The Last Picture Show: 1970-2007

National TheatreI wasn’t going to go.  All day long I kept coming up with excuses.  It’s too far.   It’s a work night.  I don’t really want to see Shooter again.  I’d rather go see the Siodmak film at The Egyptian.  After a while though, I realized these were all the same reasons I hadn’t gone before and these were some of the same reasons the National was about to close forever.  It was the least I could do to make up for the fact I’d never done anything to stop it,  so I went.  

I left early so I could get there with time enough to wander around, to soak in the atmosphere and to wonder what it might’ve been like 30 years ago when the Village, the Bruin, the National and the Crest were all booming; when movies were still the thing to do and Westwood was still the place to do it.  Yet, it wasn’t an easy drive from North Hollywood to Westwood.   Traffic was still heavy and, characteristically, every decision I made the wrong one.  I took surface streets instead of the 405.  I took Laurel Canyon instead of Beverly Glen, Sunset Boulevard instead of Santa Monica, each route more clogged than the last.  Perhaps this was my penance, punishment for choosing the multiplex over the single screen giant, for being seduced by the shiny, new and soulless Arclight.

National Ticket StubFinally, I arrived and as I circled blocks trying to decide whether to accept the gouging of a paid parking lot or to hunt around an unfamiliar neighborhood to find something free (convenience would trump patience and I would take the gouging), I noticed that Westwood was still alive.  The sidewalks bustled with college students dining and shopping and socializing.  They were going somewhere, but they passed the poor National unnoticed.  The sense of excitement that must’ve been here once was long gone now, leaving the building looking rather forlorn.

Discouraged, I almost turned around and went home.  I didn’t belong here anyway, I thought.  I didn’t grow up with this theater.  I didn’t have a list of great movies I’d seen there.  Just as Edward Norton accused Helena Bonham-Carter in Fight Club, I was a tourist.  The big theatre of my childhood, the John Danz of the old SRO movie chain, was back where I grew up in Bellevue, Washington.   I saw Superman there and Tootsie.  I saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom plus all the James Bond movies.  I saw the first remake of King Kong there at an age when it actually seemed kind of cool.  The Danz had been built in the same era as the National.  The last I heard, it had been converted into a Good Guys audio/video store.   Maybe I would’ve seen these same movies at the National had I lived in Los Angeles.  Maybe this was my chance to say goodbye to the John Danz as well.  So I stayed.

National Concession StandAs showtime grew nearer, people trickled up to the ticket window, but there was no line around the block as I imagine there might have been once.  There was no fanfare to speak of in fact.  The closest thing to a celebrity was “The Movie Geek” from the former Comedy Central quiz show Beat the Geeks.  At one point, a channel 7 news van circled the block, but apparently the TV news wasn’t interested in the passing of this bit of cinema history.  Perhaps something more important was happening in Westwood.  Perhaps they found another father for Anna Nicole Smith’s baby.

We congregated on the sidewalk, some in clumps talking about movies and remembering the way things used to be, and others alone in their thoughts.  Once we were let inside though, the cameras came out.  People took pictures of every angle, hoping to capture the moment and hold on to it, knowing they’d never be inside these walls again.  One gentleman who was simply there to see the movie asked me why everyone was taking pictures.  I explained the theatre was closing down and that these people were all here to say goodbye.  He nodded as if he understood and said it was a lucky thing he’d chosen this night to come to the movies.  I agreed and hoped, from then on, he’d imagine the theatre as it once was in its glory days instead of the tired, rundown afterthought it seemed to have become.

National AuditoriumAt last the lights went down, the gold curtains parted and Shooter began to unspool before the audience which filled maybe 40 of the 1112 seats.  Sadly, even for its going away party, this was the best the National could manage.   The movie itself was the same as the first time I’d seen it (an implausible but entertaining action thriller for about 120 minutes that gets sillier by the minute in the last 15), but it wasn’t a bad way to go out.  The projection and sound were still first rate and Shooter was a good way to put them through their paces for the last time.

Eventually, the film drew to a close and in effect, so did the National.  As the lights came up, an older man at the end of my row stood up and said loudly enough for others to hear:  “Goodbye, National.  Thank you.  Goodbye.”  And that was it.  The audience, such as it was, trickled out the way it had come, back to their cars, back home to think on what they’d had and what they’d lost. 

National AuditoriumIn the end, the National wasn’t the oldest or largest or fanciest theatre in Los Angeles, but it was one of the good ones and now it’s gone.  It’s not the end of the world, I know.  The sun will rise tomorrow as it always does, but it will shine over a city that’s just a tiny bit less than it was the day before.  You might not notice it as you go about your day, but it’s so.  No, it’s not the end of the world, but it is the end of something.

Goodbye National, goodbye John Danz and thank you both indeed.  I’m glad I knew you before the world moved on.

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3 thoughts on “The Last Picture Show: 1970-2007

  1. Wow, now I wish I had known about it and gone with you. You really have a gift in sharing your world with others. Don’t stop!

  2. Ah, for the days when movie theaters weren’t required to follow their name with a number denoting the plethora of closet-sized screens contained within.

    This reminds of the Tacoma Mall Twin back up in the Puget Sound, one of those rare 60’s era theaters with TWO SCREENS! I saw Indy and the Temple of Doom, Aliens, Lethal Weapon, Top Gun, and even had my first date there for Empire Strikes Back (yes, I was quite the mover and shaker at age 10). Sadly, it lost it’s luster in the early 90’s with the boom of multiplex hell and eventually was bulldozed to provide Tacoma with it’s first Krispy Kreme. Every time I drive by on I-5 I remember how amazing that theater was back in its day, wood paneling and all.

  3. I was just at a 16 screen multi-plex yesterday and it’s not the same. The auditorium itself was one of the larger ones, but it was still just one of many all wrapped up in a rat’s maze of busy carpeting. There’s no focus. No sense of a big event. No big marquee heralding tomorrow’s watercooler movie. There’s no showmanship. It’s just another way to kill a couple of hours on a weekend. Sad.

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