The Commodore Theater: A Hampton Roads Treasure

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By KENNETH JOHNSON

While Americans like to boast of being rugged individualists, we still at heart possess a herd mentality. We may like our “me time,” but consider that one of the worst punishments in the penal system is solitary confinement. Humans crave interaction with other humans. While we may want to get away from it all now and then, we can’t seem to stay away for very long.

You can cook meals alone at home, but restaurants continue to thrive. You can shop online at home, but look at how crowded the malls and retail outlets are before Christmas. Major sporting events are available for viewing at home, but fans prefer to fill a stadium. We may complain about crowds, but we sure enjoy being a part of those crowds.

Where is all this leading? A look at one of the most popular shared experiences in modern times: movie theaters. While cinemas share an origin with live theaters, movies have become the primary entertainment venue for a variety of reasons. Some are obvious: it is less expensive to show a movie than put on a live show and live shows have limitations (imagine trying to do a stage version of “Star Wars”!).

I can think of no better way to tell a story to large numbers of people. If you combine the old proverb “One picture is worth a thousand words” with words and music, it becomes a total sensory experience – except for smell and taste, which might explain the popularity at movie theaters of fresh-popped popcorn……or dinner. More on that in a moment.

Over the decades, innovations in entertainment were touted as the “death knell” for motion pictures. First television and later VHS tapes, DVDs, and the Internet were all cited as “movie theatre killers”; but being the social creatures that we are, one of the most popular date night or family experiences is “dinner and a movie”. Or both, at the same time.

Which brings us to a Hampton Roads landmark: The Commodore Theatre in downtownPortsmouth. Built in 1945, the theatre thrived for two decades. It was conveniently located on the main route for travelers heading east and west on the Southside of Hampton Roads.  Until the early 1960s the trip required a ferry ride betweenNorfolkandPortsmouthat High Street. With construction of the Downtown Tunnel, which ended the ferries and bypassed High Street, attendance fell. Later, with shifts in population centers away from the cities to the suburbs and emergence of malls and retail centers around those suburbs, the old downtowns fell on hard times. Many retailers packed up and relocated to the malls. Others just closed up entirely. By the early 1970s, attendance at The Commodore was so low that the owners were forced to close.

For about 15 years, the theatre remained empty. The once-elegant interior fell into disrepair. The painted canvas wall murals disintegrated. Vagrants camped out, and debris filled the auditorium. The future of the once-elegant Commodore looked rather grim.

Fred Schoenfeld, who has been involved in movie theaters for over half a century and was operating the Plaza Theaters in the western part of Portsmouth, had a vision for the venue and believed it would lead to the revitalization of High Street – in much the same way that Thomas Vourlas and Tench Phillips sparked the revival of Ghent in Norfolk with the renovation of the old “Colley” theatre into the “Naro.” The mix of new movies and classic and foreign films was the perfect attraction for the eclectic Bohemian resident patrons, and inspired the renovation of nearby businesses. ThatColley Avenuecorridor section ofNorfolkcontinues to enjoy success with a variety of restaurants and businesses, but the “Naro” was the spark that lit the rejuvenation fire.

Instead of subdividing the big High Street theatre building into two or more “mini theaters” with postage stamp-sized screens (as was done at other older theaters across the country), Schoenfeld kept the single big Commodore screen venue; a risky venture. Multi-screen theatre owners spread their risk. If one movie doesn’t do well, revenues are bolstered by others that are hits. With a single screen, if the movie is a “turkey,” the owner is stuck with it – along with the accompanying reduced revenues.

Enjoy dinner with the movie at The Commodore

To help offset the financial risk, and to offer a unique movie going experience, Schoenfeld decided to offer dinner with the evening shows and lunch for matinees. This was a first for the industry: a renovated classic theatre offering dining in the auditorium. Almost all movie houses stay on the positive side of the ledger through snack sales: it’s the popcorn, candy, and soft drink sales that pay the bills since most of the box office receipts go to the studios. The dinner profits at The Commodore also allow Schoenfeld to keep ticket prices low – half to a third of what most theater chains charge – as well as buffering the fluctuating box office returns.

Renovation of The Commodore began in 1986. The downstairs was converted from the standard rows of seats into a dining hall of tables with lamps and big comfy chairs. Each table has a telephone used to call the kitchen to place your order, which is delivered to the table prior to the start of the movie. Desserts are brought out a short time later unless you can’t wait and want it immediately.

While there have been a few minor adjustments, the menu has changed very little since 1988. The fresh-baked bread, in-house award-winning chicken salad, made-from-scratch pizza, and even the BBQ nachos have proven very successful and popular. Annual Triple-A ratings are the norm. In addition to the fresh dinner items, served with coffee, espresso, wine, or tea, the traditional snacks are also available for diners. The popped-at-the-theatre popcorn (made in a gas-fired popping and heated storage unit designed by Fred Schoenfeld!) which can be served with hot, real butter, and an assortment of candies is available both downstairs and in the balcony.

If you are not up for dinner the balcony, which looks much as it did in 1945, offers traditional movie viewing with a concession and restrooms.

Downstairs or upstairs, there is not a bad seat in the house. The huge screen and Certified THX sound system (the only such system for 500 miles around) ensures full enjoyment of the feature. We have had patrons tell us that they heard sounds in movies at The Commodore that they did not hear at other movie venues. For instance, in Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” in the scene where animals cross the road, the THX system lets you hear them from off the left side of the screen before they appear, and then follows them across to the other side. In the first “Sherlock Holmes” when Lord Blackwood is circling and taunting Holmes and Watson, you hear actor Mark Strong’s voice actually circling around the theatre. The THX also makes the music soar, whether it’s a lush Hans Zimmerman score or the cast of “Les Miserable”. The sound system is checked and updated on a regular basis by George Lucas’s THX team to ensure the sound is always at its best.

The latest, and perhaps most important, change at The Commodore has been the switch from celluloid film to digital projection. The change is not just an issue of picture quality; it is one of pure necessity. All theaters must make the switch to digital by the end of 2013 in order to offer first-run movies as the distribution of film will end by the first of 2014. While the digital picture is crisper and steadier than film, cost is also a factor in the change, at least for the studios creating and distributing movies. The cost of shipping a single hard drive, which can be loaded with the feature plus many other trailers or specials, is about a fourth of the cost of shipping four-to-six reels of film. Plus the hard drive can be recycled over and over. So, while some directors continue to use film while most others shoot their movies digitally, all the finished first-run features will be exhibited by digital projectors in theaters by next year.

Old movie nuts like me miss the “organic feel” of film; I actually liked the grain, fluctuations, scratches, and “reel change signals” in film projection. We have kept the 35, 16, and 70-millimeter projectors (you never know!), and with the digital system, there is now no format that cannot be exhibited at The Commodore. The digital projectors, by the way, do not come cheap. But you will not see an increase in ticket or concession prices at The Commodore. Schoenfeld believes in providing a great value for guests at The Commodore.

The theatre also provides a venue for special events: an annual bluegrass festival and several companies hold meetings or celebrations at The Commodore, as well as private events. For information on booking The Commodore, be sure to access the website for information: www.commodoretheatre.com

The website also offers information on the history of the theatre, seating charts, the menu, current and coming features. The Commodore also tweets (@commodoretheatr) and like just about everyone else is on Facebook at “Commodore Theatre”. Feel free to “follow” or join the group to offer your own reviews of films and for news from what is often referred to as “Hollyweird”.

So, while you enjoy the historical aspects of the theatre, which has been placed on several historical registers, the movie technology – and the food – are always fresh! Don’t sit there all by yourself; grab a friend or four and take part in an American entertainment tradition. We hope you will visit us soon for a fabulous dining and movie experience at the classic Commodore Theatre!

Kenneth Johnson is a Hampton Roads native who has been involved in film, television production and radio broadcasting since the 1970s. When not promoting The Commodore or pushing popcorn in the balcony, Ken provides characters for video and audio productions at Studio Center Total Production and helps keep things going at WHKT AM 1650. He can be reached at whktam1650@gmail.com

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