The first time I stepped into the Big Newport Cinema, I was 3 years old. Majestic mountaintops scrolled across the 71-foot screen. A slow orchestral song resonated as the camera zoomed in and short-haired Maria opened her arms to spin, singing out to the open skies: “The Sound of Music.” Over the next three hours, I spun, too, twirling up and down the long aisles through a sea of empty seats. It’s the story my mom always tells of my first movie: a weekday matinee with no one to bother but a couple of friendly older ladies who pointed at my ruffled dress and smiled.
Touted on its opening night as “the greatest cinema of them all” and billed for years as “the largest screen west of the Mississippi,” the flagship theater for Edwards Cinemas opened across the street from Fashion Island in 1969, just 10 months before I was born. For decades, moviegoers would push through heavy, red velvet curtains to the sight of more than a thousand red upholstered chairs. Similar curtains adorned the walls, the biggest one hanging across the massive screen and parting dramatically as the lights dimmed before each showing. Though time has brought inevitable changes, the spacious windowed lobby and formal circular driveway remain, serving to evoke treasured memories.
At age 10, I leaned against the pale stucco wall outside. A line of people wrapped around the theater, the crowd buzzing with energy in anticipation of “The Empire Strikes Back.” It was the hot ticket for cool kids, and my teenage brother let me tag along for opening day. Inside, we scrambled to find seats, and it seemed not one was left empty in the huge auditorium. At the start of the John Williams score, I rushed to read the now-iconic yellow words scrolling up the screen. My heart fluttered at the sight of Han Solo. The Big Newport gave me my first screen crush: the courageous, quick-witted, reluctant hero. Darth Vader reached out to Luke, uttering his infamous line. The crowd gasped, the energy around me palpable as I soaked in every particle of it.
Fast-forward to being 17 and in love. He held my hand in his as we walked down the aisle. The same sloping aisle I twirled in years earlier. A fantasy world filled with shrieking eels, a six-fingered man, the Dread Pirate Roberts, and Miracle Max won me over as the wit of “The Princess Bride” made me laugh and think, cry and wonder. Were we as first loves the same as the true loves we watched unfold on the screen? It wasn’t the first question the giant cinema made me ask myself, and it wouldn’t be the last.
I drove up the palm-tree-lined avenue seven years later, guiding my car along the curves. Seeing movies alone had become a precious pastime, and this time “Little Women” cast its spell. A childhood novel sprang to life with its enchanting New England setting, 19th-century sisters, and a melodic soundtrack that pulled at my emotions. Winona Ryder’s Jo was impassioned and purposeful as she navigated her changing world and learned what it meant to write from the depths of her soul. She never gave up, and in that moment in some small way, Jo’s determination as a writer planted a seed that helped me muster my own.
I’m not alone in my love for the time-honored theater. Online comments and reviews brim with cherished history and the memories of others. “It’s like visiting an old friend,” a reviewer writes. Many recall the lines of chattering moviegoers inside the massive lobby and the thrill of cheering audiences on opening nights.
Renovations by Regal Entertainment Group have stripped away the red curtains, and the interior wall treatments have been redecorated to a brilliant blue, but nowadays the theater also boasts state-of-the-art reclining seats. No matter the changes, for more than 50 years the Big Newport’s presentations have embodied the power of cinematic storytelling. I can still picture my skirt-twirling self as Maria while the Von Trapp children hiked, biked, and sang their way through the hills of Salzburg. Along with raindrops on roses, the Big Newport became one of my favorite things. For the dream-filled hours I spent nestled in those upholstered chairs, sipping a Dr Pepper and absorbing the wonder of a story, I’m grateful.
Recently, with the wide release of two blockbusters, my memories are stirring. Director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of “Little Women” featuring Meryl Streep as Aunt March opened on Christmas Day. And the full circle of my nostalgia continues with “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” With Billy Dee Williams reprising his role as the charismatic Lando Calrissian and Mark Hamill back as the heroic Jedi knight, it’s like a little window into 1980 again. These days, that generation of folks who stood faithfully alongside me in line will effortlessly select their seats online. But the experience of a Star Wars story as they watch with their own kids remains: full of epic encounters on distant planets set to the familiar cadence of a Williams score and the smell of buttered popcorn.
For me, the best part is being able to share the inspiration and magic of films with my family. Sure, all three of my kids consider themselves Star Wars enthusiasts—their favorite hand-me-down Yoda nightshirt is worn through with holes now—but the effect of movies goes deeper. I love how my 22-year-old son connects with his grandmother over in-depth discussions about film noir and Hollywood classics. Her golden-years perspective converges with his fresh Generation Z viewpoint as they dissect 1950s filmmaking. My older daughter, a recently graduated film and theater student, relishes everything from independent flicks to mainstream features and is my most eager and willing matinee partner. My 13-year-old daughter has her own opinions as to what constitutes a worthy plot, and she is great at inserting witty movie quotes into everyday family chatter.
It’s this laughter and connection, these discussions and revelations, that make moviegoing so meaningful. It’s not just Maria’s singing, Miracle Max’s wisecracks, or the March family’s cozy New England hearth that make us fall in love with these films but also the victory over the Nazis, the triumph of true love, and the success of a struggling writer. In these stories, we find pieces of ourselves.