July 29, 2014

Movies At Dog Farm Remembers . . . The Dixie Theater In Staunton, VA

     When I was growing up, my hometown of Staunton,Virginia had three theaters: the Plaza Cinema (now The Staunton Mall Cinema 6), the Visulite Cinema, and the Dixie Theater.  All three were still open for business until Sunday, July 27th when the Dixie Theater presented a final showing of Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1980) and then closed its doors.  This historic theater that first opened over a century ago was forced by a weak economy and rising operational costs to shut its doors for the last time.

The New Theater, 1913
     The Dixie, originally known as the New Theater, first opened those doors in 1913.  It was gutted by fire in 1936, after which it was remodeled in Art Moderne style by architect John Eberson and rechristened the Dixie Theater.  The Dixie was reconfigured into a four screen multiplex in 1982, and then slowly fell into disrepair over the course of the next two decades.  That's the era in which I visited most often, and I actually liked that it seemed just a little seedy.  The Dixie was slated to close in 2009, but it was instead taken over by Adam Greenbaum, who still operates the Visulite Cinema just a few blocks away.  Only last year the Dixie converted two of its four projectors to digital formatting at a cost of over $50,000 per projector.  Sadly, it seems that wasn't enough to boost attendance.

     At least the Dixie went out with a flourish this last weekend by screening the classic blockbusters Jaws (1975), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Back To The Future (1985), and the aforementioned Raiders Of The Lost Ark.  Of course, any one of these titles would have been a treat to see again on the big screen, but I opted only for tickets to the last showing of Jaws on Sunday.  It was the only one of the four I'd never seen in a proper theater.  As great as it was to see Jaws on the big screen for the first time, I found myself preoccupied with the ghosts of movies I'd seen at the Dixie in the past.

Time Walker (1982)
     In the early eighties the Dixie was a haven for the kinds of movies that more often turned up on the bottom of the bill at the drive-in.  I distinctly recall seeing The Grim Reaper there, which was a retitled and heavily edited American release of director Joe D'Amato's infamous cannibal flick Anthropophagus (1980).  For some inexplicable reason I have a very clear recollection of seeing future Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder Time Walker (1982) at the Dixie, as well.  At the time (I was only twelve years old) I thought the defiantly B-movie conceit of an alien "mummy" buried in King Tut's tomb was pretty clever. 

     I also recall a few screenings made memorable primarily by virtue of who accompanied me.  My first apartment was in downtown Staunton within walking distance of the Dixie.  My grandmother crashed at my place while visiting from Minnesota one summer, and we walked to the Dixie together to take in a matinee of Pump Up The Volume (1990).  The R-rated story of an angsty teenage loner (Christian Slater) broadcasting a pirate radio station from his parents' basement was a bit of a shock to my grandmother, who professed to have no idea how difficult things were for the youth of the day.  We then spent the evening back at my apartment bonding over one of our first real adult conversations with one another, an evening that defined the tenor of our relationship from that day forward.

South Park: Bigger, Longer, And Uncut (1999)
     Of course, not every trip to the theater was fraught with such heady import.  I remember seeing South Park: Bigger, Longer, And Uncut (1999) with my dad at the Dixie.  My father is the kind of moviegoer who sees whatever happens to be popular at the time, but I'm pretty sure he had no idea what to make of this particular bit of bawdy pop culture.  I ended up watching his reactions more intently than I watched the movie.  I nearly lost him when Saddam Hussein, in bed with his lover Satan, whipped out an over-sized dildo.  Whereas Pump Up The Volume brought my grandmother and I closer together, the South Park movie only served to illustrate the generational divide between my dad and me.  Curiously, our bonding moment came later in the same year when we both had to remain seated long enough to regain our composure as the credits rolled at the end of American Beauty (1999).

     Not surprisingly, though, my most vivid recollection of the Dixie actually involved a horror movie screening nearly fifteen years earlier.  You see, the Dixie is where I saw Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter (1984).  The first two Friday The 13th movies had been seminal viewing experiences for me, and at the ripe old age of fourteen I actually believed that The Final Chapter would be Jason's swan song as well as the end of the Friday The 13th franchise.  I hadn't yet become the cynical and jaded curmudgeon I am today.

Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
     Despite the popularity of the franchise, The Final Chapter had been booked into one of the two tiny theaters upstairs, each of which were one half of what used to be the balcony.  It was opening weekend, standing room only, and the crowd was rowdy and animated.  Everyone hooted and cheered for each successive gory demise.  The audience erupted when Jason slid slowly down the length of a machete planted deep in his head at the movie's climax.  There was no way in hell Jason would recover from that deathblow, right?  Of course, we all know better now, but at the time it seemed pretty definitive.

     Now, some thirty years later, I found myself watching a movie at the Dixie Theater for the very last time.  It didn't really hit me until the shark had been vanquished and the end credits rolled.  The capacity audience broke into applause at the end of Jaws, but in this one instance I'm pretty sure the applause was for the Dixie Theater itself rather than the movie.  A friend had teased that I would probably cry when I saw my last movie at the Dixie.  She was right.

A few more disappointing snapshots of the Dixie Theater in Staunton, courtesy of my crappy TracFone.

     Please visit Cinema Treasures for a gallery of fifteen higher quality Dixie pics as well as a street view of the Dixie you can manipulate to get a closer look at the arches, terra cotta tiles, and laughing theatrical faces that adorn the front of the building.  The property is owned by the Staunton Performing Arts Center, which has plans to restore and renovate both the Dixie and the adjacent Arcadia Building.

     At least the building itself will be restored to an approximation of its original glory.  Sadly, however, the Dixie Theater I knew is gone for good.

The Dixie Theater


  1. First of all my friend, I am sorry for the loss of your beloved theater. I say that with absolute sincerity. One of the great joys of what we do is also a source of great sadness at times. We often lovingly take a look back at our past and how it relates to the films that we discuss....while it's nostalgic and much of the time gives us the "warm fuzzies" to remember our favorite mom & pop video store or favorite theater, there inevitably comes the moment when the realization that those sacred institutions are now gone.

    Though I've never been to The Dixie, believe me I feel the pain and loss that you feel in it's closing. So many memories. So many defining moments in your life that were directly correlated to the films that you saw there. Thank you for sharing that with us.

    1. Thanks, Matt. I no longer live in Staunton, so I hadn't visited the Dixie in years. I'm glad the Visulite is still open - and hope it stays that way - but it's the last of the theaters I grew up with that's still open. I can't really count the Staunton Mall Cinema 6 because no remnant of the Plaza Cinema I grew up with remains. The Broadmoor Twin Cinema, the Skyline Drive-In, the Wayne Cinema, Roth's Drive-In, and the North 340 Drive-In are all gone now. I'm glad I heard about the Dixie closing down before it was over and done with.

      Somehow, knowing the building will be restored doesn't make me feel better about it. It will be a performing arts center, so I suppose that's a worthy use of the property. Still, it won't be the Dixie I knew. Damn I'm old. lol

      I'm really beginning to understand why retirees sit around talking about the good old days. It was actually nice, though, to remember my good old days at the Dixie while writing this. Closure and whatnot...

  2. The local theater, to cinephiles, means as much as a childhood home. Your nostalgic look back at the beloved Dixie demonstrates that to be so.

    When I grew up, the local theater had twelve screens (a modern marvel at the time). In the lobby below a heightened ceiling (uncommon for air conditioned South Florida) sat giant black and whites of cinema scenes. Harold Lloyd hung from the clock, Myrna Loy batted her iconic eyebrows, and Lon Chaney Jr. snarled his fangs.

    Now the local cinema has 24 screens and looks like an Egyptian Palace complete with a blue mosaic tile River Nile. Yet it feels uncomfortably sterile. Sure, I still get chills walking down the ramp and seeing the screen in anticipation of the next movie. But I do miss that feel.

    Like the video cassette tape and laser disc have shown us, time marches ever onward. A sure sign that we are growing old is when we get sentimental for things passing. Luckily, movies will still strive to entertain us with stories. As long as we are willing to watch and be entertained, we will be the equivalent of The Dixie or the Majestic, or the Cinema Paradiso.

    Another great reflection and another great reason why movies mean so much.

    1. The sterility of the modern cineplex is one of several reasons I rarely go out for a movie anymore. I was surprised - though I shouldn't have been - by how much I had missed the grotty charm of an old school theater. It's a quality the Dixie had in spades. I need to quit being so reflective, though, or I'll turn into a mirror. lol

      I'm definitely getting old and sentimental. I'm pretty much perpetually nostalgic now, too. Good news though! I just finished a fiery rant about a new movie for posting next month. That means I'm old, sentimental, nostalgic, AND cranky. I'm back, baby!

    2. You know though, if it wasn't for us old, sentimental, nostalgic, cranky bastards, how much of this stuff would just fall to the wayside, completely forgotten?

    3. Weirdly, it's that notion that at least partially informs Movies At Dog Farm. You may have seen references here to my friend Adrienne's little boy Gunnar. He's a year and five months now. He's not mine, but at this point in my life he's as close as I'm ever going to get to having one of my own. I kind of think I'm making an "internet scrapbook" for him, which is one of several reasons I don't do much with new releases and spend more time here looking back. It's also why I try to inject a little more of myself and my own relationship to the things I write about than some sites I see.

      I hope some day when he's older that I can engender in him an interest in this stuff. If he does show an interest, I can "give" him this site, and he'll know more about me and why I love this stuff than I could ever convey to him otherwise. That's why I don't get too tore up about the fact that you and Carl are the only two people who read it now. lol

  3. Amen Carl! Well said!

    I wasn't lucky enough to grow up with a local theater that I bonded with....I had multiplexes pumping my veins full of cinema most of my life. There was ONE local independent theater in Fitchburg on Main Street, but it closed it's doors in 1986. The last film I saw there was Labyrinth (ya know, the one with David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly) when I was seven years old. After that it was Loews Theater multiplexes at the mall.

    Ironic story: A new multiplex opened up closer to home when I was a teenager. It had all the latest in theater technology and they even gave it a cool name (I thought at the time): CinemaWorld. I spent more time there then I did anywhere else in my teenage years. The ironic thing is that they built the theater in the space that formerly held the greatest love of my childhood love: ChildWorld! We didn't have a Toys 'R Us near us where I grew up. Instead we had the massive and amazing ChildWorld. I always felt that there was a touch of irony that they destroyed one of the most important icons of my young childhood to create what would become one of the most important icons of my adolescent and adult life!

    If you'll excuse me, I have something in my eye. *sniffle*

    1. Have I ever mentioned that I've had a huge crush on Jennifer Connelly ever since Argento's Phenomena? And no, that's not creepy. We're roughly the same age. When she was underage, so was I.

  4. I've had a crush on her ever since I first saw her in Labyrinth. I watched that movie every single day for an entire summer......

  5. There’s a slightly seedy movie theater here in Albuquerque (with only one screen) I’ve been going to for about 15 years that turned me on to midnight cinema called The Guild that I hope continues to keep its doors open. I honestly don’t know how old it is, but I was told it used to be an adult movie theater.

    By the way, you’ve reminded me that I need to watch Time Walker from that Roger Corman four pack.

    1. I reminded myself that I need to buy that Roger Corman four pack! What has the world come to that a seedy old theater can't keep its doors open showing only adult movies? I blame free internet porn.


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