KCLU 88.3FM - 102.3FM - 1340AM

Listen Now Fresh Air 1:00pm - 2:00pm

Aurora Theater's Reopening Sparks Mixed Emotions

Thu, January 17, 2013 9:47pm

Story by Ben Markus




Listen to this story on npr.org »

The Aurora, Colo., theater where 12 people were killed in a mass shooting last summer reopens Thursday, with a private event for victims' families and first responders.

But some families are giving the event a pass, arguing that the decision to reopen is insensitive. Jessica Watts lives just a few miles from the theater where her cousin, Jonathan Blunk, and 11 others were killed and dozens more wounded.

"Basically, any time I want to go shopping, yes, I have to see that theater," Watts says. "I drive by it numerous times a week. And it's one of those very sad hard realizations that there's 12 people that are no longer here."

Watts says the Cinemark, which owns the theater, should move the venue elsewhere and turn the existing site into a memorial.

What's worse, she says, is the way Cinemark has handled the victims' families. She says the company has refused to communicate or meet with them since the shooting — until the company sent them invitations to Thursday night's reopening.

Receiving the invitation two days after Christmas was "extremely disheartening," Watts says.

"Because we had just gone through the holidays without our loved ones for the very first time, you know. We had an empty place at the dinner table. And it was very, very hard for each of the families," she says. "And then, to get this invitation, like it's no big deal."

She and other family members of victims sent an open letter to Cinemark, accusing the company of putting profits ahead of their anguish. Several families are suing the company, alleging that security at the theater was lax the night of the shooting.

Cinemark declined to comment for this story. But in August, the company asked Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan to poll residents to gauge how they feel about reopening the theater.

"And they overwhelmingly said yes," Hogan says. "We need this, the community needs this. We need to move forward."

Cinemark won't say what movie it will be showing at the reopening event, but it sent out about 2,000 invitations. Besides victims and their families, first responders and hospital workers are also expected, as are Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Mayor Hogan.

"I'm happy to be there," Hogan says. "My personal opinion is I do not want the shooter to win and I will be there."

Hogan says he also wants to attend to honor the first responders and doctors who saved so many lives after the shooting.

Dr. Camilla Sasson is among those who received an invite. She was working in the University of Colorado Hospital emergency room that night, when 23 gunshot victims were brought in.

"You know, I'm excited to think that maybe life is going back to normal for us here in Colorado," Sasson says. But, she says, she's not ready to go inside any theater again, "and definitely not quite ready to go to the theater."

The Century Aurora theater has had a facelift since the July 20 shooting. Outside, the bright colors and neon lights have been replaced with a more muted dark green. Inside, the infamous Theater 9 has reportedly been converted into a supersized screen called X-D, or "extreme digital."

Strong feelings about the theater's reopening aren't exclusive to the victim's families and first responders. At the shopping mall just a few steps away, Maurice Sharp takes a look at the theater and says there's no way he would set foot in it.

"Just [because] who wants to go to a movie theater where people got shot and died, you know what I mean? They're remodeling for a reason," he says.

But Aurora resident Angelica McDonald says the reopening will be therapeutic for many locals.

"I think it's good for our community, to just show that we're strong and we're coming back," she says.

The theater officially opens to the public on Friday, with all movies free through the weekend.

Copyright 2014 Colorado Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.cpr.org.