' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Wynnsong 16

Friday, December 08, 2023

In Memoriam: Wynnsong 16

Growing up in central Iowa, there was a house just outside my (then) small hometown of Waukee that we colloquially called the spaceship house. That was because that was how it looked, like a spaceship had landed amid corn and soybean fields, exhausted its supply of dilithium crystals, and stayed put. Its construction in 1993 coincided with me turning 16 and getting my license, and so my friends and I would occasionally drive out there, just to gawk. It was the lone residence in the mostly rural, undeveloped land between Waukee and West Des Moines, and perched atop a small hill, a lower level connected by elevator and spiral staircase to an upper level with a circular design echoing a flying saucer, it really did resemble some beacon from the future. My dad and stepmom recently moved into one of the many new subdivisions that have sprung up in the area around the spaceship house, and driving past it all these years later, it was jarring just how much that futuristic sensation had been dimmed by urban sprawl. 

née Wynnsong 16

The last AMC movie theatre in the Des Moines metro area closed Sunday November 26th with nothing more than a note taped to the door, as sure a sign as any that the people making the big decisions aren’t doing so with their hearts or their minds. Axios reported that the final showing at the AMC CLASSIC Johnston 16 was Taylor Swift’s “The Eras Tour,” doubly appropriate as both an emblem of movie theaters hoping America’s Pop Cultural Conqueror might bail them out and because that AMC CLASSIC’s shuttering really was the end of an era.

That AMC CLASSIC was not always one. It opened under the umbrella of Carmike Cinemas in May 1998 as the Wynnsong 16, a moniker said to be derived from the name of one-time Carmike President and CEO Michael Patrick’s son. If the name was peculiar, hey, it was trying, like a college football bowl game that does not simply borrow the title of its corporate sponsor. Sprawled on the southern edge of Johnston, Iowa, right near where I-35 exits on to 86th Street, something of a West Des Moines thoroughfare, there wasn’t much else out there when it opened, just one massive 16-auditorium monument to the movies. If you build it, yada yada, and people did, drawn to the first theater with stadium seating in the city. The Wynnsong boomed, and gradually the area filled in around it with hotels and restaurants and homes and schools, to such a degree that the few times I got back out there in the last 20 years, much like the outskirts of my own hometown and the spaceship house, I no longer recognized it.

via cinematreasures.org

When the Wynnsong 16 opened, I was still down the literal road at Cobblestone 9, which was rendered a relic of the cineplex scene practically overnight. It wasn’t just the lack of stadium seating but how our hallways came to feel like a dank maze and our lobby cramped compared to the expansive Wynnsong corridors and a lobby that was more like an atrium. Eventually, I wound my way to the new place, first as projectionist and then a manger. I learned a lot, about the divisions between labor and management, and about how to put film reels together. Once, when screening “The Mummy” after hours to ensure I had built the film reels properly, right around the time Rachel Weisz and Brendan Fraser arrive at Hamunaptra, they were suddenly backwards, necessitating emergency reel to reel surgery. I learned how to dance, in a manner of speaking, from my friend and fellow manager who one night busted out some gangly, too funny for words, really, choreography to whatever song was popular on the radio (“If You Had My Love” by Jennifer Lopez?) and then told me “It’s all in legs, Nick.” And I learned about the fragility of life when that same friend and fellow manager fell unconscious one Saturday afternoon in the lobby and died of sudden cardiac arrest. I went to the stairwell leading up to projector 16, shut the door, sat down, and cried. 

Though I left the Wynnsong just before the new millennium, I still went there regularly because they still regularly got all the best movies, both before and after I briefly lit out for Arizona. Before I left Des Moines for good, though, in 2005, the Jordan Creek 20 opened in a massive new shopping district to the west, effectively doing to the Wynnsong what the Wynnsong had done to the Cobblestone. After merging with Carmike in 2017, AMC not only rebranded the Wynnsong as the unimaginative Johnston 16 but as a so-called AMC CLASSIC, a little marketing 101 sleight of hand equating it with an archetype of the genre but really giving them license to eschew any necessary updates by freezing it in its ostensible “classic” form and essentially leaving it to rot, much like the one-time Arclight cum AMC in Chicago has been left to rot, the powers-that-be biding their time until they can stick another note on the door. That’s the state of the industry in 2023, which may well not be dying, but has undoubtedly shifted to a minor key. And if once the Wynnsong 16 seemed to emblemize what was to come, I can’t stop thinking about how it’s become just another rickety testament to what was. 

No comments: