The ghosts of Westgate Art Cinemas

The west-side cinema sits vacant, but movie-goer memories linger.

The west-side cinema sits vacant, but movie-goer memories linger.

Photo credit: “‘Just a bit high’ -Bob Uecker” by Ken Mattison is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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In Illeana Douglas’ memoir I Blame Dennis Hopper, the illustrious actress pondered the film industry and assessed movie-goers by saying, “I think all movie-lovers have some sort of void or sadness in them that movies fill.” The state of Madison’s cinema landscape has left that void open and unfulfilled. 

Westgate Mall and Art Cinemas. The last Madison picture show. All the independent movie theaters in Madison are finally gone. The Orpheum and The Majestic are now music venues, University Square Four is an apartment building, Hilldale is a Target, and Westgate is currently well into its demolition. The 60-year-old mall that housed an art theater from 1978 until 2008 will eventually be yet another (probably) overpriced apartment building. I loved all of these theaters, but Westgate was special to me. So like any nostalgic Gen X-er, I hopped the fence recently and went inside to chase some ghosts.

The anticipation and excitement for the 1997 opening night of Boogie Nights inspired the staff to dress in 1970s clothes and hire a DJ to spin disco tunes in the lobby. Andy Gibb was singing “Shadow Dancing” as I bought my ticket and went into the main theater. The audience gave a wildly enthusiastic round of applause at the end of the film. 

On Halloween 1998, a very young, very sweet, and very uncorrupted coworker asked me: “What’s The Exorcist?” I immediately bought tickets. The place was packed, the energy was high, and we settled in. Then a somewhat sketchy-looking guy from down front got up and sat directly behind us. Then the main door to the theater slammed shut. Then the lights went out and the movie immediately started. The opening music filled the theater and stilled the audience. It was terrifying. It was also the most fun I’ve ever had watching The Exorcist. And I’ve never seen or spoken to that coworker since.

On the 2005 opening night of Brokeback Mountain, three-fourths of the audience sat silently through the end credits listening to Willie Nelson singing “He Was A Friend Of Mine.” The audience remained in their seats even after the lights came on, just taking it in, processing. On another viewing a few weeks later, a man sat alone a couple of rows behind me. As the end credits rolled, a young couple walking up the aisle recognized him. “Tom? Well, hey. Where’s Lisa?” The names have been changed for obvious reasons.

There was the brilliant spectacle of seeing the classics on a big screen: Singin’ In The Rain, Psycho, The Birds, Bonnie And Clyde, A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather, Cabaret, Blazing Saddles, The Shining, Tootsie. But there are other movie moments and images that have also stayed with me: an audience’s reaction to a rain of frogs in Magnolia; the curb stomp in American History X; a telephone conversation using only pop music in The Virgin Suicides; a close and unexpectedly erotic audition in Mulholland Drive.

There was a bruised and bloody (and shirtless) Brad Pitt in Fight Club; a disheveled Mark Ruffalo wearing his best shirt while he visits his parents’ grave in You Can Count On Me; Gene Hackman trying to be a caring grandfather in The Royal Tenenbaums; Lisa Bonet singing in High Fidelity; Thora Birch dancing in Ghost World; Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová making music in Once; the warmth of Virginia Madsen in Sideways; the melancholy of Bill Murray in Lost In Translation and the sadness of Hal Holbrook in Into The Wild

It was a great reminder that at their best, movies are (or used to be) hilarious, shocking, sexy, violent, uncomfortable, romantic, weird, inspiring, depressing, and beautiful. A grateful thank you to Westgate Art Cinemas for helping me feel just a little less alone during a time when movie culture really mattered. 

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