Last Thursday (May 28), the glitterati of Orlando gathered to welcome downtown's eternally delayed Plaza Cinema Café with all the ersatz glitz and glamour that Hollywood East could muster — that is, not very much.
Your sociopolitical betters braved bursts of precipitation to pass their car keys off to the valets vying for tips and parade down a soggy red carpet, flanked by a phalanx of fake paparazzi. In deference to the dependably undependable weather, the granite- and greenery-graced courtyard (that was once home to Terror on Church Street) was covered with a translucent tent, transforming the space into an enormous open-sided sauna.
The absurdly overdressed and underdressed assemblage angled for the attention of overwhelmed bartenders pouring blue martinis through the dissolving ice sculpture bar (a nifty party feature if you've just flown in from 1993). Then they scavenged the undistinguished offerings from fellow Plaza tenants Urban Flats (vulcanized scallops and floppy flatbreads) and Bento Cafe (sub-Bikkuri sushi rolls), with only Black Olive's heirloom Caprese to save the culinary day.
At the appointed hour, the Mark Zauss jazz band paused in their dutiful slog through swing hits long enough for the assembled dignitaries — including Mayor Buddy, commissioner Sheehan and American Theatre Corp. CEO Jim Duffy — to cut the obligatory red ribbon. Sorry, I can't give an accurate account of the pomp and circumstance, as we guests were on the ground level; the officiants stood on a balcony, virtually unseen and unheard by the crowd. I caught a bit of blather invoking the "heartbeat" of the city, and pieces of Pollyanna-ing about how the development would form a cultural tripod with the nascent Magic arena and pipe-dream performing arts center. (I must have missed any mention of the millions in Community Redevelopment Agency-supported "incentives" awarded Atlanta-based owner Duffy, or the millions more granted to the original bankrupted builder, Cameron Kuhn.)
Finally, we were allowed up the twin escalators and the first impression upon entering the lobby of the theater is one of understated opulence. If the investors intended to open the classiest theater ever built in the area, they've succeeded; steel, granite and hardwood details tie together with a sophisticated color palate and a restrained sense of scale. If it weren't for the flat-screens on the walls flashing show times, you might think you were walking the halls of a boutique hotel.
As you would assume with "Café" in the name, edibles here receive as much attention as the featured attractions. The libational headliners are the twin Wine Bars overlooking Orange Avenue, ideal for getting good and lubricated before (or during) your film. At the concession stand, the familiar flavors (sweet, salty, sour, etc.) of corn-derived comfort food are available; but the emphasis is on unconventional munchies like grilled shrimp, hummus, chicken satay and focaccia pizza. They even offer to deliver the gourmet goodies to your seat, though how that happens without disturbing everyone else in the darkened theater has yet to be explained to me. And speaking of your seat, it's a top-of-the-line leather rocker-recliner with oversized armrests and snack-sized side tables. The chairs even have that new-car smell; if they had butt-warmers and vibrating massage I'd tear one out and take it home.
After a decade of ache for a downtown cinema, it's finally arrived, and with reasonable ticket prices ($4.75 matinees, $9.50 evenings) to boot. It seems the designers thought through every detail, save one: The actual movie-watching experience. Perhaps it was a sign when we so-called "VIPs" were offered for our virginal viewing a choice of the minor classics Grease (1978), The Odd Couple (1968) or The Italian Job (2003, starring Marky Mark). As I wondered aloud why one would demo a state-of-the-art venue with material of such dubious vintage (studio licensing restrictions are the culprit), I "wandered" into the complex's largest screen, which was showing Angels and Demons to a two-thirds-full audience. What I found inside boggled the mind: an L-shaped cinema in which nearly the entire audience is seated to the left of center-screen, with an aisle running smack through the theater's sweet spot. Not only were the sightlines poor (a metal railing occluded my vision), but the room's shape screws up the surround-sound, sidewall sound imaging and rear-channel reflections.
I don't know how to fix the odd room shape without a wrecking ball, but the sound could probably be improved with acoustical panels and repositioned speakers. If I lived within walking distance I'd be thrilled about theater opening, but as is I'd rather drive to Universal or Pointe Orlando.
In other community news, the Orlando Film Festival and Orlando Hispanic Film Festival will call the plaza home, and the smallest screens will supposedly host art and independent flicks year-round. There are even two petit art galleries on-site, with works by Curt Littlecott and Allison Krafick.