The first movie I saw with the woman I would later marry was at the Tower Cinemas.
The year was 1990. The movie was Ghost.
She denies it to this day, but Renae only really had eyes for Patrick Swayze that night. I didn’t mind. After all, I was the one she chose to share her armrest with.
Ghost’s famous pottery wheel scene has long since been drained of its romantic power by spoofs and parodies. But back in 1990, upstairs at the Towers in the dark of Cinema 2, as we sat coyly together on our first movie date, watching it for the first time was sweet torment.
Late at night, with their vintage jukebox filling the air with Unchained Melody, Swayze’s shirtless Sam wraps himself around Demi Moore’s Molly as she straddles her pottery wheel.
Play it cool, I think frantically as the temperature in the cinema suddenly rises. Don’t make eye contact. That could be awkward. Just stare up at the screen. With mouth closed. You’re not a creep.
Sam and Molly caress a mound of rotating clay, their moist, muddy fingers erotically entwined. The clay spins and rises, its silky wetness tenderly shaped in their sensuously squelching hands.
For God’s sake don’t snigger. She might be really into this. Actually, pottery does look kinda sexy. Could be a good next date. Will need to work up some Swayze abs, though. Hang on, did she just press her forearm against mine on the wooden armrest? Cool your jets, Romeo: think unsexy thoughts!
As the Righteous Brothers hit their unchained crescendo, Sam kisses Molly’s neck, she swivels into his arms and the rest, as they say, is recommended for mature audiences 15 years and older.
Whatever you do, don’t move! You’re at the Tower Cinemas, you dope. One wrong move in this seat and that crappy cushioned vinyl will make a farting noise that’s guaranteed to blow whatever chances you have with this woman.
ON Wednesday the closing credits roll on the Tower Cinemas after more than 40 years, several thousand films and likely hundreds of thousands of nervous first dates.
Like the Showcase, the Kensington, the Royal on Hunter Street and dozens of other local picture theatres before it, the closure of the Towers tears at the cultural fabric of Newcastle - another communal focal point, another fragment of our collective experience of growing up Novocastrian, lost.
With three screens positioned on the steep side of King Street and limited parking, the Towers is not the cinema you’d build these days.
But it seems inexplicable that a newly energised city adding hundreds of new apartment dwellers each year now won't have “the movies” within walking - or even tram-riding - distance.
For four decades, the Towers has felt the CBD’s ups and downs while battling home video, DVDs, pay-TV and the rise of movie multiplexes in suburban shopping centres with their extra screens, extra session times and convenient parking. More recently, streaming services like Netflix, with their instant, endless viewing options, have squeezed entertainment spending.
But while the flicks might be fading at the Towers, memories of the big-screen magic enjoyed there will never dim for generations of Newcastle movie-goers.
HARRISON Ford and Karen Allen are below deck on a freighter outrunning Nazis. The movie is Raiders of the Lost Ark and Allen’s Marion Ravenwood is teasing Ford’s worse-for-wear Indiana Jones as she removes his shirt (but not the hat) to tend to his latest bumps and scrapes.
“You're not the man I knew 10 years ago,” she quips as they gaze at each other in a mirror.
“It's not the years, honey,” Indy winces. “It's the mileage.”
Raiders is the first movie I remember seeing at the Towers. When the Steven Spielberg-directed, George Lucas-produced adventure opened on August 13, 1981, there was only one place in the Hunter you could see it.
I was 10 and Ford had already fired my imagination with two Stars Wars outings as Han Solo, so seeing his whip-cracking, wisecracking archaeology professor swashbuckling for the first time left quite an impression.
When I think of the staircase at the Towers, with its cavernous feel and those walls of exposed brick, I think of the boy who dashed down those stairs after seeing Raiders - exhilarated as if outrunning a giant imaginary cave boulder, his mind blown by the magic of the movies.
DECADES later, as the Herald’s film reviewer, I’d learn from Towers manager Keith Turnbull that of all the films he showed there over 25 years, Raiders was one of his personal favourites.
Keith ran the former Strand Movie Theatre on Hunter Street before opening the Towers in 1976 with Jaws.
His fellow picture show man Bob Mason, veteran operator of Boolaroo’s Lake Cinema, remembers that opening night.
“We had dinner at Teddy Box's Interlude Restaurant - now closed - and then saw Jaws, which scared the hell out of me when the shark surfaced at the rear of the boat,” he recalled.
“From always being used to stand-alone cinemas I remember how amazing it was to walk from cinema to cinema the night the Towers opened realising this was the future and the start of a whole new way of going to the pictures.”
Keith and Bob will be back at the Towers on Wednesday when the final curtain comes down, as will friend and colleague Andrew Halkett, who worked at the Towers before going on to the Hoyts Royal and cinemas at Charlestown and Maitland.
When Keith, whose son Andrew and granddaughter Hannah also worked at the Towers, retired in 2000, he cited Young Einstein, starring Newcastle's own Yahoo Serious, as the box office champ during his time running the cinema, followed by blockbusters like E.T. and Grease.
My stand-out memory from almost two decades of going to the Towers to review movies for the Herald dates back to 1992.
It’s 8am and I’m sitting by myself in Cinema 1 previewing a new Australian film by a first-time director who I am to interview for the paper. The film is about ballroom dancing. Expectations are low. But soon I’m laughing and crying aloud, alone in the dark, cheering on Baz Lurhmann’s Strictly Ballroom, which still ranks among the top 10 Aussie films at the box office.
Luhrmann (who went on to add another three films to that hit list) would later tell me in our interview that even tired cliches can be made to sparkle again with a bit of gumption and glitz: “It’s the way you tell a story that makes it individual”.
Last week I popped back to Newcastle to see one last film at the Towers. Tracy Blair and Greg Donnan, familiar faces for so many years, greet me with smiles.
As she hands over my choc top and change and steers me up that staircase to Bohemian Rhapsody, Tracy marvels at the many people who have shared their stories of fond Towers moments. “We’ll always have those memories,” she says.
As for Bohemian Rhapsody, I give the much-hyped Freddie Mercury biopic 2.5 stars out of 5.
Sure, it’s a big, loud and shiny crowdpleaser, but it never feels authentic and only makes you long for something real that’s been lost.
Kind of like the feeling you get at a big, loud and shiny multiplex cinema at a shopping centre.
Former Herald journalist and long-time film reviewer James Joyce is Canberra-based executive editor of Fairfax Media’s regional publishing arm, Australian Community Media.
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