I never expected all the shouting.
For a few reasons, it is very difficult for me to surprise Shannon at gift time. We’re not awash in cash, and she manages our banking and bills, so any purchase I make is instantly visible to her unless I use a credit card. Even then, which is rare, I don’t have much lead time before the bill arrives in the mail and foils my secret plans.
This time, however, I was determined to get her. I also thought it might be a good way start the festivities of our own upcoming 20th wedding anniversary.
A couple weeks ago, while waiting for John Carter to start, I saw a spate of ads for upcoming Fathom Events. These are one-night screenings available at participating Cinemark theaters (and maybe other venues). They include exclusive concerts, operas, and Broadway plays. The one that caught my eye was the 70th anniversary presentation of Casablanca — a film neither of us had seen.
“Mark the date: March 21, and get someone to babysit the boy.” That was all I told her. The event was obscure enough to our generation that I was hopeful none of her friends would know what was happening.
In the past, my efforts to convince Shannon to watch old black-and-white films with me had failed miserably. This seemed like a perfect opportunity for a date night and to help her see that the writing, particularly the dialogue, can be brilliant in older films. It wasn’t a gift, per se, but offered as a surprise it skirted the dangers that might have come with her preconceptions.
You know, like, “Why don’t we see something else?”
I bought the tickets online and printed out the confirmation page, then neatly tucked it into my work laptop bag. I couldn’t remember a time that Shannon had ever reached in there, so I figured it was safe.
Benjamin, our son now in third grade, asked me earlier in the week about the surprise. “Are you taking her to see Hunger Games?”
“No, but that’s a very good guess. It comes out a couple days later,” I said.
The day of the event, Shannon texted me to ask, among other things, whether she should dress up for the occasion. To have dinner out and catch the 7 o’clock start time, we needed to leave the house within 30 minutes of when I usually get home, so she wanted to be ready. “If you want to, you can,” I texted, and left work anticipating her anticipation.
Bright blue sky spread out for miles in every direction, interrupted only by high, flat-bottomed white clouds. What a perfect scene to start a date night. At a red light, I slid the passenger window down and aimed my camera that direction, but the light turned green before I could compose my shot. Unlike usual, it didn’t get me down.
When I got home, Shannon looked just as beautiful as the day I met her, no dress-up required. Comfortable in our jeans, we loaded up Benjamin and drove to his local grandparents’ place.
“No need for me to go in,” I said.
While they were inside, I got out of the car and opened the trunk, where my laptop bag waited. I unzipped it and pulled out the ticket purchase confirmation sheet, then closed the trunk and got back in my seat. The theater’s phone number was on the sheet, and I had a little time, so I dialed it.
Oddly, instead of a recording, I got a live person within just a couple rings. “Yes, hello. We have tickets to the 7 p.m. showing of Casablanca. Could you tell me if you’ve sold a lot of tickets?” I said. I prefer a center seat, so wanted an idea of how early we would need to arrive.
It was 5:20. “Well, right now, I show that we’ve sold about 30 tickets. But, a lot of people bought right before the show for the 2 p.m.”
Shannon rounded the corner and stepped onto the driveway. I folded the sheet into the console between the two front seats, thanked the theater lady for the information, folded my phone shut.
“Did I see you put something in here?” Shannon asked and pointed at our mutual armrest.
“Yes, you did, and it’s noneya,” I said.
“What’s on it? Who were you calling?” she asked playfully.
“Again, it’s noneya. Just back off, woman.”
We enjoyed a leisurely dinner at Cowboy Chicken and, full bellies topped off by peach cobbler and vanilla ice cream, headed to the theater.
Without any idea where we were going, Shannon read off the street name when I took an exit. “Legacy and Spring Creek?” she said. I pulled into the far right turn-only lane, which meant we were going to either Macaroni Grill or the Cinemark multiplex. I knew then that I had revealed at least part of my plot.
There was an abundance of empty parking spots in the first section of the lot, something I have not seen there when visiting on weekends. No signs were hanging outside; no marquee announced any special event.
“There’s hardly anybody here, so what’s happening?” Shannon said.
As we strolled across the drop-off lane, Shannon looked around at the others approaching the ticket windows. “Okay, should I be concerned that there’s hardly anybody here, and it’s all old people?” she said.
I just kept laughing as we went inside and I handed my sheet to the ticket-taker. I looked around and noted that there were no signs or other indications that Casablanca was being shown. I had expected at least a little fanfare for the 70th anniversary of a movie near the top of many critics’ and fans’ “best of” lists.
I leaned in close and whispered, “She doesn’t know why we’re here, so don’t say anything.”
He read the sheet and smiled. “Theater one, to your left.”
We ignored the concession stand as we passed it. Shannon’s face showed only confusion. “So, theater one? It says John Carter is on theater one. Did you bring me to see John Carter?”
I laughed. Everything was fitting perfectly into my desire to maintain secrecy. “No, I didn’t. Just keep walking.”
Theater one’s marquee read “Special Event.” No poster — nothing.
We chose two great seats in the center and settled in. Oddly, the screen showed a DishNetwork HD logo. Shannon left to visit the ladies’ room.
I turned to a couple sitting behind me. “My wife and I have never seen this movie.”
Both their faces brightened. “Really?” said the man, probably in his mid-40’s. “Oh, I’ve seen it so many times I have it memorized.”
“You’ll love it,” said the woman.
“She has no idea what we’re here to see, so don’t you say anything,” I jokingly commanded.
When Shannon returned, I said, “So, did anybody say anything that ruined it for you?”
“You still have no idea?” I said.
“No, I don’t.” She leaned in closer. “But all these people are really old.”
I looked around and realized that it was rare to see that much white hair in a movie theater. For my own grandfather, going out to a movie was out of the question due to his profound hearing loss. Some of those arriving worked hard at making their way up the stairs and down the aisle to a seat. Several didn’t even try and sat way down front.
The man behind me said, “Boy, I can’t wait to see The Apple Dumpling Gang on the big screen again.” He was joining in with me in trying to keep Shannon off track. I burst out laughing.
A few younger people straggled in the later it got, and the theater filled. I pointed to a few girls in their late teens or early 20’s. “See? There are some youngsters. Of course, they’re probably here for class credit or something.”
This is where it got weird.
At about 7:20, the still image of the DishNetwork HD logo finally changed, and we saw something we see every day at home. There on the screen, larger than life, was the DishNetwork My Recordings menu. Someone scrolled through the recordings to one that said, “casablanca_fathmevts” or something very close to that, and chose Start.
A young man appeared onscreen and started talking about Fathom Events. The fast forward symbol appeared on the screen and the crowd chuckled. We already were 20 minutes behind schedule, and none of us wanted to see an advertisement.
Next, quiz questions about Casablanca appeared, and a few in the crowd voiced protest as the questions and their multiple-choice answers blurred past. Selfishly, I was glad they were skipping the quiz, because it contained spoilers.
Then a scene from the movie appeared, and the fast forwarding stopped. Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne appeared and said a few words before another scene appeared. A person involved in making the film spoke to an off-camera interviewer.
The fast-forwarding starting again.
“Hey, go back. Don’t skip this,” and “Stop, stop!” shouted several moviegoers, presumably at the projectionist safely hidden inside the wall behind us.
I shouted, “We paid to see this stuff!”
The opening credits appeared, and a few screens later the fast forwarding stopped. The movie’s opening narrative introduction played, and everyone got quiet to settle in and watch.
About a minute into it, the symbol for the Skip-Back button appeared and we were taken backward repeatedly in 15-second increments. Back through the opening credits, and into an interview with one of the filmmakers.
An older couple to our right stood, grabbed their jackets, and stormed out of the theater.
“Come on, you gotta be kidding me,” I said, joined by other voices around the room.
A large man dressed in black and wearing a headset walked in and addressed the crowd. I couldn’t make out what he was saying over the din, but judging from the thinner, similarly clad minions flanking him, I gathered he was a manager trying to assuage the crowd.
“This is very unprofessional!” shouted a man sitting only a few rows up from where the manager stood.
Loud, unintelligible remarks continued from both sides, until finally someone in the crowd convinced the rest to listen.
The manager spoke. “I apologize. I want to assure you that this doesn’t usually happen. This is not normal for us. It is a glitch in the system and we’re working to fix it.”
My bullshit-ometer nearly exploded in my head. I looked over at Shannon, whose faced showed that the needle on hers had hit the red, too. “That wasn’t a glitch. That was somebody skipping stuff they didn’t think anybody wanted to see,” she said.
The DishNetwork receiver was working perfectly. The “glitch” was in the brain of the person holding the remote control.
The rumbling started up again, but died down quickly. “Please don’t leave before the movie, and when you leave make sure you get a rain check for a free admission.”
Within minutes the recording was back at the start of the quiz, and after that the remote control was left alone. I could almost feel the room relax. We laughed at the funny parts — Claude Rains was amazing in his role — and Shannon shrieked at the shooting parts, which were effective given that there were so few.
It was a very good film, but I think it suffered from too many years of becoming ingrained in the American psyche. I was pleasantly surprised that it was not just a cheesy romance flick, and got wrapped up in the War and rebellion intrigue, but little of it caught Shannon’s interest. The fast-talking dialogue was sharp and the actors delivered it convincingly, but Bogart was a disappointment to me. The whole time, I felt he was trying to act, whereas I felt the others were taking part in the story.
As we filed out into the corridor, theater staffers thrust Rain Check cards at us in a way that ensured we could not miss them. Despite the unexpectedly late dismissal time and the mild uproar, we were going to come out of the deal sitting pretty. I’m sure the late hour was more worrisome for the older attendees.
Regardless of the slight letdown after a lifetime of build-up, the whole night definitely was an adventure. Most of all, I really got her this time. Plus, now I can say, “Hey, if you think that was almost good, wait ’til you get a load of this classic.” His Girl Friday, here we come.