Curtain rises on the home theater era

Showtime: Many homeowners are electing to have their very own theater. The prices can be as startling as the technology.

January 30, 2000|By Adele Evans | Adele Evans,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Tonight, when much of America sits down in front of the television to watch the Super Bowl, David and Linda Wile of Bel Air are going to experience the game like never before.

They'll be hosts of their usual Super Bowl bash huddled not in front of a 27-inch screen, or a 36-inch or even a 50-inch tube. But how about 108 inches? The Wiles recently installed a $23,000 home theater in their family room that allows them to turn the area into a cinema-quality environment.

They now can enjoy a room that includes surround sound, a stage complete with archways and recessed lighting, and, of course, the 9-foot screen that's capable of playing every audio or visual amenity.

"I love to entertain here; I don't like going out," Linda said, adding that she doesn't mind watching football because the big screen "makes it interesting like going to a movie."

Home theaters are charging onto the scene of home design -- and not only in upscale neighborhoods. Architects and cinema consultants say the cost of professional equipment is dropping as well as "theater-in-a-box" systems sold in electronics stores, allowing many middle-income households the opportunity to upgrade and tune in.

"They're taking out second mortgages to buy [a used car], why not a theater?" said H. Roger Kauffman, owner of the audio-video design firm of Cinetech Inc. of Baltimore. "Ten years from now, the theater will still be here, unlike the car."

"People show photos of their home theaters like photos of their own kids," said Tom Kiefaber, owner of Baltimore's landmark Senator Theatre.

"It's getting to be like a deck; you can't go to a show home area without every model having a cinema," said Art Cuevas, owner and systems engineer at Silver Screen & Sound, an audio and home theater design group in Towson.

After years of building public movie theaters, Russ Jones wanted one of his own -- minus the lines, sticky floors and the big-headed person seated in front obstructing the view.

Today, the first thing guests see when they descend the basement steps in Jones' Monkton home is an authentic movie concession stand and popcorn machine -- the first step toward fantasy. A few steps more is an antique phone booth (complete with graffiti) -- and, finally, the posh cinema.

The "dedicated home cinema" has become a social center. Within the burgundy bijou, Jones has entertained everyone from his daughter's youth group to "Guys' War Movie Night."

"The kids get a kick out of unlocking the candy case and picking something," Jones said.

Costing about $15,000 for equipment and another $30,000 for the room's design and construction, the cinema is equipped to run just about everything -- regular television, high-definition TV (HDTV), videos, digital video disk (DVD) and so on. Jones was so inspired, he is getting into home cinema design-build as a profession, as president of J. S. Heartwood Inc.

The theater itself includes padded acoustical walls covered with burgundy cloth, 12 restored theater seats (with cup holders), a stenciled ceiling, a 60-inch rear projection screen, surround sound -- and electronics that make the seats vibrate during action sequences.

"The basement is ideal," Jones said. "There are no windows. Windows ruin your picture quality."

Dr. Myo Thant of northern Baltimore County, who's had a dedicated cinema for two years, said, "I don't lie on the floor and watch TV anymore; I go in the theater."

"It keeps the kids at home," said his wife, May-Myint Thant. "They don't go to the mall. They gather at our house. It's relaxing for them. That's the main reason we do it. We're just sorry we didn't build earlier."

"A lot of customers are thinking `an exercise room or a theater?' said longtime theater consultant Paul Wenger, vice president of Premier Seating, a firm that manufactures and designs theater seating. "I ask them, `Do your kids lift weights?' You're dedicating the exercise room to a small proportion of the family."

Although home-theater technology hasn't reached the realm of movie palaces such as the Senator, home theaters can be as good as many multiplexes -- and offer another example of homeowners who are "cocooning" within the home.

"The `Senators' will survive," Kiefaber said. "The most concerned group are the multiplex groups. They're shaking in their boots. I'm not nearly as concerned about home cinemas as I'd be if I had 14 bunkers in the mall."

Designing the room

"The technology has raised the equipment to a standard now movie-like," Kauffman said. "Before, the stuff was a step or two below."

Home cinema has taken on two major looks. One is the "dedicated home theater," such as Jones' system. The second is the "integrated home entertainment system," where audio and video equipment blends into an existing family space, often a great room or family room. Either way, the sky's the limit on cost -- anywhere from $5,000 to $250,000.

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