

What incredible stories and memories. Thank you for sharing them. I hope Gary and Cathy can comprehend - just a bit - how much they helped magically shape childhood and youth for so many.

Carol DeJong said...

I remember driving into Forest City for the first time when Earl and I moved there in 1969. It was a Saturday night, and the streets were teeming with teenagers out for whatever adventures teens seek on Saturday night. It was such a high to see the activity and know that we would soon be a part of it.

I spotted the theater and enjoyed quite a few movies there over the years. Times are changing and keeping the smaller towns going is a bigger and bigger challenge. Hopefully, someone will buy the theater.

Our Forest City years were some of the best we have experienced with good friends and good times.

Joy said...

Thanks for sharing your memories, Carol. The Forest Theater is truly a local treasure.