The 1980’s: A Decade at the Movies – Part 1
For anyone who missed my article on growing up going to the movies in the 1970’s, I highly recommend you take a few minutes to review it prior to reading this one so that you will be familiar with the history of movie theaters in Ocala, Florida and my experiences related to them up to this point. The 1970’s were my formative years and I had entered that decade as a very young child with no preconceived notions. I had just become a teenager when the 80’s dawned and the world lay ahead of me. I had a lot of maturing left to do before adulthood and the movies would still play a very important part in my life.
Even though there were a number of important films released in 1980, including Ordinary People, Fame, The Shining, The Blues Brothers, and Mad Max, to a thirteen year old boy like me these were all overshadowed by one movie – The Empire Strikes Back. In 1977, Star Wars had caught us all unaware when it opened but we wised up quickly and held onto it with a death grip from that point forward. For most kids my age, life revolved around Star Wars and that was all we talked about. One of the major topics we pondered related to Star Wars was the inevitable sequel and what great wonders it would bring. We had to wait three agonizing years for those questions to be answered but on Saturday, May 24, 1980, my friend Michael Boomer and I raced to the Wometco Theater to make sure we were among the first to find those answers. I sat in stunned silence watching the film but Boomer, who had read the recently released novelization, took great pleasure in describing everything that was about to happen! It didn’t matter though, I was too enthralled with what was going on up on the big screen to care in the least and, while this film never had the same repeatability factor to me that Star Wars did, this would not be my only time seeing it in a theater.
When the summer of Empire Strikes Back ended, Boomer and I entered high school together. It would be his last year there due to family complications but I was in for the long haul. On the first day of freshmen year I was seated in homeroom alphabetically next to Kenny Vasquez, one of many new kids that year who had transferred in from a different school that ended with 8th grade. Noting the Beatles T-shirt I was wearing, Kenny told me he had a friend from his previous school that he had to introduce me to. As promised, at lunch that day when all the freshmen classes were united, I made the acquaintance of one John Hickey through our new mutual friend. The introduction went something like this:
Kenny Vasquez: Ed, this is the guy I was telling you about, John Hickey.
Ed Tucker: Hi John
Kenny: John, this is Ed Tucker. He likes the Beatles too.
John Hickey: Hi Ed, nice to meet you.
Ed: Nice to meet you too.
That was the end of the conversation and probably the last things John and I said to each other for the remainder of the school year other than a cordial greeting if we passed in the hall. We both went back to adjusting to the new school format and trying to get what seemed like our entire world settled back down after the major upheaval high school had caused. Interestingly enough, my freshman year ended on a similar note to the one it began on when Empire Strikes Back was reissued to theaters just a little over a year after its debut in June of 1981. It was hot on the heels of a new film that would set up shop in theaters the same month and stay for the entire summer – Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It wasn’t long after the start of my sophomore year of high school that my decade at the movies truly began. A casual conversation with John lead to a plan where he and I and another friend, Andre Frieden, would meet up for a movie that weekend. On Saturday, September 5, John and I took in a matinee of Dudley Moore’s comedy Arthur but Andre was nowhere to be found. This was the start of a lifelong friendship that continues to this day. For the remainder of the 1980’s, John Hickey and I spent more weekends at the movies than we did otherwise. Even on those rare occasions when there was just nothing we could justify paying admission for in the theaters, we would find something to watch at home in one of the newly opened video rental stores.
While I was busy becoming my own person and spending time with my friends, I managed to find ways to connect with my parents and this still included going to the movies. In the early 80’s, the theaters in Ocala started doing discount nights during the week when films were only a $1.00 or $1.50 for the evening showings. My mother and I would often go to these together even if we went to see different movies. Around this time, I got my first real part time job and actually had some income to play with. My father had no qualms with taking me to see R rated movies, a service I was quickly losing the need for even at thirteen, as long as I paid for the tickets. We caught some great flicks together during this time like Escape from New York and the underrated Wolfen.
Attitudes were very different back in the 80’s and movie ratings were not rigidly enforced. With the exception of some high profile horror or raunchy sex comedy films, there was seldom an eye blinked at the ticket booth when I requested admission to an R rated movie even though I was four years under the stated age limit and sans parent or guardian. On the rare occasions when it seemed liked the theaters had stepped up their vigilance, we fell back on the old trick of buying tickets for one film and then “accidentally” walking into another. Things were so lackadaisical that we eventually even gave up on this thinly veiled ruse and just bought the tickets outright after a year or two. I would only ever be ID’d for a film one time and it was years after it mattered.
Toward the end of 1981, a fad from the fifties made a brief but dynamic come back – 3D movies. The spearhead of this new invasion was an Italian spaghetti western that threw everything the characters could get their hands on at the audience. The aptly titled Comin’ At Ya! hurled rocks, arrows, bottles, furniture, flaming torches and anything else it could think of out of the screen while adhering to the loosest of plots in the process. The audience I saw the film with could have cared less about the story anyway. They were to busy gasping and dodging objects that appeared to be flying off the screen without losing their special viewing glasses in the process. Just like the first time around, 3D never caught on and only lasted about two years this time. We did get some notable sequels like Jaws 3D, Friday the 13th 3 in Supervision 3D, and Amityville 3D, plus a few fun re-releases like the 1956 version of House of Wax starring Vincent Price.
While John and I were quickly falling into a rhythm of hitting the theaters on most weekends, not every film I saw was with him. One notable exception was in March of 1982 when I very wisely rushed out opening weekend to see a film I knew would not last long at the theaters – the blatant Italian Jaws rip-off, Great White (a.k.a. The Last Shark). I had seen the poster for this film with a giant shark head about to engulf a woman on raft out in front of the Wometco Theater a week or so earlier and knew I needed to act fast. I caught a Saturday matinee with a very respectable crowd but we all sat like deer caught in headlights as we watched this blatant copycat that brought nothing new to the shark attack film genre except, perhaps, some unintentional humor. I left the theater shaking my head and thinking that lead actor Vic Morrow deserved better than this. Sadly he would be tragically killed just four months later on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Great White only survived two weeks in theaters before Universal slapped the distributor, Film Ventures International, with an injunction and it disappeared off the face of the Earth. In Ocala, it was replaced by Bob Clark’s screwball teen comedy Porky’s which John and I dutifully caught on opening weekend and filled our classmates in on the following week.
Movie theater expansion had been stagnant for several years in Ocala since the late 70’s. The Wometco and Plitt Theaters were both three screens by now although the Plitt had merely divided their larger house into two separate ones rather than build a new theater. The Ocala and Skylark Drive-Ins continued to show the same mix of second run movies and tantalizing exploitation treats I was still too young to get to on my own and the Belleview Twin Theater was closed for the first of several hiatuses. In April of 1982, the atrophy was broken with the opening of the new Shady Oaks Cinema N’ Pub. This theater offered a new concept to Ocala – movies and food combined. While the films were usually second run or whatever the other theaters has passed on, most patrons were fine with that as long as they could enjoy a ham sandwich and a beer along with the usual assortment of cinema snacks.
By the end of 1982, video tape rental stores were becoming more popular and seemed to be springing up everywhere. While they were still charging membership fees that would be considered ridiculous these days, the prices were starting to come down due to the competition. Since the start up cost for these businesses was not cheap, one prerecorded VHS tape could cost as much as $100 back then, the initial fee to join these organizations was usually in the $50-$75 range and there were only a few to choose from. Now that the early adaptors had been operating successfully for a few years, the second wave was coming in to tap the market. My family finally joined the home video revolution this year with the purchase of a Panasonic top loading VHS recorder for just shy of $500.
I may have felt like I was more mature as my junior year of high school was wrapping up in the summer of 1983 but I wasn’t afraid to admit that I was eagerly anticipating the release of the third and final installment in the original Star Wars saga – Return of the Jedi. It opened in Ocala on Friday, June 4, which happened to be the last day of school and a half day at that. My friend Ray Hitson, who was a grade behind me but every bit my equal in science fiction fandom, and I headed over to the Springs Theater to catch one of the first showings. I still remember standing outside afterwards discussing everything that had happened and then dropping spoilers for my friends who had not seen it for days to come.
The increasing popularity of the video rental stores was starting to be felt at the movie theater box offices and they responded with special discounts and events that the stores could not duplicate. Horror marathons were dusted off around Halloween and matinee and midnight movies began to reappear. It was at one of these screening at the Springs Theater that I was finally able to see the last film the Beatles made, the downbeat documentary Let It Be. It was shown in one of the two theaters that had been created by dividing their large auditorium in half with a thin wall. The fallacy of doing this was extremely evident that night as Rocky Horror Picture Show was playing on the other side and anytime the film I was in got quiet, you could hear the audience shouting loud and clear next door. The audio problems didn’t bother me though, I was grooving to the music of the Beatles and my first midnight movie!
As my career as a high school student was wrapping up in the early months of 1984, another rarity popped up at the Wometco Theater one weekend in the form of an unrated movie. The gloriously incoherent Spanish horror film Pieces looked like just about everything John and I could want in Saturday afternoon entertainment. The fact that the ads bore the tantalizing warning of “absolutely no one under 17 admitted to this performance” and the lack of any form of traditional rating made this a must see! We laughed a lot more than we cringed in this supposed fright flick whose ads promised that you didn’t need to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre! After ninety minutes of inane dialog and some pretty over the top violence, a last minute scare that was almost too ridiculous to be believed had us in hysterics all the way out to the street. Our amusement at the preceding violence, outrageous as it was, apparently irritated a woman leaving in front of us so badly that she attempted to slam the theater’s side exit door in John’s face. She then proceeded to admonish us for behaving immaturely as we watched the surreal scene and wondered if she had just come from seeing the same film we did!
My final day of high school was marked with another science fiction milestone only this time it was a Star Trek film rather than Star Wars. John and I left our final day of school together and gave up educational pursuits for a search for Spock! Star Trek 3 promised to return everyone’s favorite Vulcan to the franchise fold after killing him off rather permanently in the previous installment. Thankfully it was an enjoyable, if slightly contrived, film – at least for John and I. We ran into a friend from school, Lex Nast, at this screening and invited him to sit with us. About two thirds of the way through the film, he exited quickly and we did not see him for the rest of the show. I found out later he had become violently ill and spent the remainder of the film’s running time vomiting in the theater’s rest room. I am sure the artificial butter flavored grease the popcorn he had been eating was slathered in had to be a contributing factor!
Coming In Part Two: Ocala opens a movie theater just for John and ED and the attack of the one week wonders!