It's the sort of tall tale that quickly becomes an Internet legend. True or bogus? It was a hot topic about a year ago.
At a military theater at Camp Anaconda, Balad - a gigantic military air base in Iraq, dubbed "Mortaritaville" by the inhabitants, and the only base with a modern 35-millimeter projection system - the evening performance started, as they always do in military theaters, with a recording of the national anthem. The military audience stood at attention. It's one of the things that never changes on a military base, a link to the continuity of culture inside the armed forces.
This night, something went wrong with the recording. It stopped. It started, then stopped again. More than 1,000 military airmen waited, standing at attention. Then one began to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner," then another, and then the entire audience joined in, remaining at attention, and then sat down to enjoy the movie. Which was, apparently, "Superman 3."
The incident would be no surprise to anyone who grew up in the military-theater system, or anyone who has even attended a movie on a military base. It would be unthinkable to begin a movie in a military base without the national anthem, generally illustrated with swooping images of aircraft, broad landscapes and fluttering flags.
Military theaters are part of the vernacular architecture of life in the armed forces, and have been ever since Edison started hand-cranking nitrate. Every military installation has a theater, or at least the reconstituted remains of one or more.
Movies on military bases are a function of the Morale, Welfare and Recreation branch of base-support services. They're staffed by civilians and moonlighting GIs. Films are distributed via two chains, one an Air Force/Army system administered by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, and the other a Navy/Marine system. The movies lag behind civilian theaters by about a month, and the larger theaters often have "sneak previews" of newly released films, generally free to the first couple of hundred patrons.
Admission is a couple of bucks. These theaters aren't run as moneymakers, they are a service to military families and active-duty personnel.
Every Oahu military base used to be awash in movie theaters, particularly during the war years. Every housing area had one, often an open air cinema in a natural outdoor theater. Only four primary military theaters remain, although some have been converted to other uses. Like civilian theaters, they are victims of cheap DVDs, cable TV and movies that you can't watch in an open air theater with your mother or commanding officer present.
There was a time, though, when the theaters changed films every night, and the Air Force and Army films were 25 cents a seat, the Navy and Marine movies were 15 cents, and a military brat with a fast bicycle and a dollar could see three per night and still have enough change left over for a couple of Baby Ruths.
Those days are gone, but the military theaters remain. Like old soldiers, though, they're fading away.