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Martha’s Vineyard Movie Theaters in the 1980s


Of this writing I am about to take our girls to see Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. But today’s column is not about that film.


Or not directly about that film. I’ll be 49 in a few weeks, and this final Indiana Jones movie starring Harrison Ford, and scored by John Williams, so it is in many ways the last movie of my childhood—all those decades ago.


There may yet be more action-adventure movies starring Ford, and Williams scores yet to come (let’s hope)...but for Generation X kids like me, this one will close the book.


So I’m feeling the nostalgia. My daughters and I watched the four previous Indiana Jones movies at home in recent weeks, and they are excited to see this one. And because I’m taking them to see it, it reminded me of our moviegoing outings on Martha’s Vineyard in the early and mid-1980s.


The Vineyard had four theaters at the time. They were all, in their own way, terrible venues: single-screen, old-fashioned movie houses on a town main street, with crummy seats, bad sightlines, sticky floors, no A/C, and perpetually late starts.


The latest start I can remember was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, at the Capawock in Vineyard Haven. We were in one of the front rows, because it was so crowded, and for whatever reason, the early show (7 or 7:30pm, something like that) started nearly an hour late.


So that was like being packed in an airplane with rowdy kids for an hour, with the stuffy air and bonkers energy, just waiting to take off. The memory lingers!


So, the four theaters:


The Capawock (pic at top) was undersized and there were no center seats, because the lone aisle went down the middle. But it was across the street from the seminal bookstore in my life, the original Bunch of Grapes, where I would peruse everything from Cinefantastique to sci-fi novels to moviemaking books. (Main Street Vineyard Haven was our family’s go-to shopping street, coming from Up-Island: I would also hit Leslie’s Drugstore for comic books, and Brickman’s for Star Wars toys.)

The Edgartown Town Hall was the worst theater, because it was, literally, built into the top floor of the Town Hall building.


Trivia: the nails-on-the-chalkboard scene in Jaws was filmed in this structure!

Aside from some elevated rows near the back, the movie theater’s floor was flat, and the screen was high, so it was awkward and uncomfortable.


It was also, for whatever reason (maybe heating?) the only theater they kept open through the winter. It was a long drive for us from West Tisbury. When it closed for good (I think at some point in the 1990s) we weren’t too upset, but it did leave the island with only three theaters for a time.


Oh, an enduring anxiety of these years: getting a seat where, if a tall person sat in front of me, my view wouldn’t be obstructed! I remember the gamesmanship involved to try and sit where there would be a kid in front of me—and then, at the last minute, that family would shift around and a would-be basketball player would take the seat instead. Argh!


The best two theaters were open only in the summer and located quite close to each other in Oak Bluffs:

The Island Theater was short and wide, but probably the best overall venue. I saw many famous movies here: Return of the Jedi and Back to the Future come to mind. The last film I saw at the Island was The Dark Knight.


The Island has been closed in recent years, and in dire need of structural repairs, so it’s pretty much condemned. It’s really a travesty—and there is a seemingly unending string of disputes on the island between local authorities and the very unpopular family that owns the property (and others).

The Strand Theatre, a stone’s throw from the Island, was narrow and deep. This theater was open in summers for the shortest period of time (or so it felt), so there was something special about going to see a film in it. I saw RoboCop 2 here and I remember asking a stranger to bring me in, because I was underage and it was rated R, and the ticket seller was being strict.


My favorite moviegoing memories are going to Oak Bluffs: we would have pizza at Papa John’s (no connection to the Papa John’s chain, which might be why they changed the name to Papa’s Pizza; this was owned by our friends, the Lombardis); my brother and I would blow through way too many quarters at the Game Room on Centipede, Star Wars, Pac-Man and the like; maybe ride the Flying Horses carousel and try to get the brass ring for a free ride; and then see the film. Oh, and there was Mad Martha’s ice cream, too!

These are some of the fondest memories of my childhood. Without writing anything that will make my mom text me, “Are you all right?”—some aspects of my childhood weren’t the best. Others were fantastic! But on those nights where went to Oak Bluffs to do our routine and see a movie—that was like everything coming together...family, and community, and the fantasy worlds of imagination. It was a way to be home and a part of the larger world, at the same time.


So those are the moviegoing experiences I hope to create for my family today. It’s just harder when everything is so homogenized and charmless, with all the funky edges rubbed off—I’m thinking of theater chains with their 25 minutes of ear-splitting commercials.


More memories of childhood...


Martha’s Vineyard was (and is) mostly dry as far as alcohol. Oak Bluffs and Edgartown were the only two towns with “package stores” (liquor stores in our Massachusetts vernacular)—and Oak Bluffs had bars across the street from the theaters, so with the fog creeping in, the combination of kids out playing and grown-ups getting loaded and hearing live music from the bars inside made the whole thing like “Vineyard Blade Runner.”


Another Massachusetts term, by the way: we get “jimmies” on our ice cream, not sprinkles. It’s possible this term is being retired for a racist connotation (apologies), but I still find myself asking for “jimmies” in California—where I get a blank look.


What I remember about the movies themselves is…well, they were just movies. I mean that in the best possible way. They weren’t “events” or theme parks or “franchises.”


The sequels were on their way to becoming such things, of course: Star Trek III, Temple of Doom, Superman 3, 2010. But most were just cool-sounding new movies that had likable stars (Bill Murray in Ghostbusters), an easily understandable concept (The Karate Kid or Gremlins), or were supposed to be cool. And they were!


It was funny showing Back to the Future to our girls a few weeks ago, because one of my daughters got hung up on the illogic of the title: “Don’t you go back to the past?” she asked. And I remember thinking that too, as probably a lot of us did, in 1985.


But what a great film! Can you imagine just going into this cold, having no idea, and being swept away by the humor, the thrills, the characters and imagination?

A lot of cineastes look down at the 1980s for the homogenization and blockbuster-ization of movies—this was Reagan’s Morning in America, and an increasingly conservative, corporate time.


That’s all true—but I gotta say, as a kid, it was full of wonders. We loved Star Wars, so when all the Star Wars derivatives arrived, like The Last Starfighter, we couldn’t get enough.


On the other hand, for the people who seem to glorify this era as being non-stop “classics”: pretty much half the time, you could be assured the movie would be a disappointing piece of shit. Supergirl, anyone? David Lynch’s Dune has its admirers, but can you imagine being a kid trying to sort that out?


But “sleeper” hits happened, too. I remember going to see The Gods Must Be Crazy—and we were utterly delighted. Who knew?


I guess the point is that there was a high degree of variability to the films. You just didn’t know if you were going to be thrilled out of your mind, or bored to death—because both experiences would often happen.


Remember—there was no Internet. There was no real way to know what was coming out except for the previews, and what you read in Starlog and Cinefantastique. I used to collect the circulars that the theater group would print and distribute; in fact, they’re probably in a box in my mom’s basement.


One funny story about those: I remember seeing the “coming soon” listing for Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and assuming it was a Smurfs movie—because there had been an animated film, The Smurfs and the Magic Flute, with a human character named Pee-Wee. Nope!


About summer 1984: I do remember being taken aback by some of the violence of Gremlins (the decapitated Gremlin head in the fireplace) and Temple of Doom (the heart removal). And sure enough, that August, the ratings board created the PG-13 designation.


As far as movie music—I wasn’t yet a big fan. I liked the major John Williams themes (who didn’t?) and would plink them out at the piano. I distinctly remember seeing Innerspace (I think at the Capawock) and, during the main titles, feeling like the strange musical effects (like the waterphone) reminded me of V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture—and when I saw Jerry Goldsmith’s credit, I made the connection. That might have been my first conscious introduction to Goldsmith.


When the decade changed (I was in high school), one major flaw to the Vineyard theater chain became apparent: starting in 1990, we mysteriously didn’t get any Warner Bros. movies. I didn’t get to see Gremlins 2 until it was on home video. There was some sort of dispute with the distribution company, that the Island couldn’t guarantee enough screens. So for several years, we just didn’t have any WB movies—can you imagine?


Also, as fun as summertime was—the off-season was dreadful. We didn’t get movies until several weeks or months after their premieres. When Star Trek VI debuted in December 1991, my friend Jonah and I had to take the ferry over to Falmouth.


I went off to college in 1992, and though I came back in the summer—well, that was the end of my Vineyard childhood.


I try to keep a healthy perspective about the past. I enjoy nostalgia, but it’s kind of a trap. I remember the jolt I had from, of all things, Tony Soprano (halfway through this clip), making me self-conscious about this train of thought.

Thank you, David Chase—you morose bastard!


Want to know something that’s changed? I just bought our three tickets to Dial of Destiny online, IMAX, one adult and two kids...for $74.42. That is absolutely outrageous!


I don’t remember what tickets used to cost…well, maybe I do? I saw Good Morning, Vietnam, which came out in 1987, in Manhattan with my dad. There was a projection problem and some charming New Yorker yelled out, “Six bucks for this shit?!”


So there you go.


Enjoy the movies, folks—if you can afford it!

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3 commenti


I will never forget seeing Blue Thunder in Edgartown and the reels were out of order, making a standard action movie completely surreal. Or Star Trek 5 in Edgartown where the film melted and snapped in the bar scene. But nothings beats Always at the strand when it got to the final reel as the plane came in to make it last drop, and Little Mermaid came on. And we had to go see it again as the correct reel was in another town. Or when the island theaters got in a fight with Warner so no Warner movies would play!

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Lukas Kendall
Lukas Kendall
03 lug 2023
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Jonah, I remember very well Star Trek V melting during the brig scene—we saw that opening night!

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Thanks Lukas, you're a great writer! I hope Indy's good :)

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