Sewanee’s Union Theater shuts its doors

Henry Clayton
Staff Writer

Sewanee’s Union Theater shut its doors this year. Following periods of low attendance, along with the conflicting plans for the Biehl Commons project, the space will be renovated to become an outdoor patio. In the meantime, the Cinema Guild has moved screenings to Blackman Auditorium inside Spencer Hall. 

The old union theater was by no means a looker. It was objectively creepy by most accounts. My first time going I was sure I was in the wrong place. Stone walls framed a massive screen instead of curtains. Two lonely fans cycled high up in the air while the projector, which had been damaged and burned, spit out a blue-tinted splotch in the top right corner of every movie shown. But when the lights dimmed and the speakers got to work, I was in a movie theater. There is something that has always drawn me to theaters. That tunneling effect it offers. In the darkness, eyes lead nowhere but to the massive array of images in front, you can forget about everything else and immerse yourself. 

During the pandemic, the world watched theaters become obsolete overnight. Services like HBO Max and Warner Brothers announced that every single one of their 2021 releases would appear in theaters and simultaneously premiere on their streaming platform. The closing of the Union Theater feels somehow more important because of this timing. This first weekend at the Theater’s new location, three films were shown. Pixar’s Coco, available right now on Disney Plus, the Ruth Bader Ginsberg documentary RBG, concurrently streaming on Hulu, and Spiral, Chris Rock’s entry into the Saw franchise, which I went to see, shockingly not released simultaneously anywhere. 

Maybe I am in the minority, but the theater experience has always offered me something that watching at home cannot. The new location doesn’t exactly capture the same magic. Thinly padded chairs glide out from underneath cold wood laminate desks and a periodic table can be seen poking out from behind the dropdown screen. The room cannot be blacked out so overhead lights remain dim but make sure you don’t forget you are in a classroom. Theater seating is replaced with the amphitheater-style lecture hall layout. The screen feels far away, emotionally or physically I am not sure. I will admit I am being a bit unfair, the Cinema Guild team and work studies’ have done their absolute best given the circumstances. The sound quality is good if not great, the picture is cleaner than the one the crippled projector spit out before, and it’s the first week in the new location, but they deserve better. 

Large cutouts of Oscar statues are placed in the corner of the classroom, while red carpets are laid out that run from concessions to the top of stairs that run down to the lectern.  Gold table cloths are draped over the more obvious remnants of classroom furnishings. If you have to do all of this to make your space feel like a theater, it probably is not well suited for it. Our campus is filled with places to appreciate audio-visual arts. The Ralston Listening Room is home to some of the best audio equipment available to man. The University Art Gallery is well maintained and updated. The SUT deserves the same treatment. 

The 2018 Strategic Assessment plan outlines the need to build a University Commons that offers healthy activities while providing space for meaningful social connections in an effort to create more activities here on campus that do not include a 6-pack and a half-mile walk back home. Did the SUT not offer just this kind of activity? The SUT was not a popular option, I will not pretend that its demolition in service of the Biehl Commons project is unjust, but thinking that the experience will be the same in a classroom is shortsighted. My sincere hope is that those who care about the theater experience the same way I do will be willing to speak up about a desire for a dedicated space for its appreciation. 

It’s possible this is a shout into the void. Theaters are less important than they have ever been now. There were a total of 7 people who watched Spiral at the Blackman Auditorium this Sunday. I do know that Vanderbilt and UT Martin both have student-run theaters with dedicated spaces. The library website proposes three different buildings where teachers can screen movies for their class: Blackman Auditorium, Gailor Auditorium, Gailor Language Resource Center, and the SUT. I think this alone displays the kind of benefits a high-quality screening room could offer. I just hope that someday, maybe after I am gone, we will have that option available for students who long for that feeling that just isn’t offered anywhere else.

The coming demolition of the SUT, and the industry-wide reckoning that seems to have helped push it over, offer opportunities for us to think about the value of the movie theater today. There is a certain intentionality about going to see a movie. To sit down for an hour, immersed, having planned your day around it. Taking the walk home while images replay, a moral, a meaning, grabbing hold for a second just to elude you. It’s been beaten to the ground at this point but most filmmakers do not intend for their work to be watched on your 13in MacBook while you text. Even more troubling, streaming services keep something on their platform only as long as it continues to make them money. If not, the rights are sold to the next highest bidder. Movies are tossed around from paywall to paywall. If something doesn’t make money, it simply isn’t offered, unworth the server space and the cost of keeping it online. There is value in curation, a recommendation from someone else, a cultural zeitgeist created outside of whatever Netflix decides is the #1 streaming show this week. The SUT offered this, and still will. Does this resilience not deserve our support as a university, to preserve the knowledge and art that these pictures have to offer? I hope you would agree.

7 comments

  1. That’s a crying shame. While streaming content has it’s place as do “screenings” in classrooms, going to the movies was a community building experience that put a group of people in one room to have a shared experience, Much like live music, watching a game from the bleachers, or attending Sunday morning services, you were part of a select club for that 90 minutes, and you left with a new set of cultural markers only shared by others who’d had the same experience. The SUT also provided a bridge to popular culture that (at least at one time) had a limited presence on the mountain, and mainstream movies were a guilty pleasure (like buttered popcorn) to be enjoyed in the dark with a few fellow devotees, with no pretense to greater meaning than a good time.
    It’s been decades since I attended the Owl Flick, but I’m saddened to think they might not exist when I next make it to the mountain. Thanks for the memories, SUT!

  2. There has to be some way to save the SUT. In the original email for the outlines of the Biehl Commons, they even say that the destruction of the SUT is not essential for the creation of the commons, and is just a bonus outdoor attraction. Great article

  3. You should have been there the night before Thanksgiving break in 1994 when Pulp Fiction finally made it up to the Mountain. It was a party

  4. Out of all of the University facilities, the SUT is by far the most unique… It’s a funky space that completely captures the true spirit of Sewanee… From the couches in the back to those cool stone walls, and the well worn, but very comfortable seats, it is a space where everyone, town and gown, come together as one. The soul of a space like the SUT can not be rendered in a brand new state of the art facility… Sewanee is losing its very soul by replacing its charm with box store mediocrity… I love the SUT. I saw The Gods Must be Crazy there when I was six years old… A full blown, completely wild, Rocky Horror Picture Show when I was 15, Bueno Vista Social Club when I was 24, and a few years ago, in my 40’s, it was the best way to celebrate an Easter week with my children by seeing The Life of Brian. These are just a few of the memorable movies in a place that for all of its shabbiness, it’s the very shabbiness that feels like home… Like a basement den where everyone goes to relax and enjoy a good movie, cheap popcorn, and a coke.
    I’ll mourn the end of the era; not as much for myself, as for all of those who will never be granted the experience.
    And, well, I guess its befitting and appropriate, if one could pass along the message to the paramour of paramours, being that spirit of comfort and good times of which I’ve so kindly spoke, I can only sadly quote my favourite quote from the last movie that I saw there, “So long and thanks for all the fish!”
    But really, it’s damn.

  5. I was born and raised in Sewanee. It is so sad that the University finds it necessary to change all of Sewanee. I guess I better take my last photos of Sewanee Union before it is destroyed. Definally is no longer the Sewanee I grew up in.

  6. “George!”….I’m sad this is going to happen. I have many fond memories watching movies there. What better place to see Animal House! Growing up in Sewanee, this place was our link to outside culture beyond the three channels most of us had in our homes. What’s next to go?

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