Originally published in June 2013
Take a look at this picture. It makes me incredibly sad. A friend of mine posted it on Facebook yesterday. This is (was) the AMC Colonial Commons 9 multiplex in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Obviously, it’s being torn down. Truth be told, I hadn’t gone to this theater in years, and yet seeing this picture brought back a flood of memories that made me realize just what an important place it was to me. The Commons closed about two years ago, but knowing the building still stood was some weird kind of comfort; I thought perhaps some other chain would buy and reopen it. Now that it’s been demolished, I feel a more permanent sense of loss.
Throughout the 1990s, the Commons was my favorite theater. It was the first multiplex in the city, all shiny and new. All the other theaters were either generic mall four-plexes or ancient twin cinemas that had seen better days. The idea of having nine movies under one roof was a novelty. The interior of the theater was lit up with blue neon, and rows of poster frames lined the walls down each of the two main corridors that branched off from the central lobby/concession stand area. There were two huge auditoriums (both of which came equipped with that amazing new digital sound), a couple of medium-sized ones, and a few smaller houses.
What really made it a special place to me was that they were willing to book independent films there, alongside the major Hollywood releases. My buddies and I would hop in the car and make the trek into the city to see limited-release pictures like Sling Blade and Chasing Amy. Before the Commons, films of that nature rarely, if ever, played Harrisburg, and we felt very cosmopolitan going to see them.
Actually, I saw movies of every variety there: Quiz Show, Jackie Brown, The Blair Witch Project, Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Independence Day, The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag, Batman & Robin, The Cutting Edge, L.A. Confidential, American Beauty, Dogma, Three Kings – I could go on and on. Occasionally, press screenings were held at the Commons; I saw Hot Rod at a screening there.
As with any theater you attend regularly, there are memories you will always associate with it. I’ll never forget our double features on Saturday afternoons, where we’d buy tickets in advance and then jump from auditorium to auditorium. I’ll also never forget the lone protestor who was picketing the Commons when we exited on opening night of The Shawshank Redemption. Whereas most people mocked or ignored him, I asked what he was protesting. He told me that he thought movies contained too much offensive material – and seemed glad that someone bothered to inquire. And how could I ever forget the joyous energy among the predominantly African-American audience on the opening weekend of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X? The sold-out show played in the biggest auditorium, and it was one of the few times I ever physically felt the excitement of the crowd. It was magical.
In late 1999, the Hoyts company built a bigger, newer multiplex about a mile away from the Commons. It had 14 screens, stadium seating, and a café. A few years later, Great Escape built another 14-screener in the Harrisburg Mall that was even more ornate and lavish. It was also the first all-digital theater in the city. The Colonial Commons 9 suffered from the existence of these theaters. Because they were fancier and had more amenities, people started to patronize them more frequently. That included me. The Commons became the place to go if you wanted to see movies but hated crowds.
My last visit to the Commons was essentially a fluke. I’d run a promotion on my website, and as a “thank you,” the company sponsoring the promotion sent me a $25 AMC gift card. The Commons was the only AMC theater in the area, so one hot summer day, I went there to see I Love You, Beth Cooper and blew the gift card at the concession stand. To my great satisfaction, the theater was still in good shape. Yes, it was a bit outdated by this point, but still a decent place to catch a flick.
I’m glad I got to go there one last time. The Colonial Commons 9 played a big part in my cinematic development, both professionally and personally. It was a terrific theater. The building may no longer stand, but in my heart, it will remain, just as it once was, forever.