Some movie theaters have gained iconic status comparable to the movies they have showcased. These places are renowned for their impact, historical importance, enduring presence, and associated myths.
However, this is not a tale about such theaters.
The Micro Movie House in Moscow, Idaho – yes, Moscow, Idaho – was a Seventh-Day Adventist Church until 1975.
Surprisingly, it was transformed into an improbable cinema, seemingly within a single inspired and, based on all available evidence, inebriated weekend.
The Micro Movie House
The theater’s design, if it can be called that, resembled a partially solved Rubik’s cube clumsily dropped into superglue.
Visitors walking in under the small marquee and through the front entrance would immediately encounter a rickety wooden staircase leading down into an uncertain space.
Those daring to descend these stairs into the darkness would discover themselves in a “lobby.”
Tickets for the evening’s show were not obtained at a traditional box office but at a portable podium-pulpit, seemingly a repurposed relic from the building’s previous life.
I believe the narrow room beyond was decorated with vintage film posters, an actual fireplace, and a suggestion box – none of which are likely to be found at a modern cinema.
The basement concession stand was as distinctive as the rest of the Micro.
Alongside popcorn and soft drinks (served in peculiar wax-coated cups adorned with the logo of a nearby taco chain), the place offered candy, freshly baked cookies, self-serve coffee, and, notably, apple cider.
The cider was particularly memorable, available in three sizes and customizable with or without ice, filtered or unfiltered, and hot or cold.
Ordering the cider, with all the decisions it entailed, could have made an indecisive patron late for the film’s start.
The movie was screened in an auditorium connected to the lobby and atop another set of convoluted stairs.
I’ve heard that the Micro had space for 150 individuals.
However, I can confirm that selling 125 tickets would occupy all the seats (which were indeed actual theater seats – I often ponder what became of all those pews) and the solitary bench at the rear of the room.
This bench was positioned beneath the projection booth, which had been erected on an elevated and enclosed platform where the church’s pulpit had once stood.
The illumination emanating from the booth was not of divine origin but from two vintage Simplex 35mm projectors.
The first time I viewed a film under the glow of those projectors was in the 1980s. I was a college freshman, and I was immediately captivated.
My parents hadn’t influenced my growing and inexplicable passion for film.
I had gone to Moscow, nestled in the rural and often frigid panhandle of Idaho, on a theater arts scholarship.
However, once I started visiting the Micro, it seemed that the world of the stage lost me forever to the world of the soundstage.
The Micro had a diverse lineup, featuring mainstream Hollywood films in their second and third runs, as well as classics and contemporary cinema from around the globe.
Many exotic cinematic delights I encountered at the Micro were entirely new. While I attended the University of Idaho, it was at the Micro where I received an education that I still draw upon.
After a few weeks of watching almost everything the theater offered, I decided to join this place. Summoning my courage, I approached the manager to inquire about a job.
Well, in hindsight, it wasn’t really that courageous. I dropped my phone number into the suggestion box with an offer to work for free to “learn the business.”
I was amazed when the manager, Bob Suto, called me and invited me in for an interview. Eventually, he even liked me enough to pay me.
I had always believed that breaking into the film industry was more challenging than that.
For the next four years, the Micro became an integral part of my life, a connection that I still haven’t entirely let go of.
The story of the Micro, the distinctive, independent, and eccentric little theater, embodies, to some extent, an entire era characterized by spirited repertoire theaters that screened whatever they pleased and remarkably found success in doing so.
These theaters emerged from the independent or “revival” houses that operated without corporate ties during the studio era.
In the late 1950s, the renowned Brattle Theater near Harvard, Massachusetts, inexplicably started showing old Humphrey Bogart films.
The predominantly college-aged audience that frequented this theater unexpectedly found themselves connecting with movies featuring an actor who had been a hero to their parent’s generation.
Although these same movies were being widely syndicated on television, the thrill of watching them with an audience of equally appreciative, and often chemically enhanced, peers gave rise to the first film, “cults.”
Audiences repeatedly flocked to these films, often reciting the dialogue along with the actors on screen. Other theater owners, especially those fortunate near college campuses, swiftly followed Brattle’s lead.
Alongside films of Hollywood personalities perceived as somewhat countercultural, such as the Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields, movies from foreign auteurs and experimental and independent films from around the world also found their way onto the screen.
Of course, this phenomenon didn’t last.
The original generation of revival theater audiences grew up, experienced events like Woodstock or the Vietnam War, and eventually decided they preferred watching movies from the comfort of their homes.
By the time I joined the Micro, home video had become an established part of life.
Some of the patrons I sold tickets to could potentially have been the children of the audiences who reverently cheered Jean-Paul Belmondo, whispering Bogie’s name in Breathless (À about de soufflé,1960).
Unbeknownst to me then, I witnessed the end of a somewhat romantic era in film exhibitions.
However, Bob Suto seemed to understand that he was steering a ship that would inevitably flounder. Yet, he didn’t care.
The Micro’s schedules were daring, diverse, and unconventional.
It was as if Bob was committed to bringing the finest and quirkiest of world cinema to the wilderness of Idaho, whether Idaho was ready for it or not.
The theater was funded and supported by Bob’s sister and her husband, owners of the local Taco John’s, which explained the peculiar drink cups at the Micro.
Surprisingly, the people of Moscow, a moderately-sized university town mainly inhabited by former hippies and agriculture majors, responded to condescension with open wallets.
I recall receiving the schedules of Bob’s bookings and being baffled by how a mainstream Hollywood film like Trading Places (1983) could share the same screen in the same week with Bye Bye Brazil (1980) and Sophomore Sensations, a 1975 German soft-core rarity.
One week, Bob proudly informed me that we were the most miniature theater in the smallest market in the United States to screen Abel Gance’s recently restored Napoleon (1927), which sold out over the weekend but still resulted in financial loss.
Midnight movies were a significant part of any revival theater’s existence.
The Micro’s signature midnight movie was Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), while The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) was a significant attraction for that particular revenue stream.
Usually, two employees could manage an entire shift at the Micro. One person sold tickets while the other handled concessions.
During show time, the ticket seller would bring the box-office podium to the concession area, where the other person would sell tickets and popcorn while their partner upstairs prepared the projectors.
However, if a line forms downstairs and a patron buys a movie ticket and cider, the whole system could be disrupted by the situation’s complexities.
On Rocky Horror nights, a third employee was added.
Part of their responsibility was stepping onto the stage at 11:59 PM and cautioning the audience to toss rice and toilet paper.
Even other audience members were acceptable, but squirting water at the screen would not be tolerated, and violators would face consequences from the “management.”
This warning became standard practice on Rocky Horror nights after our screen was repeatedly soaked in water by enthusiastic audience members, ultimately leading us to replace the damaged screen due to the noticeable shine and glimmer under the projector light.
We might have overlooked the complaints this caused, yet the screen suffered further damage during an impromptu belly-dancing performance by Bob’s girlfriend, Leanne.
She inadvertently cut a horizontal line in the screen while wielding a prop sword during her memorable dance.
We attempted to conceal this mishap with some glue, but the seam left behind by the sword wound was impossible to overlook.
For instance, during a screening of Notorious (1946), Cary Grant’s lips occasionally aligned so precisely with the repaired seam that the actor appeared as a sophisticated and remarkably reflective version of Mr. Sardonicus.
The projection booth at the Micro was securely locked, and for good reason. The machines inside had been stalwarts since the 1930s.
However, by the 1980s, these black behemoths, resembling a pair of Mickey Mouse ears cast in iron and turned on their sides, were quite peculiar, like the projectionists who operated them.
They illuminated our new screen using carbon rods housed inside a reflective drum.
The carbons would hiss, pop, and sputter, and it was a constant task to ensure they fed into each other at the correct speed and reflective density.
I sometimes ponder how many people alive today were trained, like myself, in the upkeep of such antiquated exhibitor’s alchemy. I may have been one of the last.
Additionally, there were reel changeovers between projectors to be executed approximately every 17 minutes.
As far as I know, film labs still print small circles, lasting 4 frames each and spaced about 20 seconds apart, at the end of each film reel, despite almost every theater in the country having transitioned to digital projection.
Venues that still project actual celluloid likely splice all the reels together onto platters, but old habits die hard. We used these visual cues at the Micro to time the transitions from one projector to another.
When executed correctly, the transition was seamless. Occasionally, the marks would be absent, along with the last few feet of film on the reel, and we would manually scratch new circles into the print with a razor blade.
When I was hired, Bob inquired if I had any experience as a projectionist. I informed him that I understood how the cue mark system worked, having picked up this knowledge from an episode of Columbo.
Never tell anyone that obsessive television watching isn’t valuable in securing employment. At least, it was for me.
As mentioned, the Micro was a bona fide, 35mm-equipped theater. However, some of the films Bob scheduled were only available for projection in 16mm.
For this purpose, we had a Bell & Howell projector modified with a Xenon bulb and extra-large distribution and take-up arms.
The projection booth was elevated from the floor, resulting in a shallow ceiling. One night, while projecting Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) in 16mm, something occurred that hadn’t happened before and never occurred again.
As the weight of the film shifted from the front spindle to the rear, the front reel shifted upward slightly and began rubbing against the ceiling.
Unable to move, the film locked in place and caught fire in the gate, vividly incinerating Clark Gable’s mid-mutiny.
I managed to fix the damage but couldn’t prevent the distribution reel from repeatedly striking the ceiling.
It probably happened a dozen times on that endless, unforgettable evening. As I mentioned, the booth had a locked door for a reason.
Any skills I acquired as a projectionist, at least those not gained from the N.B.C. Mystery Movie, were not from Bob but his chief projectionist – although we never used that title (we didn’t bother with titles at the socialist utopia that was the Micro).
Darwin Vest was a mechanical whiz who managed to keep the projectors running, more or less, despite any errors I made.
He could hear the machines grinding away and discern that the intermittent gear was slightly misaligned. At least, I believe he could. I took his word for it.
Darwin was a virtuoso in the projection booth, but his true passion lay elsewhere. He was a scientist of considerable repute, though the lack of formal accreditation hindered his academic progress.
His area of expertise was the study of venoms from poisonous spiders and reptiles. Darwin had gained recognition in certain academic circles for identifying the hobo spider as a venomous species.
During our initial years working together, he was engrossed in putting together a show called “The Venomous Reptile Review” with his sister Becky, who also worked at the Micro.
Through close and personal demonstrations, the presentation aimed to enlighten audience members about biting, clawing, spitting, or otherwise aggressive snakes and lizards.
Unfortunately, when the show premiered at a lecture hall in nearby Pullman, Washington, only 12 people showed up, leading Darwin and Becky to discontinue the act and evade anxious creditors by seeking refuge in the projection booth.
Darwin was a captivating individual in a doomed, F. Scott Fitzgerald manner. A reserved, erudite man with a neatly trimmed beard and an air of always being a few steps ahead of everyone else yet too courteous to make it evident.
On one occasion, he invited me out for drinks after, or perhaps before, a shared shift at the Micro. While I was eager to discuss movies, he seemed inclined to talk about some mysterious, incomprehensible research he was conducting on campus that evening.
I was preoccupied with the Herzog film our projectors had been handling that week. Still, out of politeness, I eventually inquired about the nature of his secretive work in the chemistry building every day.
After taking a sip, he glanced around as if spies might be lurking among the potted ferns. “Cancer,” he finally whispered.
“You’ve… discovered it?”
“I’ve cured it.”
He proceeded to divulge the details of his research, which undoubtedly involved venom, leading to his enigmatic cancer cure.
However, I comprehended no more of what he disclosed than I can recount today.
All I can recall is that he mentioned that the cancer cells had regressed in every test he had conducted. “It requires a lot more work; years of work, perhaps,” he whispered, “but someday…”
The day after, following a hangover, I realized I had recently immersed myself in the poignant tragedy of Sophie’s Choice (1982) at the Micro.
There was a scene where Kevin Kline’s character, a romantic and schizophrenic scientist, had a similar conversation with a protege.
Even today, the realist in me assumes that Darwin was reenacting this scene with me, either ironically or inebriatedly, to toy with me and see if I would recognize its origin. Yet, Darwin was not that kind of person.
He was too gentle and absorbed in his thoughts for such referential playfulness. Unfortunately, “someday” never materialized for him either.
Darwin disappeared during one of his customary nighttime walks, leaving no trace in 1999. The case remains unsolved and is still officially listed as such by the F.B.I.
My time at the Micro ended with my graduation, although I had spent more time swapping reels or watching them unfold there than in school.
Home video had undermined the Micro’s audience even before my arrival. Still, the emergence of a nearby theater and evolving audience preferences led to a continued decline in attendance after my departure.
Unbeknownst to us, the Micro had existed in a kind of Camelot-like bubble for a decade – where it was still 1969. That bubble finally burst in 1998. It had been a lengthy tenure.
A quarter-century lifespan for a theater so haphazardly constructed, apathetically managed, and programmed contrary to popular taste is quite substantial.
Perhaps passion and a gambler’s spirit are better business assets than expected. Both Bob Suto and the Micro possessed an abundance of these qualities.
The final film to grace the screens at the Micro Movie House was a free showing of the much-adored Monty Python and the Holy Grail, cherished by the locals.
I haven’t returned to witness it, but friends informed me that the building that once housed the Seventh-Day Adventists and then the Micro is now a tattoo parlor.
Revival theaters still exist in major cities, and several theater chains now allocate small screens to independent films.
However, the previous openness of audiences, including those in supposedly conservative areas like rural Idaho, to endorse diverse and unconventional film programming appears to be a thing of the past.
While nothing can be confirmed, it now appears probable that theaters like the Micro have permanently faded into obscurity.
Much like my friend Darwin, who disappeared into the night with a secret and never returned, it seems unlikely that we will reencounter their equivalent.