The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Beverly Center Cineplex RIP: The 'suicide rail' is going, going, gone

June 4, 2010 |  5:20 pm

I hate to say it, but I hadn't been to the Beverly Center Cineplex in years, which probably tells you a lot about why the multiplex closed its doors Thursday. Like most things in Hollywood, when the Cineplex was young, it was loaded with cool. When it got old, it got old fast. But in its early days, it was one of the best places to see a mix of new commercial and indie films. In fact, when it opened in 1982, it was a technological marvel, with the most screens of any theater in the country.

I used to go there all the time, even though I never lived nearby. But it hardly mattered. When a theater complex has heat, like the ArcLight and the Landmark do now, people will travel many a mile to be a part of the action, just as you would to make the scene at a hot dance club or chic eatery. The Cineplex attracted a cosmopolitan crowd -- young hipsters and affluent industry types as well as middle-class movie buffs -- which made it a popular place for comedy filmmakers to hold early previews for the first cut of their new films.

I remember the Zucker brothers telling me that when they were in their heyday, back in the era of "Top Secret!" and "The Naked Gun" series, they regularly held their test screenings at the Beverly Center, knowing they'd get the "right" kind of audience -- not ultra hip, but hip enough to get the good gags and turn up their noses at the bad ones. The Zuckers would shovel every joke they shot into the first cut of the film, knowing the Cineplex audience would help them figure out which ones to trim away.

But a lot of trimming was needed. The early cuts would test so badly that the Zuckers came up with the nickname "suicide rail" for the railing that separated the top floor of the Beverly Center, where the Cineplex theaters were housed, from the lower floors of the mall. Apparently, when the first cut of one of their films was playing badly the brothers were often tempted to take a flying leap over the rail, even though once they tightened up the films, they usually hit comic pay dirt.

Unfortunately, it isn't as easy to fix a crumbling, outdated multiplex. It would be easy to blame the Cineplex's demise on the competition, which by the dawn of the new century had easily passed theaters like the Cineplex by, offering bigger and better screens, fancier food selection and nicer ambience. But as with most things in L.A., location played a big role in the Cineplex's dissolution. As both the Eastside and the Westside were built up with newer, cooler theaters, if you didn't live in the Beverly Center neighborhood, there was precious little reason to patronize the Cineplex, especially after the Grove opened and became the hot destination theater in the area.

I'd argue that the Cineplex was victimized by L.A.'s hideous traffic congestion, which encourages all but the most avid moviegoer to stay close to home for fear of adding another half hour (each way) onto their movie commute. I think the ArcLight Hollywood is easily one of the best theaters in America, but living on the western end of the Westside, I could probably hop on a plane and get to a theater in San Francisco almost as fast as I could get to the ArcLight on a Friday night. Once the Landmark opened on my side of town, it became my preferred oasis for regular moviegoing.

Still, there is much to mourn about the Cineplex, which in its prime, sitting atop the layer-caked Beverly Center, almost approximated the feeling of being up in the clouds, if you could have clouds inside an urban mall. If you'd seen a terrific new film, you could stroll out to the suicide rail and look down at the people grazing in the mall, wanting to yell out to them to come on up and get in on the action. Maybe the Zuckers sometimes felt like jumping, but if I'd just seen a movie that was hitting on all cylinders, being at the Cineplex made me feel as if I was on top of the world.