Many moons ago, fairly early in my former life as Deseret News movie critic, I wrote a story about the Villa Theatre on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of its showing "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Yes, children, back in those days, a single movie could play in a showcase theater for a full year and still pull in an audience. These days a movie is lucky to be on the same screen for a month.

Anyway, I went to the Villa and watched "Raiders" again, and one of the things that struck me was how pristine the print was. No pops, no skips, no scratches . . . obviously a new print, right?

When the show was over, I asked the projectionist how many prints of "Raiders" he had gone through during that year of showing the film several times daily, seven days a week.

His answer startled me: "Oh, this is the original print."

Say what? Where are the pops, the skips, the scratches?

He went on to explain that a professional projectionist knows how to handle a movie print, how to thread it properly and run it through the projector carefully — and if a splice needs to be made, he also knows how to judiciously do that so it's hardly noticeable.

These days there are no projectionists, of course. There are kids working in theaters who are assigned to fire up the projectors — the days of projectionist as a reputable trade are gone forever.

As a result, movie prints today are often torn up and noisy, especially by the time a picture has been trotted over to the so-called "dollar house."

All of this came home to me as I sat in the Villa last weekend and watched "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." As the trailers faded and the film finally came up, there was a scratch — a line running down the center of the picture — that lasted several minutes during the film's opening scenes. And later, there was another line that came up on the left side of the screen, and which stayed there even longer.

If that wasn't enough, the sound was muffled, the picture was darker than it should have been and the projection bulb periodically made the picture go dark for a fleeting moment. And it didn't help that the house lights stayed up for the entire show, so that, sitting about halfway up the stadium seats, it was like watching a movie at a drive-in theater at dusk.

Adding insult to injury, the floor was so sticky that I couldn't move my feet without making noise. And on the main floor was a section of roped-off broken seats . . . and they weren't the only seats that were broken.

Ironically, this less-than-perfect moviegoing experience came on the heels of last Friday's USA Today, which featured the Villa as one of "10 great places to see a classic cinema" on the travel page of the Life section.

Sadly, I must take issue with USA Today's assertion that the Villa "is still one of the best places to see a movie in America."

That was true once, but the theater is simply not being kept up by the Carmike chain that owns it.

No one in the know is speculating about the Villa's future, but we've seen this pattern before — when theaters are getting ready to shut down. Or be divided into multiplexes.

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That would be particularly sad since the Villa still has the largest seating capacity of any theater in the valley — and probably the state — and is one of only two remaining free-standing single-screen theaters, and the last that shows first-run mainstream movies. (The other is the Tower, which, of course, juggles several "art-house" films each week.)

"Harry Potter" weekend business notwithstanding, the Villa can't be a moneymaker. It's sad to drive by — as I frequently do on my way home — and see the parking lot nearly empty night after night.

For those who remember the Villa as a Cinerama theater or who have seen landmark movies there over the years, it's a nostalgic place. But it'll take more than nostalgia to prop it up much longer.

USA Today's acclaim may be too little too late.


E-MAIL: hicks@desnews.com