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Alamo Drafthouse opens in time for holiday films | Arts & Culture

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Alamo Drafthouse opens in time for holiday films
Alamo Drafthouse opens in time for holiday films

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (Annie J. Kelley, Battle Creek Enquirer)-- When Kathleen Strang was a little girl, movies were a special event.

“My movie experience started in the really grand, small-town theaters that looked really beautiful and ornate. And it was a real treat,” she said. “You dressed up — you dressed up for the movies. All those years that I was going to the movies as a kid, as a teenager — you didn’t wear jeans or sweatshirts to the movies. Noooo.”

Strang grew up on a farm outside Jimmy Stewart’s hometown in Indiana, Pa. — she remembers getting candy from his father at the family hardware store.

It was also the place where the nearest theaters were.

“I have always loved them,” she said.

She remembers being 13 years old and mercilessly begging her father to take her to a movie with actor Pat Boone. Or, going to see “Spirit of St. Louis” with her brother, and the two of them talking about it for days and days.

“Oh, Esther Williams movies,” Strang said. “Oh! I think I was in high school when those movies were really popular. And I would not miss an Esther Williams movie. They were my favorites. And any musicals, of course.”

Strang studied music at college, and eventually ended up in Ann Arbor for grad school. “The experience that I’ll never forget there was I went to see ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ and I sat through that thing twice. I loved it so much I couldn’t walk out of the theater,” she said.

It doesn’t take much to please her, as long as there’s good acting or a good story.

“There’s something about being in a movie theater — it’s a special place,” she said.

Strang, 73, said she would go anywhere to see a movie, so it was fitting she help the Enquirer in assessing the new Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Kalamazoo.

The theater officially opened on Monday, just in time for the holiday movie season.

It’s a new concept for the area, started by CEO Tim League in Austin, Texas. So far, there are only a handful of Alamo theaters in the United States.

It’s been in the news for its policies in an era of increasingly distracted movie viewing: no cell phones, no talking and no latecomers, with no commercials before the show starts.

The other thing the Alamo is known for is the restaurant aspect. There’s a full working kitchen, and rows of chairs have been taken out to make room for bar tables. The menu serves gourmet pizza, burgers, salads, sandwiches, appetizers and brunch. Ingredients have been sourced from the area. The beer list has a number of Michigan breweries, including Dark Horse, Arcadia and Latitude 42.

“I love the concept. It’s a great idea, but I wasn’t sure how it would work until I was actually there,” Strang said.

Customers sit in their assigned seating, and there’s a menu to peruse. Orders are written on a piece of paper and picked up by the serving staff. This can happen before or during the movie. A tab will be left toward the end of the show, for money or card payment.

“I noticed how (the servers) always crouched when they walked past us in the front row so they wouldn’t interrupt us, so we could always see the movie,” Strang said.

The menu would be comparable to Arcadia Brewing Co. in Battle Creek or Central City Taphouse in Kalamazoo, both in prices and quality.

For someone who is used to associating a nice meal with socializing, it could be a little weird to eat bacon, Brussels sprouts and goat cheese pizza while quietly watching a movie.

“It works, I think, to sit there and eat and watch the movie. It’s fun. It’s a novelty, of course, for us these days,” Strang said.

There’s no requirement to buy food. The Alamo is first and foremost a movie-going experience.

It does offer the old stand-bys of popcorn and pop, at similar prices to other theaters.

Strang was fond of the popcorn, which tastes like it’s been flavored with real butter. For $5, it comes in a big, metal bowl they’ll refill for free — pop is “bottomless” as well.

“But the part that scared me a little was eating in the dark,” Strang said and laughed. “Because I was nervous about spilling something or about making a mess.”

She admitted she sometimes has problems judging space, but found she was OK with the height and distance of the table ledge.

“It worked for me, and if it works for me, I think it works for anybody,” she said.

Even without the novelty of dinner and a show in one place, the Alamo is probably going to attract movie-lovers like Strang with its selections.

For staff training days the weekend before opening, there was a combination of the current wide release films, some independent films not showing in Battle Creek, a film series celebrating strong women characters and classics such as “Singin’ in the Rain.”

“I would love to see more classics,” Strang said. “Something like ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ is fun to see after so long. It makes it more appealing, because everything’s bigger, you can see it better and you really get the feeling of the dancing. You can see all the detail of the costumes and the footwork of a movie like this with all the dancing. It brings everything to life more. I like being close, like that.”

James Sanford, former Enquirer reporter and current creative manager for Alamo Kalamazoo, is in charge of special programming. He said in an interview during a recent media tour that the theater is open to suggestions.

“We’re getting so many comments from people saying, ‘Oh, we’d love to see “Lawrence of Arabia” on the big screen. Could you do “Doctor Zhivago” on the big screen?’ We can get in touch with our film booker, and hopefully bring it in and it would be something just for Kalamazoo,” Sanford said.

Every month there will be a special film series package put together by the movie fiends of the Alamo Drafthouse franchise — December’s theme will be Journalism.

There will also be sing-alongs and quote-alongs, when the screen provides text for the audience to read out loud. Space will be made for dancing during music video nights. Some movies will include special props, for a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” type of experience. There’s going to be a “Home Alone” pizza party in December.

Tuesday mornings will be “baby days,” when the lights will be brighter and the sound softer, and no one will be kicked out for a crying infant.

Sanford also wants to work on building a deeper movie community. He arranged for a post-film discussion of “12 Years a Slave” on Nov. 17. The Kalamazoo Film Society might start showing their monthly picks at the Alamo because of its digital capabilities.

He said these are the kinds of things he was discouraged from promoting while working at a mainstream cinema-complex.

“It’s really astonishing to me to have the chance to finally do that kind of stuff, which is what I was hoping to do 15 years ago. And they are so supportive of it,” Sanford said.

It’s going to take trial and error to figure out what fits in southwest Michigan, but Sanford said he’s encouraged to give anything a shot.

Just don‘t get your hopes up for a “Batman & Robin” quote-along.