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Celluloid, cell phones

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It's a sign of the times, I suppose, that when I wax nostalgic about the old-timey movie theaters in Raleigh, it's not the old Ambassador Theater I'm thinking of, nor the Capitol Theater neither. They were grand cinemas in their day, but they were long gone from downtown by the time I got here. No, I'm thinking about the theaters named in their honor over at Mission Valley off Western Boulevard.

Those theaters were given up for dead several years ago by United Artists. They stayed dark until October 2000, when a partnership headed by Bill Peebles brought them back to life. There are five of them, and Peebles named each for a bygone Raleigh cinema: the Ambassador, Capitol, Cardinal, State and Varsity. "I love old theaters," he says. "I can't bring them back, but I can at least preserve their memory."

Peebles and a different cast of partners run the Rialto and Colony theaters, where the fare is higher-brow stuff (Monsoon Wedding, Amelie)--plus Rocky Horror. Occasionally, though, one has a taste for Ocean's Eleven or The Count of Monte Cristo, both of which I took in recently at Mission Valley.

Before Mission Valley reopened, those of us who live inside the Beltline were forced to gas-guzzle out to North Raleigh or Cary to see the latest blockbuster. Since then, I've popped over to Western Boulevard to see Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, without threatening the Alaskan Wilderness in doing so.

The smallest movie screen at Mission Valley, by the way, is bigger than the biggest one you'll see at any of the megaplexes. I have this on good authority from Peebles, who's also proud of M.V.'s new Dolby Digital sound, state-of-the-art projection and extra insulation, so you don't hear Black Hawk Down while you're seeing Ice Age.

But, given all the good seats I saw available, "I'm worried about Mission Valley," I told Peebles.

"You shouldn't be," he replied. "I can tell you Mission Valley is doing fine." Peebles says his audiences are growing steadily, and even in those early months when almost nobody knew the theater was back, it outpaced what UA drew in its final year.

So next time your plans call for The Panic Room, why not give M.V. a shot? But leave that cell phone behind and no talking once the movie starts, OK? If you wanna gab while you're watching, Peebles says, the Raleigh Grande is just minutes away.

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