REES Theatre stories: Todd Shafer

A Rees Childhood

Few experiences as a child could compare to the moments when I would walk through the front doors of the Rees Theater. The whooshing of the front door as it opened. The aroma of the salty popcorn filling every space. The opening moments when the projector’s camera would flicker to life, showing the future. All of these helped me become the cinephile I am today. These film-centered childhood life events seemed to revolve around food, family, friends, and my father. The movie-going experiences I had with Dad are the ones that molded my thinking of all things cinematic.

The first big experience happened in 1975. I was only seven, but Dad wanted to take my brother and me to be a part of the biggest movie of the time: Jaws. There was one glitch; punctual was not a term that was used concerning my father. We were near the end of the line, waiting outside the Rees. Getting into the theater was easy, but this movie was such a blockbuster, nowhere could we find two seats together, let alone three. Dad worked strategically. He positioned himself in the middle section of seats, a handful of rows away from the screen. My older brother Mark was on the left side of the theater, and I was placed on the right side (4 rows from the front!), but we were both within Dad’s sight. Sitting in a group with three unknown viewers and me, I had nervous tension begin immediately. With the opening music accompanying the shark and the initial attack, I hightailed it to the lobby. I took a breather and told myself that I could go back and watch more. It was just a movie, right? Emboldened, I crawled over the strangers to get to my spot, and I forced myself to stay put. That worked splendidly until the next time good ol’ Bruce the Shark appeared, and I boldly crawled right back over those same strangers. I visited the lobby many times that night, telling myself each and every time that I could just live there if I needed to--it was comfortable, and the food was good. After each lobby visit, however, I would trudge back. That night at the Rees I learned two important movie-going guidelines-- 1: The concession stand can be your best friend in times of trouble and 2: Going to the movies to sit with friends and family is an important piece of any person’s life puzzle.

The year 1977 arrived. I was nine, and there were two words on everyone’s lips: Star Wars. That was it back then--Star Wars. It wasn’t Star Wars--Episode IV: A New Hope. It was Star Wars, and we were going to go see it. Dad was taking us to the 7:00 showing at the Rees. We were primed and ready. We arrived downtown, parked the truck on Michigan Street, and got our tickets. After the integral popcorn stop, we made it to our seats. Once again, the Angel of Punctuality didn’t bless us that night. At that moment, on the screen, we saw a white intergalactic door being blown open, stormtroopers and rebels battling, and the inaugural screen time of the one and only Darth Vader. It was amazing! It was beyond anything I could explain! It was, well, a bit confusing. Little did we know that the now-famous introduction crawler with a description containing the words “A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far, Far Away . . . “ had been shown and was gone while we were still outside getting tickets. That evening, another basic tenet of cinema burned into my brain: Don’t miss anything! I now must be in my seat on time to witness every preview and every annoying commercial. Heck, I will even spend time staring at a blank screen to make sure I miss nothing.

Two years passed, and Dad was ready to take me to see my first R-rated feature, the sci-fi flick, Alien, and it was playing at the Rees! I was eleven and didn’t realize what was about to hit me. We sat toward the back of the theater, on time for once. The lights dimmed, and we began watching as the space vessel, the Nostromo, answered a call from a distant homing beacon.

The suspense slowly built, and my adrenaline crept up right along with it. I quickly noticed a group of high school students sitting two rows ahead of us also beginning to feel that adrenaline rush. I turned back to the screen. Jittery, fidgeting in my seat, harkening back to that darn shark, my eyes, ears, and every other sense was riveted to the action on-screen.

When the famous chest-bursting scene occurred, and my adrenaline level hit 11 out of 10, I sat and began having familiar thoughts, “I can wait in the lobby again. It will only be another hour or so. There’s popcorn out there.” Turning, however, I saw Dad watching with such intensity. At that moment, I also saw the high school group get up and leave from fright. That settled it; I was firm in my conviction to stay seated and stick this one out. As Ellen Ripley’s final alien battle finished on-screen, and the lights came on inside the Rees, I knew I had done it; I had conquered my fears. From that day on, I have not once felt the need to leave any theater because of the torturous nature of a movie. Films are there to let us escape reality and delve into another world. Movies became my passion, my sport of choice.

Two years ago, my father passed away three weeks before the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, was released. I went to experience the event once again, but this time, I went with my own family, my wife and two children. It wasn’t at the Rees unfortunately, but this time, I was on time and saw the previews. I sat there before the movie, thinking of my history with movies and began waxing nostalgic. Something unseen nudged me into leaving the theater briefly. To this day, I can’t remember if I went to get popcorn before the movie, took a quick trip to the men’s room, or if it was some other unknown issue. When I walked back into the theater, a major moment of reminiscence hit me. The movie had started, and I had once again missed the opening line, “A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far, Far Away.” Sitting there, in the dark, I felt like I was nine again, back at the Rees. There are many theater experiences that have occurred in my life, but the ones that laid the solid foundation of my motion-picture-loving passion occurred with Dad at the Rees.