The Theater at the End of the Universe: The Death of North Hollywood’s Valley Plaza 6
Pete Rabbit and Hotel Artemis. Paris can wait. Baywatch. hard night and Transformers: The Last Knight. Jeeper’s Creepers 3 was (incredibly) having a duplicate bill BOOO 2! A Madea Halloween. Under normal circumstances, it would never have occurred to me to watch one of these films, especially not in the cinema. And yet? I’ve watched them all. A theater has always brought me back, regardless of the content. For over fifty years, only one theater in the Los Angeles area has withstood the onslaught of art and “flavor.” That was Valley Plaza 6.
I was struck down to find North Hollywood’s Plaza Theater dead, the victim of that most vulgar of curtain calls of the time (also the pandemic). Another Southern California movie theater has disappeared. In poor shape, she fought the advancing clock for decades. The 1994 Northridge quake ripped away dozens of ceiling panels that never needed to be replaced, so the house always looked like it was about to fall apart, and it was. Not a matter of beauty, inside or out. A grotesque decaying beast, a holdover from a forgotten era, another time. If you happened to arrive at Plaza 6 in the last ten years, the reaction would be “ugh”. A visual inspection I was keen on and diary entries were made for future plays like this, for where else would anyone want to hear about it would leave much to be desired indeed. The abysmal bathroom maintenance, the sticky carpets, the deserted air wafting through the walls and hallways like a fading ghost, the smell of cigarettes, all the broken shoot ’em up video games, the drug dealers and homeless people in the parking lot; all would pause before entering.
“Let’s be together and enjoy it. It’s the most fulfilling thing that can happen to a creative artist. The audience is the thing. The guy who cackles on the balcony and is just happy to have people laugh along with you.” -Mel Brooks
It was fantastic for one thing and that was Not the movies. I paid my two bucks like the rest, two bucks we can all agree is a tiny amount, and while that kept most criticism at bay, nobody cared when I said, “It’s two bucks, man “; They still refused passage to the greatest outpost, the cinema at the end of the universe, which showed the only films screened twice, one last hurray before streaming and Red Box. No matter how low the price, no matter how exciting the prospect, with a writer who has not one but two warrants blasting through the scorching August heat of the valley on a forty-year-old motorcycle, see the idea Tomb Raider, slim man or Sherlock dwarves was just too much. Life may imitate art, but most Angelenos blend the two, leaving little to chance. A trifling two dollars or not, most lost their appeals.
Valley Plaza 6 was great for one thing: the crowd. I have loved nothing more than sitting in that main theater on a Friday night full of strangers, often a hundred or more, because as you must admit and also confirm, we no longer leave a film as strangers. We have shared something as a society, be it beautiful or mundane, stupid or clever. I’ve always loved the magic of the darkness required for art. To enjoy its magic you have to turn off the lights.
Huge immigrant families, groups of nuns, a bankrupt uncle tasked with babysitting his nephews for the afternoon, stoned teenagers from Reseda, not Woodland Hills, scavengers scavenging through tubs of rolled-up movie posters in the corner of the lobby. Tourists at the cheap ex-gang members with their reborn church group, the hardest thing they’re taking on now is one last run of the great Michael Fassbender in the not-so-great at all Assassin’s Creed. We came alone or in small groups of people, in crowds or on buses, looking for something to do on a Thursday afternoon and we found it in the plaza.
In the year of its birth, 1951, Valley Plaza was hailed as the largest shopping center on the West Coast. While Wilshire had its Wonder Mile, the Valley had its own brand of America. When I arrived in 2011 The area had become increasingly low-income as the working class replaced the middle and upper classes and the suburbs continued to expand west and north. Unfortunately, this allowed lower-end retailers like 99 Cent Only Store and Smart & Final to thrive in places like North Hollywood. The only bright spot was keeping Plaza 6.
Weekends were always packed because where else in LA can you take your family or girlfriend for a night out without spending hundreds of dollars? The discounts were as bland and tasteless as anything offered at AMC’s walking tour, but at a quarter of the price. Hot dogs cost only fifty cents more than Costco, and although half of the ten trailers promoted the armed forces, that didn’t matter. We went there together.
I mostly went to matinees. Get up early, write all morning, then take a break around one or two and watch a movie. One afternoon I lingered too long on a pitch proposal and ended up going to an evening show. Completely different audience. It’s mostly people like me: curmudgeons, unemployed writers, and low-paid gamers and their girlfriends whose stars will never rise. A typical entry from my diaries:
“…and then suddenly, in the middle of one of Charlie Day’s absurdly over-the-top racist diatribes against Sofia Boutella’s character ‘Nice’, a girl in the audience laughs, and it’s a snort, and it’s hilarious, the scene and Her laugh. Charlie’s delivery, Sofia’s reaction, it was easy plays fun. Then good old Zachary Quinto gets in Dave Bautista’s face and warns him of “consequences,” and more people laugh. Seriously, who’s going in Dave Bautista’s face for anything? Zach literally looks up at Dave’s biceps as he threatens him. And now, as an audience, we’ve made it. We have crossed the bridge. We all see this as comedy. I wanted to laugh the whole time, but the snorting girl started it. So here we are, getting serious about the hilarity. Hotel Artemis has cult films everywhere. Try seeing Jodie Foster’s character in this film and I guarantee you’ll laugh. Or at least say, “What the hell is she doing?” Which to me defines all “so bad it’s good” movies. The intention gets lost in the absurdity of the moment, but they keep fighting. Hotel Artemis is many things, but above all a multiple personality. Dystopian drama? horror? Thriller? Crime? It is unclear. But one thing I’m sure of: It’s true not bad.’
I’ve cried at comedy and laughed my way through Reservoir Dogs. In the dark we are free to let go and let the magic take hold of us and take us to a place where no one will see us for who we are. Nobody can see us at all. I know it may not seem like a historic loss, but I was truly devastated to discover our place was gone forever. It’s been almost a year now. There are moments that cling to us and within us that remind us never to let go of what we craved as children, sometimes we just need to be told a story, any old story. The cinema is still a place where the storytellers’ old arms are draped over our shoulders, where we are alone and together, in a place where we can laugh, point and cry, and best of all: be in a place where rabbits talk.