Of the thousands of times I have gone to the movies, I had never experienced anything quite like a recent weekend screening at the Country Club Reel Theater. The overhead lights were left on, the volume was a bit too low, almost everyone in the theater was talking, some were crying, others raucously thrashing about in their seats. It was joyous. Chaotic, yes, but joyous.
Thanks to Jennifer Fish from the Intermountain Center for Autism and Child Development and Janice Likes, the theater's manager, more than 100 special-needs children, parents, siblings and caregivers were granted a special matinee on April 30. The children's diagnoses include autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cerebral palsy and chromosomal defects like down syndrome.
"These kiddos with disabilities, especially autism spectrum disorders, typically have sensory issues," said Fish. "So things like sounds, lights and rapid movements are a real challenge. That's one of the reasons they never go to a movie. It's too dark, or it's too loud. It's very intimidating."
The social challenge is an even greater obstacle. Imagine walking into a theater where talking, walking around or even screaming is not only OK, it's practically encouraged.
"You know what it's like. The person in front of you paid $10 to be there, so you better stay quiet and sit still," said Fish. "Today, we're taking away all those obstacles that have kept these families away from the movies."
The feature attraction was Gnomeo and Juliet, an adorable G-rated re-telling of the tale of Shakespeare's most famous star-crossed lovers. The voice work is stellar: James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine and Patrick Stewart as Shakespeare. The screenplay includes some clever gems tweaking the Bard's best known plays and a score peppered with Elton John classics is an extra treat, including "Crocodile Rock," "Your Song" and "Tiny Dancer."
I didn't hear much of the dialogue, with the talking and crying. Going to the movies with scores of special-needs children is not for wimps.
"Boy, this makes me feel good," said Likes, who worked the snack bar with her employees.
The theater charged $1.50 general admission for all comers. Concessions were reduced to $3 for popcorn and a beverage.
Community Partnerships of Idaho accompanied 10 children, some with autism, others with Asperger syndrome. It was a pretty high-maintenance task--each child required an adult partner.
"Sometimes we take the kids to the Saturday Market, sometimes we go to the Y," said Katie Moore, developmental therapist with Community Partnerships. "But this is brand new for the kids. Look at Tyler here," she said, pointing to a 9-year-old with a smile as wide as his face. "Tyler bounced around quite a bit, but I can't wait to tell his parents how well he did. He said he really wanted to go to the movies again."
Fish is looking forward to holding special screenings every three months, so the next will be in July. She said that the movie will always be appropriate and family friendly--they lucked out with Gnomeo and Juliet. Much like Romeo and Juliet. It teaches that in spite of intolerance, ignorance and prejudice, love leads the way toward a peaceful existence. Does it ever.