Three-year-old Johanna Bargg sits alone on a gingham-patterned cream couch in the rear of the theater.
Her little legs barely reach the edge of the frayed blue cushion as she grasps the last of a Lamar’s donut, intently gazing the over-sized Bugs Bunny walking across the movie screen.
“I think we’ve seen this episode,” says Lorrie Griffey, Johanna’s aunt, to the three kids nestled beside her on a larger tan couch.
Griffey’s children, Qyra and Quenten Day, 8 and 10 respectively, and their friend Parker Oberg, 9, stare ahead, eyes glued to the flickering screen as the cartoon bunny quips his staple remark, “What’s up doc?”
Oberg giggles as he finishes the last of his donut.
This is a typical Monday morning for the five-some Griffey says, leaning forward on the edge of the couch. Since the start of summer, they’ve gotten their snacks, chosen their optimal viewing spots and settled in for two hours of classic cartoons at the Lyric Cinema Café on Mountain Avenue in Old Town.
“It’s awesome,” the 2001 CSU microbiology alumna and registered nurse says in a whisper over the cartoon’s background music, “because it keeps them entertained.”
But the cartoons aren’t there purely for entertainment’s sake.
Business is tough, Lyric Cinema Café Owner Ben Mozel says, with his payroll for his summer staff of five spread out before him on the table. Rent for the downtown space is “exorbitant,” local advertising doesn’t attract enough customers and corporate mega-theaters draw from available customer pools.
Mozel opened his theater in 2006 to show more main-stream movies – currently “Moon,” “Away We Go,” “Tyson” and “Hunger” – at $8 for adults, $6.50 for students and $6 for matinees. But ticket revenues aren’t enough to sustain his small enterprise, or as he calls it, his “really stupid back-up plan” after he experienced the disappointments of the Los Angeles movie scene following graduation from Montana State with a film degree.
So he shows the cartoons to increase visibility.
With 24 hours a day to get his money’s worth out of the space and a passion to offer people a theater and not simply a movie experience, Mozel plays free “Loony Toons,” “Goofy,” “Voltron,” “Thunder Cats” and “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, and others, every day except Sunday.
While he hopes news of the theater will spread by word-of-mouth through this endeavor, he has a more eclectic purpose in mind.
“Everyone has their movie theaters they go to,” Mozel says. “They don’t go for the theater; they go for a specific movie.”
“I want to give people a place to hang out,” he says, smiling. “I want to change people’s view on why you go to the theater.”
The $5 all-you-can-eat cereal bar he created to coordinate with nostalgic toon time, is just one example of this.
Carly Paul, 12, and her friend Mackie Stuart, 13, emerge from the theater’s darkness and make their way a few feet to the cereal bar, plastered with scene shots from movies like “Indiana Jones,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Wedding Crashers” and dozens more, to re-fill their bowls.
The two, with Stuart’s sister Vivian Stuart, 13, biked to the theater from across town to watch the silver-screen animations.
Pouring milk onto her bowl of Corn Pops and Fruit Loops and sporting a smile full of braces, Paul says she used to love watching “Tom and Jerry” every Saturday morning at home with her little brother. And though she prefers the environment of her memories, she says, “It’s fun to watch (“Tom and Jerry”) on the big screen.”
Mozel says the culture of cartoons has changed and cannot replace the classic, subtle adult humor of the Loony Toons and Goofy.
There are a few modern day toons more tolerable than the “Smurfs,” he says, laughing. “The Fairly Odd Parents” and “Jimmy Neutron” on Nickelodeon, both contain mature undertones and references to pop and retro culture, and “Spongebob Square Pants” is just a “tamed-down version of “Ren and Stimpy.”
Presently, Mozel says he can get anywhere from four to 40 kids and adults in the theater to watch the historical TV works.
“The morning cartoons are there to make people realize you can do more than buy popcorn and watch movies,” he says, hoping to continue this routine for as long as people enter through his theater doors and take a seat in front of the big, yet local, screen.
News Managing Editor Madeline Novey can be reached at email@example.com.