Vincent Vega: You know what the funniest thing about Europe is?
Jules Winnfield: What?
Vincent: It's the little differences. I mean, they got the same shit over there that we got here, but ... it's just, there it's a little different.
Vincent: All right. Well, you can walk into a movie theater in Amsterdam and buy a beer. And I don't mean just like in no paper cup. I'm talking about a glass of beer. And in Paris, you can buy a beer at McDonald's.
— Pulp Fiction (1994)
Your local McDonald's isn't likely to start turbo-charging its St. Patrick's Day shamrock shakes with Guinness Extra Stout any time soon. But the U.S. does have its share of movie theaters that serve suds (and booze) these days, particularly in college towns. Perhaps that's why a regular Seven Days reader asked us recently to find out why no Burlington-area cinemas sell beer, wine or cocktails. WTF?
Short answer: Because none currently has a liquor license.
A little background. So-called drafthouse theaters, or film houses that serve food, beer and other alcoholic beverages, aren't a new phenomenon. Aside from the aforementioned European movie houses, where consumption of booze has been de rigueur for decades, some American movie theaters began offering spirits in the 1990s to supplement their bottom line. Not surprisingly, the trend coincided with the meteoric rise of Blockbuster Video, the once-ubiquitous home-video rental chain that drove a spike through the hearts of countless independent cinemas.
In 1997, the Commodore Theatre, a 1945-era art-deco movie house in Portsmouth, Va., became the first theater in the country to serve alcohol during first-run features, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO). That same year, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema opened in Austin, Texas, serving suds with dinner and a movie. Known for its phallic-looking marquee and a strict enforcement of theatergoer etiquette, the Alamo Drafthouse chain quickly spread to a dozen locations in the Lone Star State, then across the country.
By the mid-2000s, other theater chains were serving alcohol, including AMC Dine-In Theatres, which offer 21-and-older "Cinema Suites" with extensive food menus, full cocktail bars and luxury recliners. Evidently, downing numerous beers in a crowded theater while taking in a summer blockbuster is considered a night out on the town. Downing an equal number of beers in one's living room while parked in a La-Z-Boy is considered alcoholism.
In 1997, NATO reported that just 14 theaters in the country allowed patrons to imbibe. Today, the trend is so prevalent — New York legalized the sale of booze in movie theaters in 2011 — that the organization no longer tracks the exact number, estimating "several hundred" nationwide.
Is Vermont behind the times? Not entirely. Bill Goggins, who runs the education, licensing and enforcement divisions of the Vermont Department of Liquor Control, reports that at least three theaters in Vermont are currently licensed to serve booze. (He can't cite an exact figure, explaining that the DLC database doesn't indicate which licensees are cinemas.) Alcohol-friendly theaters in Vermont include the Stowe Cinema 3Plex, which features an extensive bar of beer, wine and liquor (though "no blender drinks"); the Big Picture Café & Theater in Waitsfield, which sells alcohol in its café and two cinemas; and the Savoy Theater in Montpelier, which has sold beer and wine in its basement for at least two years.
"People appreciate it," notes Savoy owner Terry Youk. "In fact, it's a big part of our concession sales."
So why can't Burlington-area filmgoers enjoy a sudsy cold one during Million Dollar Arm or a Kamikaze during Godzilla?
Merrill Jarvis III, who owns Merrill's Roxy Cinemas in Burlington, Palace 9 Cinemas in South Burlington and the Majestic 10 Cinemas in Williston, says he's been asked many times to sell alcohol in his theaters. His answer: not interested.
"I know a lot of other theaters are doing it around the country," he says. "But I like it the way it is."
Not that Jarvis hasn't tried it already. His family owned now-closed Merrill's Showcase on Williston Road, a movie theater that in the mid-1980s was attached to a restaurant and bar called Bogart's.
"It was way ahead of its time," Jarvis recalls. "People didn't really get the concept." Too far ahead, evidently. Jarvis closed Bogart's after just two years. Similarly, Essex Cinemas once had a restaurant that served booze, but it closed on Memorial Day 2012 after just 18 months in business. Manager Dale Chapman says the establishment "just didn't fit our model at the time."
Jarvis has other reasons for not installing beer taps next to his popcorn machine. For one, the Roxy sells many tickets directly to the University of Vermont, which distributes them free to students for Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows. UVM does so, Jarvis explains, to provide underage students with nonalcoholic events to attend on weekends. Free tickets get them off campus and downtown, where they support other local businesses.
Jarvis says he's also wary of the added expense and legal liability associated with a liquor license, including the extra insurance and state-mandated staff training. All it would take is one underage patron getting caught drinking to close his theater down for weeks, he says.
Finally, Jarvis notes that Roxy patrons, who are typically in the theater for two hours or less, are within walking distance of more than 70 drinking establishments in downtown Burlington. Anyone who craves a drink, he says, will find one.
"Plus, I don't want my theater smelling like a nasty bar," he adds. "I like it smelling like fresh popcorn."