Photos by Vallen Alexander Gillett
I can still remember the first time my parents took me to see a movie. It was the summer of 1982, I was 5 years old, and they took me to see the Steven Spielberg film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. We had to travel a distance because there wasn’t a movie theater in the small town in Michigan where we lived.
I remember being struck by how huge the theater was – but then again, most spaces and places are huge to a 5-year-old – and by all of the other kids who were there with their families. Like most kids that age, I was frightened of the dark. But something completely unexpected happened that afternoon: When the house lights went down just before the movie was about to start, I realized I wasn’t afraid.
I figured the boogeyman could only get you at home in the middle of the night when you’re asleep, not at the movies. That was the moment my never-ending fascination with the big screen started.
Suffice it to say, I’ve been to a lot of movies in the years since, especially after moving to Milwaukee in 1990. As a movie-obsessed teenager, the movies became my home away from home. Chances are if I wasn’t at school or taking part in some extracurricular activity or helping out around the house, I was at the movies.
With the recent and uneventful closing of Northtown Cinema (which was located on Milwaukee’s far northwest side at 7440 N. 76th St.) by its owner, Marcus Theatres Corporation, all of my childhood movie-going haunts are now officially closed.
Having opened in 1976, Northtown was the second to last* remaining Marcus theater within Milwaukee city limits. With the notable exception of the Oriental and the Downer (specialty movie theaters, both owned and operated by Landmark Theatres), all other movie theaters throughout the greater-Milwaukee area are now located in the suburbs.
In a statement released to the media, Mark Gramz, executive vice president of Marcus Theatre Corporation, cited outdated technology and steadily declining attendance as the reasons for the theater’s closing. The cost of converting the theater to digital projection was deemed cost-prohibitive as a result.
I personally hadn’t seen a film at Northtown since 2009. Nonetheless, when news of its closing was announced, it was bittersweet. The first movie I saw at Northtown was the Warren Beatty star vehicle Dick Tracy back in 1990, which was also the first film the older of my two younger brothers was taken to as an infant. The last film I saw there was X-Men Origins: Wolverine with both of my brothers in tow. Little could I have known that the Saturday matinee screening we all went to would become such a full circle moment a few short years later.
Sure, Northtown had lost a lot of its luster in recent years, but during its heyday, it was the best movie theater in town – the Oriental notwithstanding. My other childhood movie-going haunts included the old Mill Road and Northridge United Artists theatres, and the old northside Budget Cinemas that was right around the corner from Northtown Cinema on West Good Hope Road.
In their place now? The space that Mill Road occupied now houses a couple of clothing stores, Northridge has been an empty lot since it shuttered sometime around 1996 or 1997, and the old northside Budget is now a children’s academy.
While it’s true that change is inevitable, and all good things come to an end, nobody said you had to like it. I have so many fond memories of time spent in each and every last one of those theaters that it’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that those memories are all I have left – and an old Baskin Robbins ice cream quart container filled with ticket stubs dating back 22 years.
I won’t ever be able to step foot inside any of my beloved childhood movie-going haunts to watch a movie again, but much like my fellow moviegoers, I can fully appreciate what frequenting them gave me. I was exposed to people and places and things that I might not have been exposed to otherwise. I traveled the globe and didn’t need a passport to do so. I was moved to tears, and laughter – sometimes in the same movie.
In short, I saw artistry at work. And for that, I’m eternally grateful.
*Correction: A previous version of this article said Northtown was Marcus' last theater in the city of Milwaukee. The Southgate Cinema on South 30th Street is still open.