Ben Nietzel
Ben Nietzel
Ben Nietzel works as the principal of Saints Mary and Mathias Catholic School. He also enjoys coaching Muskie football and reviewing movies.

Muscatine Living

Author’s note: This week, I want to talk about the loss of the theater experience due to COVID-19. I am keenly aware that this is a first world problem, and not seeing “WW 84” or the Top Gun movie “Maverick” isn’t even in the same universe as loss of life and economic hardships born out of this pandemic. That said, this is a movie column about movies.

I had a weird experience this week. With no new releases coming out right now, the Palms Theatre in town has been trying to get by through selling curbside popcorn and recently playing hit movies of the past in their theaters. Classics and favorites like “Ghostbusters,” “Gladiator,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Grease” have been showing on rotation for a while now. I wanted to see what was on offer, and as I typed in “p-a-l” into my search engine a curious thing happened, or didn’t happen. For the last half-decade, every time I typed that in, the link for the Palms Theatre page with movie listings poped up. When you go to two to three movies a month for a decade, you Google show listings a lot. It has now been so long since I went to the theater, my search engine (which is designed to sell me stuff) stopped recommending that site–whoa!

The last time I went to the theater was to see “Birds of Prey” on February 20th. I miss it. I have always seen the theater as a refuge. Not to be overly dramatic, but to me, the great power of the movie theater experience is the escapism it provides. Bad day at work? Unwind watching Captain America throwing his shield at a bunch of baddies. Want out of the summer heat on a 95-degree afternoon? Grab a cold drink and sit in the dark watching the crazy antics of the Minions. Feeling humdrum? Be overwhelmed by emotions with 150 other strangers as you watch Rudy finally get in and manage to get a sack. It’s a two-hour slice of your life which transports you somewhere else, and for me, 42 years later, it still retains that magic.

I miss going to the theater, but it’s hard to go back right now. I want to go. I want to tell everyone to go. We have an amazing theater that no longer has a screen with a Mountain Dew stain on it from a 1984 showing of “Gremlins.” It needs to be supported because it’s a gem in Muscatine. On the other hand, it’s just entertainment. It’s only natural to worry about sitting for two hours around people you don’t know. We are so used to staying away from people that to gather feels weird at best and dangerous at worse.

I don’t have a solution. I’m hopeful that we can turn a corner soon. I’m hopeful for a time when it doesn’t feel risky to go to theater but rather exciting again. I’m hopeful that when we see the other side of this thing, I can line up with 250 other nerds and rush into the opening night of the next disappointing Star Wars film. I’m hopeful we still have an amazing theater to watch it in. The Palms is showing a ton of great old movies. If you feel comfortable, go. If you don’t, consider grabbing some popcorn from them. Treat each other well, and I hope sometime soon you see a big guy in camo shorts and a WWE shirt eating popcorn down in the isle row.

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