Theater screens movies for parents and babies

Wednesday, July 23rd 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GAITHERSBURG, Md. (AP) _ Just as the previews roll before ``Pirates of the Caribbean,'' 9-month-old Gwyneth lets out a high-pitched wail.

Her diaper needs changing, so mom Amy Butler lays her down in the theater aisle and gets to work. A few rows up, Jennie Sheeler, 20 months old, shrieks while Johnny Depp swings across the screen in pirate garb. Near the front, 8-month-old Lauren Behe gurgles when mom Kathy Keller hoists her in the air.

No one cared about the noise. The 11 a.m. screening was specifically for stir-crazy parents who had given up on going to the movies when their babies came along.

Loews Cineplex Entertainment is expanding its test run of ``Reel Moms,'' started last fall in Manhattan, to several other locations this summer. Eventually, Loews and partner, a Web site geared toward mothers in cities, plan to run the program in 15 cities nationwide.

Babies have been traditionally unwelcome in movie theaters, where even hushed whispers can irritate someone in the next seat. With babies all around, the theory goes, parents won't have to feel self-conscious if their child starts bawling in the middle of an important scene.

``She can scream her lungs out,'' said Charles Sheeler, 42, holding 20-month-old Jennie. ``When one kid screams in a movie theater, everybody hears it. When every kid screams, nobody hears it.''

Loews also hopes to tap the market of one-time loyal moviegoers tired of being stuck at home with a new baby.

Lori Anderson, 29, used to go to the movies almost once a week. But since Ethan was born six months ago, she and her husband haven't had much luck finding good baby sitters, and they have seen just one movie.

``I came for the movie and to get out of the house,'' said Anderson, an acknowledged Johnny Depp fan, while spooning mushy cereal into Ethan's mouth.

The movies aren't kid shows. ``Whatever the latest release is, that is what we mean to make available,'' said John McCauley, Loews' senior vice president of marketing. Loews has shown films such as ``My Big Fat Greek Wedding'' and ``Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle'' at its Manhattan location.

Despite the adult fare, parents at the Gaithersburg screening said their children were too young to be frightened by any scary action on the screen, and similarly don't react at home to TV programing for grown-ups.

But the classic movie experience is altered at the special shows to accommodate the youngsters and their parents. The lights are dimmed, not darkened, and the sound is turned down from its usual loud volume. Strollers can be checked at the door, space is provided for diaper changing _ and babies get in free.

Theater 13 at The Rio became even more baby-friendly when about 40 moms and dads took it over for ``Pirates of the Caribbean.''

Drink holders usually used for super-sized sodas held little bottles filled with milk and juice. Crawling babies scooted across the floor while others slept in their mothers' laps or cooed at each other.

Women breast-fed in their seats and changed diapers in the aisles, free of the taboos that often prevent them from doing so in public places. Some came with mothers' groups, while others swapped baby advice with women they just met.

Afterward, the reviews were somewhat mixed. Some moms hoped for pre-movie entertainment, which Loews offers in Manhattan, to wear the kids out and prime them for a nap during the movie. McCauley said Loews was considering doing the same at other locations.

The 2 1/2-hour movie proved to be too long for Gwyneth, whose mom whisked her out of the theater just before the climactic fight scene.

``We tried,'' said Amy Butler, pushing Gwyneth's stroller ahead of her. ``She needs a nap really badly.''