Column: Like aging actor, Astra waits for a call

By SCOTT SAALMAN

The first movie that I took my son, Austin, to was at the Astra. The movie: “101 Dalmatians.” It was 1996. He was 31 months old.

This memory of our first father-son matinee returned when I recently toured the Astra. The theater closed in 2002, and while it wasn’t the “last picture show” in our town, it was the last of the old-timey movie houses to fade from view because of modern multiplex cinema glow.

A similar thing happened in Tell City, my hometown. Opened in 1948, my beloved Swiss Theater never had a chance once the 1978 movie “Superman” flew across the twin screens of a newly opened cinema. Eventually, it was chopped down to a radiator shop, the smell of buttered popcorn replaced with an antifreeze aroma. No movie ending has proven as sad to me as my cherished movie house’s ending.

I felt bad for the old man who ran the Swiss. I saw him on most weekends of my adolescence. He had the slumped look of The Man That Time Forgot. One of my last times in his lobby, I told him I would always patronize the Swiss, not its soul-sucking cinema rival. I was 14. I was a young liar. Of course I saw “Superman.” I returned to the Swiss a few times afterwards, feeling guilty, a theater cheater. I could tell that he could tell that I had sold my soul to Dolby sound.

Taking my son to his first movie at the Astra was a big deal. Strategically, we went to the 4:15 showing. I assumed it wouldn’t be crowded since it was so close to supper time. I guess the 150 or so other parents ahead of us in line had assumed the same. The spotted dogs were a sell-out success.

In his “terrible twos,” Austin proved challenging in the slow-moving ticket line. I bribed him with sweet promises of tooth decay — Coke, Mello Yello, Zero, Junior Mints, Reese’s Pieces — at each onset of impatience.

Once inside, we joined the mob in the tiny refreshment area. Impatient parents, shoulder to shoulder, connected to toddlers, grumbled throughout their seemingly impossible missions to fulfill Gummi Bear promises before the movie’s start.

It was hard to be aggressive with an agitated Austin in one numb arm, a diaper bag in the other and a “blankie” wrapped around my throat like a ticked off, pink boa constrictor.

Behind us, the previews sounded. The mob moaned.

“Daddy, I pooped,” confessed Austin, loud enough for everyone to hear. “No you didn’t,” I said (wishful thinking). “I sure did,” he said. The nearest nodded their heads, agreeing with Austin. This thinned the crowd some, allowing us to get closer to the counter. Pooping had, for some reason, made Austin decide on Milk Duds.

I couldn’t wait to share the magic of cinema with my firstborn. When Pongo pulled covers off the sleeping Jeff Daniels character, Austin giggled. He shouted, “Run, Pongo, run,” at one point. He laughed hysterically when Pongo pulled Jeff Daniels and his bike into a pond. Austin sipped Orange Slice, smiled, and said, “I like the movie, Dad.” I almost cried.

Patiently, the Astra, movie-less for 14 years now, still stands, though it reminds me of the slumped Swiss Theater owner. Its marquee still advertises its longest-running title: For Sale. Its fate is still uncertain.

What is certain are the fond memories that generations here still recall and share anytime its name is spoken. “Astra,” recited like a magic word to a magic spell in some old clicking, pockmarked, reel-to-reel movie.

It cast its spell during a recent meeting at the Dubois County Community Foundation designed to generate ideas on the building’s future. Two businessmen recalled seeing “Ben Hur” at the Astra in 1959. School even let out to allow students to attend the Catholic-themed box-office hit.

On Facebook, other Astra memories were recalled. “Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster.” “Tommy.” “Jaws.” “Dances With Wolves.” “A League of Their Own.” “Hoosiers.” “The Lion King.” “Good Burger.”

“Titanic” rose to surface the most. Two examples:

“We ended up getting some of the last tickets for the night. We of course all developed a realistic interpretation of how you should fall in love from the very back row of the Astra, thanks to Rose and Jack,” commented Andrea Hedinger.

“The Astra could not have been more alive that night! People of all ages — on dates, in groups, solo — occupied every ounce of breathing room within the walls of that small, but magical, theater. Even as a green little eighth-grader, I remember relishing the energy of that complete movie-viewing experience! Nothing would please me more than to see The Astra restored to its former glory, if not as a movie theater for newly-released blockbusters, perhaps for movie classics. Or maybe even a music venue. Either way, that historical space needs to be revitalized.”

We are full of ideas on how to revive our beloved Astra. Some in our arts community cheekily tag lined this ideation movement, “Save Our Astra.” But it takes more than ideas and good intentions. Like an aged actor on set, the Astra patiently awaits its next scene, listens for that one-worded directive that sparks all the magic it was brought into existence to gift us: “Action.”

Until action is taken, it stands empty on our town square, as its own end credits tiresomely roll.

Upcoming Will Read and Sing For Food benefit shows are April 27, 6 p.m., Forest Park High School, to benefit Crisis Connection, and May 4, 2 and 6 p.m., Astra theater, to benefit community grant-making via Dubois County Community Foundation.




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