Tuesday, March 9th, 2021

Shopper Client Stories


Movies as they were meant to be seen

by Rob Lauer

Fred Schoenfeld and Tiffany Brown

Fred Schoenfeld and Tiffany Brown

For as long as he can remember, Fred Schoenfeld has been hearing that movie theaters are on the verge of extinction. But as the owner of the historic Commodore Theatre in Olde Towne Portsmouth, he's having none of it.

"When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s, everyone said television was going to be the death of movie theatres," he recalls. "Guess what? They survived. In the 1970s, VHS tapes came along and everyone sad no one would go see movies in theatres if they could watch them at home. Theatres survived. In the 1990s there were DVDs, and everyone was sure that was the end of theatres. It wasn't. Now we all have our devices; we can download movies on tiny little screens. But for most Americans, going on a date still means going to the movies. Say what you want but movie theatres aren't going away."

The film industry and movie theatres have been in a state of constant evolution since they first came into being over 110 years ago.

"I started working as a projectionist at age 12," Fred recalls. "This was in the 1950s, so the old guys who trained me had started their careers during the silent film era." Fred stops and laughs. "I call them old, but they were probably only in their 30s at the time. In terms of decades, sound movies were still a fairly recent development at that time. The technology has always changed quickly."

When movie theatres first emerged in the early 20th century, the motion picture was a cutting-edge technology that the general public considered miraculous.

"People had never seen anything like it," Fred explains. "A barn in Kansas could be converted into a movie theater. People who'd spent their entire lives on the prairies could sit down together and watch a movie of a ship at sea. They were blown away! They'd ask, "How can we be seeing an ocean here in the middle of the Great Plains?' "

Americans now take the movie-going experience for granted, but when the first nickelodeons and movie houses were built, many people had trouble processing what they were seeing. Among film historians there is an often-told tale of an audience in the first years of the 20th century who, upon watching film of a train pulling into a Paris station, sprang from their seats and fled the theatre.  Seeing a photographic image that moved played havoc with their sense of time and space: they believed that a real steam engine was rolling off the screen toward them.

This story of a group of people running for their lives from a theater speaks to the communal power of the movie-going experience. Because of that power, Fred is convinced that movie theatres will never end up in the dustbin of history.

"Certain animals live in herds," Fred explains. "Coyotes roam in packs; dolphins swim in pods. We humans are programmed to want to be together. Sure, there are some people who want to go live alone in the wilderness of Montana, but most of us like being around other people. The human species likes the communal aspects of life. The experience of going to the movies is the largest form of mass socialization that the world has ever known. We come together in a dark room with dozens or hundreds of strangers. Then with others of your kind, you experience something- a story- that takes you out of your day-to-day life and transports you somewhere else. Maybe you go on an adventure in outer space; maybe you go to some exotic foreign land; maybe you experience an event from history. But you're all experiencing it together."

"Humans like the communal aspects of life.
The experience of going to the movies
is the largest form of mass socialization
that the world has ever known."

- Fred Schoenfeld

"You can't have an experience on that scale watching a movie on TV or streaming it on your device," Fred continues. "This kind of communal experience is part of who we are as a species. "Home theaters' are now a fad, but how many people can afford to spend $50,000 to install one? And even among the few people who can, a "home theater' is still meant to seat 15 to 20 people. No one is going to spend all that money and watch movies there by themselves."

The Commodore combines the fine elegance of the past and fine dining with the latest sound and projection technology.

The Commodore combines the fine elegance of the past and fine dining with the latest sound and projection technology.

In addition to watching a movie on the big screen, the Commodore offers patrons another important aspect of communal life: sharing a meal.

"We were the first historic theatre in America to show first-run films and serve meals," Fred says with pride. "We don't serve junk food. Here you can enjoy dining while watching a movie that's being shown using the latest state-of-the-art projection and sound technology."

Patrons wishing to enjoy a meal are seated at tables, each equipped with a phone on which food can be ordered directly from the kitchen.  "You can order a full meal, have it brought to you, hot from our kitchen, and still pay less than you would for a large popcorn and drink at one of the national chain theatres," Fred says.

Those who aren't interested in eating a meal have the option of sitting in the Commodore's large expansive balcony. Popcorn, soft drinks and traditional "movie treats" are also available, but at prices far below those found at typical big chain movie theatres.

The movie-going experience at the Commodore is receiving rave reviews from patrons from across the region.  Jeff Saunders and Mitch Gordon of Hampton recently took in a show at the theatre for the first time. They've been recommending the Commodore to their friends on the Peninsula ever since.

"It's unlike any other movie theatre we've ever seen," Jeff says. "The building is gorgeous! You feel like you've stepped back into another time period. The deco lamps and the phones on the tables remind me of a 1940s nightclub. The food was delicious. As for the movie, watching it on that huge screen with that fantastic sound system- well, that's what going to the movies is all about!"

Commodore Theatre

421 High Street
Portsmouth, VA 23704