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Rooms with a View

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

He enjoys the results, but still wonders if the effort and expense were worth it. "Why would anybody in their right mind want to spend money on something as optional as something to watch a movie on?"

Mr. Apostolou has no such doubts. As he screens an outdoor Barbra Streisand concert in one of several showcase home theaters at his Reisterstown business, he is beside himself with enthusiasm. The sound and resolution are superb; it's as if you were among the audience. It's better than real.

"If this were real, there'd be flies, mosquitoes and humidity," Mr. Apostolou says. "You know what I mean? . . . Is it real? Sure it's real. It's more real than going anywhere."

Anyone can buy $2,000 worth of home theater components at Circuit City, but connoisseurs hire custom installers like Mr. Apostolou or Lance David at Gramophone. These men meet with clients at their homes, where they discuss lifestyle, budgets, lighting, acoustic requirements and other considerations. They are also audio/video doctors, on call seven days a week, just in case a customer's pesky motorized screen won't descend or his sound imaging falls short of the sublime.

It is not a business for the politically correct. Mr. Apostolou blatantly pitches souped-up subwoofers to the men. He appeals to the women with visions of contemporary sectionals, inconspicuous ceiling speakers and graceful wall units that mask all that ghastly gadgetry.

Need home theater furniture that won't clash with your French country decor? Check out Ethan Allen, or scores of other furniture companies, happy to oblige with custom-made oak "cabinet systems," over-scaled arm chairs, Mission wall units.

Home theater designers, savvy about lighting, ergonomics and seating depths, stand ready to cloak your state-of-the-art system in retro-splendor. A small slew of home theater publications, like Widescreen Review, Audio Video Interiors and Home Theater, brim with ads for industries piggybacking on the home theater revolution.

The magazines ooze with accounts of opulent home theaters appointed with popcorn machines, lobbies and marquees. They are dream bunkers for those who would rather not mix with the masses, but crave their populist art form.

The electronics industry puts a jolly spin on this cloistered craze: Home theaters promote family togetherness, spokespeople say. One of Mr. Apostolou's clients, in the name of family quality time, demanded a $100,000 home theater, built to commercial theater standards, where he and his loved ones could snuggle while watching sporting events and pay-per-view movies.

But home theater is not about family communion, it's about escape, says Robert Thompson, a popular culture authority at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications. Together, surround-sound and large screen form an "aesthetic narcotic" that transports viewers to a fantasy world far from daily concerns, Mr. Thompson says. And unlike television, now demoted to background-noise status, home theater creates a glamorous "mythical" environment for viewing.

Joe Carmel, a computer specialist for the General Accounting Office, tucked a $15,000 home theater system into his modest Columbia living room for just such a purpose. Here, he and friends gather to watch selections from his meticulously cataloged collection of 400 laser discs. Mr. Carmel, 39, has become an armchair film scholar, a keen observer of cinematic detail: an etched glass pane in "Meet Me in St. Louis," Gene Kelly's facial scar, Bette Davis' bug-eyed beauty.

But Mr. Carmel is equally drawn to home theater for the emotional immersion it allows. His 60-inch Pioneer wide-screen television renders actors just a bit larger than life. It has to to do with "the desire to get taken in, to get enveloped by the film," Mr. Carmel says.

Likewise, Glenn Mason, a Glyndon goldfish salesman, Civil War buff, Harley motorcycle fanatic and audiophile, revels in his ability to become a part of Pickett's charge, Eric Clapton's audience, an Arnold Schwarzenegger extravaganza. It is the thrill of "actually being there," says Mr. Mason, who put a $35,000 home theater in a former garage. "You have no other thoughts in your mind. [You] turn the phone off. You're gone. You're in it."

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