After forty-five years in operation, Mission Valley Cinemas didn’t even get a last picture show.
It was a shocker when, just after Labor Day weekend, an email from Ambassador Entertainment announced—below the usual listings for sister cinemas The Rialto Theatre and Six Forks Cinema (but not The Colony, which went down in 2015)—that the Raleigh institution had closed its doors permanently.
The theater had recently closed on what was presumed to be a temporary basis, due to plumbing issues, with social media posts indicating that they were “literally drowning.” A schedule of screenings through September 5 was posted online. With a new semester at nearby N.C. State University starting up for the fall, it seemed that the theater would soon reopen its doors for the new influx of students. Alas, it was not to be.
Mission Valley first opened in 1973. For many years, it was a mainstay of Raleigh movie-going, particularly for N.C. State students who lacked a car. Located off Western Boulevard, between the university’s main and Centennial Campus and just down the road from WRAL, the theater provided a place for students in nearby housing or who took the free N.C. State Wolfline bus to catch the latest films.
I was one of those undergraduate students that spent most weekends going to Mission Valley, and I worked there part-time in the summer of 2001. It was my first job ever. I had a hell of a time getting the register to balance, but there was a sense of pride that came with being part of something that had been there for so long.
I remember cleaning out the congealed syrup beneath the soda dispenser, carding moviegoers who wanted to buy beer (even if they were obviously in their thirties), and talking about the latest releases with the other staff, many of whom either stayed or returned to the theater over the years.
The time I worked there had some absolutely awful movies (Pearl Harbor, the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes) and some unexpected classics (one of the first preview screenings in the country for the original The Fast and the Furious, which I would not have anticipated to be still going strong almost two decades later), but the theater itself proved more memorable than some of its films.
I remember taking an unofficial tour of the upper levels, where the projectors were, and seeing old Calvin & Hobbes comics taped to the rafters from a decade before. It reminded me how long the place had been there, and how it would still be there long after I left.
That proved true. But Mission Valley itself, unlike the movies it showed, didn’t get a big ending full of explosions. It just kind of faded out. It was one of the last of the old-school theaters. Sure, it had rocking-chair seating and digital projection (old projectors were sometimes put on display in the lobby), but it wasn’t the stadium-designed, full-service-meal-type of cinema experience that newer models like the Regal North Hills or Alamo Drafthouse boast. In 2001, having beer on tap seemed like a novelty; today you can get full-on cocktails at some theaters.
Mission Valley’s passing is yet another example of the changing face of Raleigh, as more and more older institutions, particularly along Hillsborough Street and downtown, give way to up-to-date takes. You might not be able to eat pancakes in the original A-frame-style International House of Pancakes or bowl on Western Lanes anymore, but you can go to the IHOP up the street or buy groceries at the Target. But the memories remain, whether it’s seeing The Matrix on a Friday afternoon or that time your friend sneaked in an entire pizza wrapped in foil under his jacket.
That last one might be a bit specific.
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