The Mooncreek Matinee has been closed for over thirty years. It should have stayed that way.
When I was a kid, there wasn't a Saturday you wouldn't find me in line for popcorn and a movie.
Mooncreek wasn't just a part of my childhood, it was my childhood. My parents would always give me a few bucks to watch two of three flicks that had been out of the regular theaters for quite some time, but for a poor boy like me; it was like vacation every weekend.
Of course eventually I grew up, and I saw the doors to the old theater close, but I never considered that it would be gone for good.
But last Monday, on my way to work; I couldn't help but to notice the permit on the front door that told me Mooncreek was scheduled for a demolition.
Call it nostalgic and old, but just imagining that this cornerstone of our community was being torn down made me feel sick to my stomach. So much so, that after work I felt compelled to go down to city hall and find out for myself what was happening.
Thomas Randolph; the city's building inspector told me what I should have expected. "We've expanded well beyond that district years ago, and places like the Mooncreek Matinee are just eyesores now. But we just passed a motion to allow for a new stretch of highway to go straight down the riverside; and it's a perfect opportunity for economic growth," he said.
I knew Tom well, we'd gone to the same college and played on the same football team. But the way he was talking now, it sounded like we were in totally different worlds.
"Well how long is that going to take? Five years? Maybe nearly twenty?"
"Our estimates put us at a solid thirteen years. But there's no need to worry, we've budgeted it so that there won't be any hurt done to other local industries," he told me.
It sounded like a bunch of political jargon to make me go away. But I didn't want to say goodbye. Not to Mooncreek.
That was where I made my first friends. It was where I discovered my passion as a photographer. Heck, I even learned how to be a good lover thanks to a few nudies that the owner had accidentally left lying around. There wasn't a moment of my life that was untouched by the place really.
"What about the historical value? A lot of tourists like to take a step back in time, and we could pitch that to even out the costs of letting the downtown area stay afloat," I argued.
Randolph wasn't convinced. I'm sure from and other perspective he was probably sounding like a sane person.
"Do you have any idea how much it would cost to renovate that place? I'm sure it's practically falling apart at the seams. It would be a fool's errand," he told me.
But he didn't know me. I'm stubborn. Maybe that's why I've been divorced twice. Or maybe that's why I'm probably the best photojournalist in the area. I never back down from a fight. Not from an ex-wife, not from a scoop in local news, and definitely not from something I felt passionately about.
Another thing he didn't know was that I was a penny pincher. My father always strove to remind me of the importance of savings and it paid off. I had a decent nest egg despite the court settlements I'd dealt with in earlier years.
So I told Tom to name his price.
"I'll prove to you that the Mooncreek isn't a lost cause."
Admittedly, Randolph was speechless. He told me he would need to clear it with the others on the committee, but when I made it clear that I was willing to pay up front for the property; no questions asked... well I could literally see dollar signs dancing in his eyes. There was no way he would pass up the chance.
I think when the deal was finalized he actually felt sorry for me, and maybe you do too. I'm sure a lot of people would consider this to be a mid-life crisis of sorts.
But I don't have many years left on this earth, and I figure if I'm not going to be working my ass off; I should do something that I actually love.
So the next week, once the transaction was finalized and I got the key; I went down to claim my prize. I remember feeling like a kid getting to sneak inside a candy store.
Even as I opened the doors and I smelled the mold and dust came flying up, I couldn't help but to feel a rush of nostalgia hit me. The Mooncreek still had that special magic to me.
Immediately I could see though that the structure of the place was in a horrible state. Rafters were barely clinging to the ceiling, columns were eaten away by termites. The place was a death trap, and I knew I had my work cut out for me.
The only portion of the theater that didn't seem completely rundown was the fire escape that led to the upstairs office, which also seemed to double as a living space so i started my refurbishing there by tossing out old furniture into the dumpster the next alley over. There really wasn't anything salvageable after all this time. And it even made me wonder how long it had actually been since anyone had set foot in this place.
There was one astounding find amid the junk, a photograph taken outside of the theater when it first opened and it looked like it was in decent condition. I hardly even recognized the owners, Mister and Missus Saunders or their son Keith. The date on the back told me that the photograph was well over fifty years old. I decided to make it my driving force to restore the theater to its former glory and make them proud. Each day, little by little; I fiddled with different parts of the building, moving old equipment here and there, sweeping and vacuuming rugs. It was surprising how quickly I was able to make things somewhat presentable again.
But it wasn't long before I recognized there was a lot of electrical work that I wasn't qualified to handle, so I put in an ad with the local gazette. I made it clear in the ad that I couldn't possibly pay them, but would instead offer free room and board to anyone interested in taking on the job.
I expected the phones to ring off the hook with a deal like that. But instead for the next three days I found myself getting no response whatsoever. It seemed like no one cared about Mooncreek the way I did.
Then on the fourth day, just when I was about to call it quits; I heard a soft bell ring at the front office. It was a young college student, from the looks of him no older than twenty-two and he was holding the portion of the paper up with my advertisement like a flag as I approached.
"Jacob Cobb, but you can call me Jake," he said extending his hand and then offering his resume which showed he had extensive experience in both electrical and plumbing.
I welcomed him in and showed him the main lobby and halls and explained the types of repairs I was expecting to make, but each step we took it seemed like Jake was more and more concerned about the extensive amount of work to be done.
"This... is gonna be costly," he muttered. I told him price wasn't an issue and I would cover materials and he seemed visibly relieved. "We're gonna need to get the blueprints from city hall before we get started, I don't want to start messing with the structure of this place until I get a look at the foundation," he told me.
I didn't want to risk him slipping through my fingers, so I agreed to whatever other requests he had.
That brings us to two days ago. Jake finally got the blueprints and told me he was going to try and get a good look at the structural integrity of the Mooncreek. In the meantime, he brought what little belongings he had into the office and thanked me profusely again and again for the chance to be here. I could tell he was down on his luck, and over lunch we got to talking about our love for old film. Surprisingly Jake was an old soul, growing up on things like Casablanca and Gone with the Wind.
"Hey! Wouldn't it be something if some of the movies were still intact?" he asked in between bites of his sub sandwich.
It was then that I realized during my two month stay at the Mooncreek, I had not once stumbled upon a film reel.
"Huh... that is weird," Jake admitted as he paused and got the blueprints. "I don't even see a room for the vault on the map," he added. That struck me as odd so I got a look at it myself and realized he was right.
"Maybe they kept them somewhere else?" I suggested.
"Nah, look at the way it's all organized. Every room in this old place has a purpose... and I think it's designed for some sort of underground storage..." Jake paused again and drew a circle near a blank space that seemed to be nothing more than another portion of the inner structure of the Mooncreek before adding, "I bet the vault is right below here. I was over in that area the other day and it did seem like something was sealed off, but I had figured it was an old laundry chute or something."
"These places did use to be an apartment complex," I told him.
"Maybe we should grab a sledgehammer and go find out?" he suggested.
I couldn't see any reason not to, so with my curiosity piqued I gave him permission and followed to the spot on the map.
Jake caught his breath and began to swing with the mallet, smashing against the brick and mortar as I reexamines the map. It was the first time I noted that the blueprints had been redrawn in 1988, and it also occurred to me that was the same year the Mooncreek had closed. Had someone altered the plans to hide something?
A few moments later, the bricks gave way and a cloud of smoke poured out and the sound of wind rushing almost like a scream. Then I saw a stairwell, descending into the pitch black.
"Ominous," Jacob admitted as he used his smartphone to guide the way. The steps resembled something you might find in a lighthouse, twisted and made of metal and we walked down them for what seemed like fifteen minutes. Then at last we were at a long hallway that stretched for what seemed like miles and Jacob muttered, "I wonder how long this was down here? Maybe they used it for prohibition back in the day?" He was giving me this goofy smile like he thought that was supposed to poke fun at my age. But I was paying attention instead to what appeared to be claw markings on the walls and floor. I was having a hard time trying not to imagine what these tunnels could possibly have been meant for, and then before I knew it; as were at a massive lead door about three times as tall as us. It looked more secure than Fort Knox. Except for the fact that it didn't seem like it was meant to be opened, just a fortified seal...
"Dead end," Jake admitted as he examined the heavy frame and added, "There's no way that thing is opening unless we get some heavy explosives."
"Do you think this is where the films were kept? All the way down here?" I asked, my voice echoing in the darkness.
"Got to be. What else could be down here?" Jake asked. I didn't have the courage to offer any sort of explanation for the scratches we'd seen so instead I told him we should get back upstairs. He didn't object.
After dinner, Jake told me he would give a call to one of his buddies that could examine the door and possibly blast it open. I told him that sounded like a good idea and climbed into bed.
I laid there for a good thirty minutes or so, trying to wrap my head around the discovery; when I heard a sound from somewhere in the auditorium. I moved to tell Jake to wake up, but then realized he was not in his bed.
When I checked my watch I realized that it was nearly two thirty in the morning. What was he doing in the theater this late? I wondered.
I grabbed my slippers and trudged down the steps to give him a good tongue lashing. As I got to the bottom of the steps however I froze because I heard the sound again, and this time it didn't sound like a voice. More like a screech that an animal might make. It was coming from the third theater.
Tentatively I opened the door. It was dark, I could hear something rummaging around in the night and I whispered softly to Jake, figuring he was in the theater trying to catch a wild rat or some other animal that had slipped inside. But he didn't respond.
I made it to the curve in the steps that gave me a good view of the entire theater seating, and I saw a shadowy figure moving in the aisles above. It had to be at least the size of a grown man. Bravely, I turned on my flashlight and shone it up toward the silhouette. It was at that point I realized that it was Jake. He was just standing there, transfixed by the illumination and his eyes glowing the way a deer's would when caught in the headlights. Was he sleepwalking? He seemed to have something running down his mouth, like bits and pieces of carpet.
"Jake.. you all right son?" I asked, wondering if he would snap out of it. He stood up to his full height and I saw his body turn toward me, almost like a puppet being pulled on strings. He raised his finger toward me, his mouth wide; and let out another shriek.
I dropped the light and ran. I didn't dare look back. I made it back upstairs and locked the door to the office as I heard him scratch and growl like a bear might.
That behavior lasted until around six o'clock this morning. When things finally settled down, I dared to unlatch the lock and looked down at the fire escape to see that he was collapsed and exhausted from his feverish behavior.
Cautiously I approached him and checked his pulse. He was still alive but his heart rate was highly elevated. Suddenly his eyes darted open.
"What? Where am I?" Jake asked, them he looked down at his disheveled appearance. "What happened?" he muttered.
I explained the whole thing to him over breakfast and studied his reaction to see what he made of it. But surprisingly he didn't have any words to offer as far as explanation. Instead, when I finished recounting the tale; he merely asked me to reiterate which theater I found him in. Moments later, he finished his cereal and marched into the third room, and I followed after him.
"Where exactly was I standing?" Jake asked. I got a good look from the bottom of the aisles and gestured toward the sixth and seventh one before remarking, "Somewhere around there."
He walked up to that area and used his smart phone again to shine a light on the floor. His expression immediately went from mild concern to absolute surprise.
"What is it?" I asked. He reached down and out of view for a moment, and then stood up again; this time holding what appeared to be an old movie reel.
"What is that?" I asked as he brought it over to get a better look.
We both used our light sources to get a read on the label.
Mooncreek, 8/12: subjects 56 and 57 was all it said.
"Is that... is that yesterday's date?" I whispered.
Neither of us dared to answer that question. Instead Jake muttered, "I think we need to get that projector running."