It’s one of my favorite times of year—not because the holidays are over, certainly not because of the weather, and sure as shit not because of football or anything like that. It’s that precious time of year when movies get really good.
Many people probably prefer the whiz-bangs of summer blockbuster season, but now is the time each year when the film industry gives us their true best, and they seem to think so too, as they’ll spend the next several weeks throwing party after party to award themselves for “Best This”, “Outstanding Achievement in That”, and so on. Awards Season unofficially launches with the Golden Globes and culminates in the big one in early March—The Academy Awards (aka “The Oscars”—if you didn’t know, they’re the same thing, which sometimes got confusing to me as a kid.)
Going to see movies is my expensive habit—on average, I visit the theatre about once a week (and much more frequently this time of year). I prefer seeing movies in a theatre as opposed to the comfort of home, where dozens of other things can, and likely will, distract me from the full experience. The “art” of screening movies resonates with me as much as the actual movies themselves. I believe the way in which you experience any film—where, with whom, and so forth-directly influences how you will feel about it forever.
Movies also have a way of triggering certain feelings and memories stemming from our own personal experiences with them; I know that anytime “The Cable Guy” pops up on TV, I remember being 14 years old on my first date. And when I catch a glimpse of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” it’s like my grandma is suddenly alive again.
This annual movie hoopla always gets me thinking about a great institution that Peoria lost in the spring of 2004, almost ten years ago already.
I visit Westlake Shopping Center quite often for dinners, shopping, and such like the rest of you, and over the past few years have noticed Westlake feverishly remodeling and re-envisioning itself like it was going out of style (because I suppose in the world of evolving commercial trends, it was). Places like Randall’s Grocery, Walgreens, and even Circuit City are long gone and have made way for Fresh Market, Guitar Center and Five Guys. Even those places that have steadfastly remained over time-your Toys R Us and your Chuck E Cheese-look and feel quite different these days.
But the biggest change at Westlake, at least to me, is around its backside. I’m talking about the place where I fell in love with the art of film, and inspired me for a brief time in my life to study it for myself. Most MBIP readers probably remember the great long-gone Peoria movie houses...the Rialto, the Palace, and others, many of which came and went before my time. For folks my age, our go-to movie “palace” was Westlake Cinemas.
My first attempt at blogging was in college—don’t go looking for it, as I’ve since made every attempt to destroy all traces of it (we were much more transparent on the Internet in those days). In one entry, I elaborately eulogized Westlake in light of what I considered to be an event of true devastation. With this now being a big time of year for movies, and the tenth anniversary of Westlake’s closing on the horizon, it seemed like the perfect time to revisit this topic. Plus I’m still adjusting to the loss and it’s therapeutic to talk about. Some things you just don’t get over easily.
Westlake Cinemas opened in the seventies (I think) and contained five screens. Cinema 1 was its largest, while 2 through 5 progressively got smaller. Westlake was owned and operated by GKC Theatres for the majority of its existence, and seen as a massive “multiplex” when you consider that many of the local one or two screen movie houses were still operating then (the Beverly, the Varsity, etc.).
Westlake was the theatre I recall visiting most frequently as a kid. They seemed to have the most kid-friendly bill in town (and due to size, most selection) and was also the place I remember first sitting and seeing a movie, which was “E.T” in its initial 1982 run (I would also see both of E.T.’s re-releases in 1985 and 2002 at Westlake as well).
Even at my youngest of ages, I preferred Westlake to other theatres because back then the shopping center was about as stimulating to a child as a carnival midway—you had to pass by Toys R Us, Showbiz Pizza, a Dairy Queen on the corner, and a line of pinball and video games in the window of the old Monical’s Pizza pick-up area just to get to the theatre. Directly across from it, through the arbor covered center courtyard were a pet groomer, Express Wok, and Westlake Rare Coins, which only recently moved out a few months ago.
In the 80’s I experienced such gems as Dudley Moore as the deviant elf in “Santa Claus: The Movie”, the first “Ninja Turtles”, and every single film Disney chose to roll back out of its “vault,” most notably their notorious son they never talk about, “Song of The South”, which hasn’t been seen (legally) in the United States since that 40th Anniversary re-release in 1986.
I was always fascinated by the screens and would BEG my mother every single time to sit in the front row (and she said no, every single time). It wasn’t until a trip there in kindergarten with my dad to see "Masters of the Universe" starring Dolph Lundgren that I went for broke again, and he said, “yeah, sure, just don’t tell your mom.”
And I never did. And I don’t think she reads this blog anyways, so we’re still golden. I believe we repeated this practice several times together through the years for “Ghostbusters 2” and the Hulk Hogan masterpiece “No Holds Barred”.
As the 90’s dawned, development was creeping north and Willow Knolls 14 opened just a few miles away—a theatre with 14 screens seemed ludicrous to us then, but there it was, with better seating, better sound, and more options. Westlake’s chances for survival hinged on going the “budget” route, and began screening movies on their last stop before home video for the low, low price of—you guessed right—ONE DOLLAR.
From then on, and for the remainder of its existence, even after slight and gradual price increases exceeded its initial single, Westlake would be known by its more common, latter-day handle: “The Dollar Theatre.”
This is when the place really established its “character.” Technological and cosmetic upgrades as well as cleanliness sort of fell by the wayside, and the 1970’s orange walls and accents remained until its closing. Large chunks of acoustic paneling became ripped from the walls, sound quality was NEVER what it was probably supposed to be, and if you were handicapped and had to use the facility, forget about it. Bathrooms were on an elevator-less second floor. It truly became the “Theater That Time Forgot” and I absolutely loved it.
Westlake’s low cover lent itself nicely to inexpensive repeat viewings of favored movies—“Wayne’s World”, “Hocus Pocus”, and “Dogma” among them. Westlake and I remained close in my teen years, especially because I had no job but could always scrape enough change out of the cup holder for a movie-or two. Yes, two.
A favorite habit of mine became paying for one movie and staying for a second—“hopping” I called it (shhhhh…). The first time I ever attempted this double feature method was at, you guessed it, Westlake for “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” followed by “Bulworth.”
This practice became a near necessity in my college days, when Chicago movie prices went at a premium and I was determined to get bang for my bucks, even if it meant spending 4-8 hours in a theatre at one time. Other teenage shenanigans included obnoxiously “driving” the futuristic flying cars in the GKC promo that played before every movie (remember that?!) and one night falling victim to a drive-by (Super Soaker) shooting from some of my friends in Westlake’s parking lot after a screening of “Good Will Hunting.”
Movies used to linger in theatres much longer than they do now....if I expect to catch “Inside Llewyn Davis” before the Oscars this year, I’ll need to bust my ass in the next week or two to get there, but in the days of Westlake, I experienced “Titanic” a solid eight months after it’s Christmas 1997 release.
As the home video market intensified and releases came much sooner, the window of time for movies at Westlake shrank. I believe both “Elf” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” were already available to buy or rent when I saw them there in 2003.
And then, one random night in the spring of 2004, I caught an item on the evening news—Westlake had apparently not turned a profit in over five years, and GKC chose to not renew the lease. Little did I know a week earlier that “The Haunted Mansion” with Eddie Murphy would be the last movie I ever saw there.
After Westlake Cinema closed, it sat empty for awhile. I was okay with this at first, thinking it might re-open in some form again. I’d drive by often as it sat untouched and virtually undisturbed, dreaming and scheming in hopes that someone with an income far more disposable than mine might come along and convert it to an art house theatre, or maybe a brew n’ view, but no. A little over a year after it closed, the bulldozers came in to transform the space into Regency Beauty Institute. Its time had really come.
I give Westlake the distinction of fostering my love for film—I went on to briefly study motion picture directing in college, and even after setting more realistic goals and switching some gears, still ended up graduating with a degree concentrated in Cinema Studies, which is basically just a credited way of saying “I’ve seen a lot of movies.”
I’ll likely never be a participant in the movie industry, just an admirer in the same way all sports fans obsess over the merits of others but never leave their own armchairs. I still carry my memories of Westlake Cinema and ponder them anytime I sit at Cherryberry or Five Guys, staring out the windows, to where smocked beauticians breeze past where the “COMING SOON” posters used to hang. Sure enough, I’ll do the same on March 2nd when a new “BEST PICTURE” is crowned.