Next Tuesday, the Arlington Theatre turns 80, making it five years older than the Santa Barbara Bowl, and, if one were fair about its role in the city’s rock concert history, at least as important. Dylan, Springsteen, and The Clash played both venues. What more need be said? But we’re also talking about a movie theater, one that rose from the ashes of the legendary Arlington Hotel and, as a 20th Century Fox outlet, played host to glamorous affairs, like a grand opening of the most talked-about film of all time, Gone with the Wind. In early Hollywood, the theater was used frequently for sneak openings. Today, it’s the S.B. Film Fest’s spiritual center, but for all of us, it’s a place of reel-world memories. People older than 40 remember seeing Star Wars there. Older than 50, it was Lawrence of Arabia. Most importantly, however, the Arlington is a palace, a place of dark glory under fake stars where the dream factory can unroll its sometimes beautiful and gigantic visions. We shared them there, and it’s hard to enter the cool dramatic space without remembering whose hand you held while Elizabeth Taylor, Cary Grant, or R2-D2 held your eyes. In case you need more motivation—besides three free screenings of The Pirates of the Caribbean films on Thursday, May 19; Saturday, May 21; and Sunday, May 22—here are three deeply philosophical reasons to celebrate.
1. It’s Real, Living History: In a town of facsimile monuments (the Mission, the Presidio, and Rusty’s pizza house on Carrillo Street), the Arlington has been in constant use since 1931, the year Frankenstein, M, and The Public Enemy opened. Every time you go to a film there, another chapter is written silver on the screen. It makes Thor seem downright profound.
2. It’s Magnificent … : … from the hypodermic tower outside through the entryway, into the foyer with its sweeping stairs, and then into the palace itself. So what if Seth Rogen called it a movie theater inside a Mexican restaurant? It’s got twinkling stars and painted shadows and a giant screen to transport us to wonder.
3. The People Who Run It Are Nice: I don’t know what corporate mentality bathes most Metropolitan Theatre employees. I do know that Karen Killingsworth and her staff have seen everything from midnight premieres with only 58 attendees to Harry Potter fanatics camped out for three days. They’ve kept their sense of humor throughout and only want people to “enjoy the show,” as they put it. The Arlington itself is a big part of that grand enjoyableness.