They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it; for it is money they have and peace they lack.
  -James Earl Jones "Field of Dreams"
and don't go mistaking paradise for that home across the road
  -Bob Dylan "Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest"

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Cine Capri Committee: From the Inside


Similar to the Frances Barwood piece of a couple of weeks ago, this was written in August of 1997 and is reproduced here so that it won't get lost.

Some months ago, I got interested in the effort to save the Cine Capri Theater. I have gone to the Cine Capri several times in the 18 years that I have lived in Phoenix. It has always reminded me of the places where I saw movies as a child, before the multi-screen megaplexes became the rule. I particularly relish the memory of the first time that we took our two sons to see a film there. I will never forget the looks on their faces when the huge curtains were pulled back, revealing the screen. When I heard that the theater might be torn down and that there was a Mayor's committee being formed to save it, I was very interested in getting involved. I have served on various committees, including a stint as Chairman of the Paradise Valley Village Planning Committee, and I felt that I could lend some expertise to the effort. I was pleased when I received notice from the city that I had been selected. I knew that there had been a large number of applicants.

When I received paperwork on the committee prior to the first meeting I was a little taken aback. There were over 60 people on the committee, including some celebrities like Alice Cooper and Grant Wood. How could a group that large get anything done? The first meeting was somewhat of a circus. Even more people had been added. Most committee members were there, with the exception of Alice and Grant. The Committee Chair was Phoenix City Councilman Craig Tribken, and his co-chairs were KTAR talk show host Pat McMahon and local theater mogul Dan Harkins, who operates the Cine Capri. It became clear quite quickly that this was McMahon's show. Tribken turned the meeting over to him and disappeared until the "last" meeting. The main purposes of this first meeting were to introduce the committee members, to form subcommittees, and to explain the dilemma that lied ahead. Passing the microphone around we each introduced ourselves and explained why we were there. McMahon handled this like one of his shows and a warm fuzzy feeling was had by all. As to the subcommittees, and Tribken did resurface for this part, there were four. There was a research group, a publicity group, a web page group and the "technical subcommittee" which would concentrate on architectural and planning issues. That was the one that I wanted to be on, the one that would do the real work. Tribken then announced who would be on that technical subcommittee and passed out sign-up sheets for the other 3 groups. It was clear from then on that the Mayor's Ad Hoc Committee to Save the Cine Capri was an overpopulated publicity stunt, that the actual work of the committee would be taken care of by a hand-picked group.

I should point out from the beginning that I do not like Grady Gammage, Jr., the attorney for the Gray Family Trust, which owns the property and wants to tear down the theater. I had dealings with him in my days on the PV Committee which I'd rather forget. From that standpoint I was predisposed against the Grays. Had they been represented by Paul Gilbert or even Larry Lazarus it would have more objective. The Grays' position was simple. They owned the property, had every right to tear down the theater if they wanted to, and they wanted to, as they stood to make a lot of money out of the project that they were planning for the parcel. Any proposal that would preserve the theater would lessen the amount of money that they would make. That was their position throughout the process and still is today.

Dan Harkins is a likable fellow. He owns the Harkins Theaters chain and seems to genuinely care about the movies, the theater-going public and the Cine Capri. Pat McMahon spent a lot of time gushing about how wonderful Harkins is and how much better his theaters are than the other guys'. I'm not sure that I agree. I go to the movies once or twice a month and can usually pick between Harkins, AMC and United Artists theaters. The seating, snack offerings, etc., is no better at Harkins theaters than any other. He may have introduced some better seating sound or snacks but the others have clearly caught up. The big Harkins outlet in my area, the Shea 14, is an ill-conceived facility with not enough parking and a 15 minute wait for popcorn. Harkins' position throughout was that he grieved for the loss of Arizona's other big screens and that he wanted this one to stay open, operated, if possible, by him. There was always an uneasy feeling on my part that we, as a City of Phoenix committee, were getting dangerously close to furthering a private enterprise. I eventually worked on the website, what ultimately became www.cinecapri.com. The suggestion was once made by Harkins' people that we put in links to the sites that sell movie tickets. Were we building a site for the committee or building one for Harkins? Harkins owns the Internic registration for cinecapri.com.

The meetings went on monthly for a few months. On one occasion we were unable to achieve a quorum and the point was made that we needed to toss out the Alice Cooper and Grant Wood types who had never attended. It was pretty obvious at these meetings that the Committee itself was getting in the way of things. The technical subcommittee would meet with Gammage and Harkins and come up with some recommendations. When the Committee would have some questions, which is going to happen when a Committee of 70 people meets, it seemed to irritate at least some of the insiders on the technical subcommittee. Lenny Beard, a show biz type who was in the technical group, once complained that the Committee was floundering and that the "Executive Committee" should meet and make decisions. Now, Lenny, there was no executive committee, or if there was it had no legal standing and was in obvious violation of the open meeting laws.

There was very little movement during this period amongst the concerned parties. Gammage rolled out a plan to tear down the theater and rebuild it underground at the site. Most Committee members felt that this would kill the theater and rejected the idea. The research subcommittee sent out a survey to the Committee members asking them to rank from top to bottom the things that they liked about the theater, much like Solomon asking the mother to prioritize her baby's body parts.

We had a deadline from the city and the final meeting was called. A report, written by Tribken, was circulated for approval. The report said essentially:

  • The Cine Capri should be saved
  • A foundation was being formed to carry on the Committee's work. It's Executive Committee (undoubtedly including Lenny Beard) would run the show.
  • Our survey is attached

I for one was outraged at this. What in the hell had I invested my time for? This was all a sham. I tried to at least get language inserted that would take a stand against the underground proposal. It was amended in and then taken back out by Tribken. The procedure at the meeting was confusing enough that the status of that language was not clear at the time a vote was to be taken. Tribken's position was that the Technical Subcommittee's report opposed the underground plan and it would be a "supporting document". Side note: In the 80's there was a massive effort to create the General Plan for the City of Phoenix. The approach taken was to create individual plans for each of the Urban Villages that make up the city. The PV Village Plan, which I was very familiar with, was the product of countless hours of work and laid out a detailed plan for how the area should grow. It was very specific and very detailed. Too much so for the developers. When the first draft of the General Plan was distributed it incorporated all of the Village Plans. The development interests complained that the document was now too large. In the final version, the General Plan was issued bereft of any nouns and verbs and the Village Plans were "supporting documents". The effect is the runaway development that you see in this city. The vague General Plan is often consulted in zoning decisions. The Village Plans never are. Making something a supporting document is the equivalent of throwing it away. End of history lesson. The final vote on this wholly dissatisfying report was umpteen to 3. Two of us opposed the report because it lacked any teeth. A third individual, taking a libertarian tack, believed we had no business telling the developer what to do and opposed the report on that basis.

I left the Council Chambers in thorough disgust. I had taken part in a publicity stunt which consumed countless hours of the time of well-intentioned people and accomplished absolutely nothing.

Since then, things have gone further downhill. The Camelback East Village Planning Committee, not movie buffs it seems, voted unanimously to oppose retaining the theater on the site. David Liebowitz of the Republic, who has recently replaced E.J. Montini as the columnist I most often disagree with (Keven Willey and Joel Nilsson are the good guys), took an editorial stance in favor of tearing it down. Things look pretty grim for the Cine Capri right now. I did read where somebody wanted to move it to downtown Mesa. Big deal, they might as well move it Flagstaff, at least I go there once in a while.

Still, by today's count, 205,990 people have signed petitions to save the place. It would have seemed like the city, along with a group of concerned citizens, could have worked this thing out. Apparently not.

Paul Benjamin, August 24, 1997

Update: The Cine Capri was torn down, a high rise sits on the site. Around this time a radical change to the movie theatre landscape occurred: stadium seating. AMC opened its Esplanade 14 across 24th Street from the Cine Capri site. With the (then) Squaw Peak (now Piestawa) Parkway completed this quickly became our favorite theatre. Non-stadium theatres, even the above-mentioned Shea 14, suffered badly from this. Harkins PV Mall location has closed and never reopened. Harkins opened a stadium outlet at 32nd Street and Bell, AMC countered with one at the new Desert Ridge Marketplace at Tatum and the 101, which then replaced Esplanade 14 as our most visited theatre. Harkins then opened a megaplex at the power center at Scottsdale Road and the 101 and included a large theatre with stadium seating that he dubbed the Cine Capri, using some artifacts rescued before the demolition. We saw one of the Lord of the Rings movies there. It just isn't the same. Last I heard he was thinking about opening another one in Mesa. We moved to Willo so our local theatre is now the AMC Arizona Center 24, with stadium seating. I prefer AMC stadium seating to Harkins' offering because Harkins' seats rock (are movable) which causes uninvited interaction with the people behind me, although we almost always sit in the top row.

1 comment:

Vivi said...

Just found this post. I went to Camelback High School, so practically all of my friends worked at the Cine Capri at one time or another. We were heartsick when they tore it down. Even today I get a little choked up when I see the Starbucks and high rise in its place. SO much time's gone by, but thank you for the work you did. Although it may feel like it was for nothing, it means so much.