Rooms with a View

October 15, 1995|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

From their cookie-cutter Colonial on a suburban Baltimore cul-de-sac, to their sensible cars, to the cross-stitched proverbs that grace their home, nothing's flashy about George and Margaret Scott -- until you see their basement.

Step into the cool, comfortable room, and behold, a private movie palace, with a 10-foot Stewart screen, Runco front projector, Pioneer surround-sound receiver, and four remote controls -- for the projector, receiver, VCR and laser disc player.

Here, on weekend evenings, the Scotts stretch across the couch, prop their feet on footstools, and wrap themselves in favorites like "The Hunt for Red October" and "Beauty and the Beast." At such moments, second thoughts about the second mortgage it took to buy this hidden luxury fade to black.

Like the Scotts, an estimated 2 million American households have succumbed to the promise of home theater, pouring thousands of dollars into large-screen televisions, hi-fi/stereo VCRs, laser disc players, surround-sound receivers and an abundance of speakers. Millions more have the home theater basics: a large-screen television and surround-sound capability.

As much as the deck, hot tub, kitchen island and gym, home theater is becoming an institutionalized part of many houses, the hearth where family and friends gather to watch movies and sporting events on the latest electronic equipment.

Throughout the Baltimore area, home theaters, bare bones and lavish, are transforming residences into exclusive media rooms, far from the madding crowds and their grimy multiplexes.

Home theater can be as straightforward as a $15,000 system installed in a Columbia living room: a large-screen television, an audio-video receiver with a surround-sound processor, and seven speakers. Or it can be as extravagant as an $85,000 couch-potato paradise in an Annapolis-area mansion: wide-screen, surround-sound cinema, viewed in an acoustically treated, "dedicated" media room equipped with furniture tailored to home theater specifications.

With a system like this, the mind is trapped in a dark, cushy womb, jaw to jaw with a hungry "Jurassic Park" velociraptor, engulfed in "Backdraft" flames, lost at sea with Indiana Jones. Surround-sound effects swoop from right to left, front to rear. A subwoofer speaker sends earth-shaking bass vibrations through the vitals. It is a hypnotic, physical experience that fuses viewers with video, leaving the barest of margins for disbelief. Throw in a satellite dish, and you are tethered to the universe.

Home theater is the culmination of everything that came before it: the tinny radios of the 1930s; the small, black-and-white televisions of the 1950s; and finally the big-screen home entertainment centers of the 1980s, which stacked together VCRs, CD players and other electronic components for maximum multimedia punch.

After cinema sound was adapted for home use in 1987, home theaters became an $8 billion industry. This year so far, sales of home theater products have vaulted 13 percent, according to the Consumers Electronic Group of the Electronic Industries Association.

"If you told people eight or nine years ago they would be spending $20,000 on a TV system, they'd think you were crazy. Now it's second nature," says Gus Apostolou, of Audio Video Interiors Inc., a home theater business based in a Victorian mansion on Reisterstown Road.

David B. Melton, editor of Home Theater magazine, says home theaters are becoming standard in new luxury home construction. But they aren't just for the wealthy. Roughly 80 to 85 percent of home theater equipment is being bought by middle-class consumers, Mr. Melton says.

The Scotts, a childless, comfortably middle-class couple, cannot entirely explain what possessed them to take out a home equity loan to install their $18,000 home theater system. Neither is fanatical about movies.

"We could come up with no valid reason for doing this," says Mr. Scott, a computer programmer. "When we told our family about it when we went home for Christmas, we termed it our 'mid-life crisis.' Some men want to go out and buy a $40,000 Corvette. . . . We did our basement."

The Scotts were overcome while touring a deluxe model home with a dedicated home theater room.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could do something like that in our house, Mrs. Scott, a 47-year-old customer service agent for an insurance company, said to her husband.

"I almost fainted," Mr. Scott says. He had been wishfully thinking the same thing but didn't expect his wife to be as impressed by this dazzling display of high-test electronics as he was.

It took months to install the system and refinish the basement. Today, acoustic treatments on the ceiling merge tastefully with pine-green walls; the carpeting is a spotless white. Handsome cabinets and shelving, painstakingly built by Mr. Scott, 47, line the room.

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