This weekend, our culture diminished.
Not in a tragic way, as we see in the devastation, death and loss behind events like the recent Washington State mud slide, or in Hurricanes Sandy, Ike and Katrina. This was more a whimper than a bang, a footnote in a newspaper, a local event that a few thousand—not a few hundred thousand—people will recognize and remember.
We lost the Century Domes. Movie theaters in San Jose, California that represented optimism for the future—the optimism of Camelot, the Moon Race, and that peculiarly pleasing geometric design that could be found in everything from Bob’s Big Boys to motel signs to animated shows like The Jetsons.
In that gung-ho embrace of what the Utopian future was sure to hold, the domed complexes—the first domed movie theaters of a number built in the architecturally-adventuresome West—were even named Century 21, Century 22 and Century 23.
Century 21 was the first and most glorious. Built in 1964 as a Cinerama theater, it showcased the really big movies, encompassing everyone under its tent, like a space age camping trip or a Technicolor planetarium show or an adventure in another world.
For me, the loss is also personal. I spent a good part of my childhood in San Jose, and seeing movies at the Century was a true event. They were my generation’s movie palaces. I remember watching Funny Lady and Disney’s Robin Hood and even the re-release of Gone With the Wind at Century Theaters when I was eleven or twelve years old.
So when I found out on Saturday that they were closing for good … well, it hit me. Perhaps harder than I would have expected, and for reasons again personal: when I lost both my parents to cancer, I also lost my childhood. My history. As an only child, I have no one to fact-check with, no one to share early memories with. Somehow knowing that those theaters were still there, still showing movies, kept part of my own history alive, too.
The theaters have always been successful, even now. They were not closed because no one saw movies there, or because people are staying at home watching Netflix. The reasons they will be no more, unless California designates Century 21 a historic landmark (a long shot, for reasons cited below), are simple.
Such a loaded word. Not necessarily negative, but in recent years—in San Francisco, in San Jose, in California and the Western United States in general—it has become a word synonymous with diminishment, loss, and even death.
See, there is a shopping center across the street from the old theaters, which are, themselves, adjacent to the (in)famous Winchester Mystery House. They don’t call it a shopping center anymore, it’s now “live/work” or “mixed-use retail”—but essentially, it’s a shopping complex and an upscale one. It’s been built out and up to the edges of a box—a density more suitable to Manhattan than the traditional low-rise architecture of California and the Golden West.
The shopping center and its progenitor, Federal Realty, has been hungrily eyeing the expanse of parking lot and movie theaters across Winchester Boulevard. And now, thanks to an expiring (and unrenewed) lease and the determination of the land owners—who also own the Winchester Mystery House—to squeeze as much money as possible from their fortuitous landownership (their family bought the parcel in the 1920s), the shopping center is metastasizing.
Developers—and is it a coincidence that they share the first syllable with Devil, I wonder?—stand to make another fortune (and another, and another) as the working-class and middle-class spaces of domed movie theaters (or bowling alleys or ice-skating rinks or performance halls) are converted into tawdry odes to the new American past time … for a large part of the diminishment I first mentioned is our conversion from a country that produces to a country that consumes. And consumes, and consumes …
And what we are told to consume are “luxury” and “upscale” objects and things, “lifestyle” choices we are meant to embrace and aspire to. Shopping malls like the one across the street from the theaters are symbols of this aspiration, and the “town hall” architecture—which is about as insipid as the consumerism it represents—is the new medium by which we can conveniently do so.
Roll out of bed in your luxury condo, pop down to a Starbuck’s below and pick up a few shirts at Abercrombie and Fitch. Then check out the scene in your Google Glasses while you take a small break from your 14-hour a day tech job which is paying you an insane amount of money to forget that you have no life beyond consumption.
There’s your live/work/condo for you. And that’s what is going to be built on the corpses of the Century Theaters and the former Bob’s Big Boy that is now home to an equally old-fashioned coffee shop. Federal Realty has stated that it has no intention of preserving Century 21 … and I have no intention of ever supporting Federal Realty.
I am not anti-building. I am not even anti-development. I’m sure that somewhere in this vast nation is an architect or landowner of some creativity and soul. I’ll even go out on a limb and suggest that there may even be a developer who favors and understands the importance of historic and cultural preservation. But what I protest against, with every fiber of my being, is the notion that a shopping center can and should replace a movie theater. Or a bowling alley. Or a Palladium. Or a Bay Meadows or Hollywood Park.
Look, we used to be a society where people came together. Remember the feeling of social unity? Remember how good it feels, even on a micro level, when you share a communal experience? Movie theaters gave us that. So did bowling alleys and dance halls, race tracks and amusement parks and drive-ins and community centers and even the real town hall/Main Street USAs that are being replaced by these grotesque new architectural odes to our not-so-proud role as Number One Global Consumer.
We are losing public and community spaces, one by one, city by city, town by town. In their place we build big-box retail and match-box condos and tall, dense and ugly buildings where people never meet. They sleep there (if they can afford it); they shop there (if they can’t).
And that’s what we’ve become. And if we don’t start preserving some spaces more dedicated to coming together than pulling out a wallet—and perhaps addressing topics like monolithic corporate monopolies and the growing wealth disparity—well, let’s just say the future is not as bright as it was when the Century Theaters were built.
There is still a fight to be fought. The domes will not ever be first run movie theaters again—we can bet on that—but they can still be saved from the wrecking ball. The Preservation Action Council of San Jose has been battling to have the theater(s) named historic landmarks worth saving and simultaneously trying to convince a criminally recalcitrant mayor and city council of the need to architecturally preserve and incorporate (at least) Century 21 into any new development. To their great shame, Mayor Chuck Reed and the City Council actually sent a letter to the state requesting that the theater NOT be designated a historic landmark.
If I were writing a noir based on this fact, I’d follow a money trail. And I’d remember, come election day.
Because ultimately, preserving Century 21 will not eliminate the obscene profits the developers and landowners and all other interested parties will make from their deal with the devil. New always trumps old when it comes to the money generated by development. But if enough political pressure is applied, perhaps Mr. Reed and the Council will realize that they stand to lose more than whatever has already been calculated to “pencil out.”
The rest of us, unfortunately … already have.
The battle is not yet over! If you would like to help (the most rewarding kind of community interaction), please sign the petition to save the domes. You can email or call the California Office of Historical Preservation in advance of their April 22nd meeting to decide the fate of Century 21. You can “like” and follow the “Save the Dome” Facebook Page. You can also put financial pressure on Federal Realty and its properties, since money is the only language they understand.