When guests arrive at Sherry Wolf and Alan Geringer's house in Owings Mills, they often express surprise at an interior design that's dramatically at odds with the staid brick facade. Beyond the front door's vestibule, in fact, the living room ceiling shoots upward to twenty feet, and a wall of windows frames an Arcadian view of woods sloping down to a gentle curve in the Jones Falls.
Not that people tend to linger at this scenic outlook. No, indeed. Most visitors rush straight to the basement where this 8,000 square foot, four-bedroom home's main attraction is located. It's a theater with three tiers of "stadium-style" seating and 18 reclining chairs upholstered in black leather. There is also a surround-sound speaker system and a ceiling-mounted digital light projector that beams an extraordinarily sharp picture onto a 100-inch screen.
"During Armageddon, you can feel the whole room shake," said Wolf, who is a painter of what she calls super-realist art. Copies of paintings she's done depicting Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and Frank Sinatra -- the originals are owned by Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub (Ocean's Eleven) -- adorn the walls of her private cinema, where she admits to spending a great deal of time. "I like to watch films over and over again. People listen to records dozens of times, so why shouldn't I watch a movie that often?"
In his novel 1984, written in 1949, George Orwell envisioned a time when Big Brother would terrorize citizens by constantly watching them through large screens in every home. Imagine how Orwell would be surprised, then, that in 2003, many people pay upward of $150,000 for large screens to be affixed in their home theaters. Here, they terrorize themselves by constantly watching thrillers such as Armageddon.
According to Consumer Electronics Association statistics, the percentage of U.S. households that have some sort of home theater system has doubled in the past five years, from 15 to 30 percent. This is partially due to the growing popularity of large-screen televisions (bigger than a 25-inch diagonal) and the increased audio capabilities of DVD players. The association estimates that by year's end, more than half of all U.S. households will own a DVD player.
Another factor is a transition to digital television broadcasting, which began in the United States in 1998 and is gradually ushering in high-definition television (HDTV) pictures. HDTV offers nearly twice the resolution of traditional analog television and allows for a rectangular viewing image, as opposed to what's been cropped for years to fit square television screens.
However, a wealth of new electronic equipment and the "digitizing" of American television (predicted to be complete by early 2006) only partially explain the surge in home theaters. In addition, it's generally agreed that the social etiquette of theater-going has seriously declined in recent years, so that it is now commonplace to endure people talking, babies crying, and cell phones ringing. Recent world events have also made people jittery about being in crowds, or even leaving home after dark.
"I call it post-9 / 11 cocooning," said Jay Montgomery, president of Light, Sight and Sound Interiors, Inc., a Baltimore-based custom electronics firm. "We've seen an explosion of business in the last two years. Mothers tell me they're nervous about dropping their kids off at the local cinema."
Be sure you'll use it
Before you beef up your at-home entertainment capabilities, though, it's wise to assess your family's viewing habits carefully. "If my clients are tottering back and forth, we'll analyze what they typically watch, how often, and if a home theater merits the expense," said Baltimore interior designer Alexander Baer. "Even if they build one, however, I always suggest that there be another main TV area elsewhere in the house. Because when they're just throwing on a program for half an hour, parents will usually want the kids around."
Bear in mind, too, that a home theater isn't a weekend's "handyman" project and the more elaborate your requirements, the more likely you are to need an audio-visual consultant. Manufacturers of sophisticated equipment haven't created universal connections to make it all "plug and play," explained Stewart Rankin, co-owner of Silver Screen & Sound, the Towson company that designed the Wolf-Geringer theater. "I always tell people they can try to do it themselves, but they'll spend more money for less results."
Most industry experts agree that new construction is easier than renovation. Ideally, a home theater would be planned even before breaking ground, as stadium-style seating in the basement may affect how a foundation is dug. The best home theaters usually have screens -- stationary or retractable -- that are at least 100 inches in diagonal. Because of the "throw distance" that a digital light projector requires, a 12- by 17-foot room with at least 8-foot ceilings would provide the minimum acceptable dimensions. The price tag attached to all this can vary dramatically -- from $30,000 to about $500,000.
Finding the highest quality projector was one of Wolf's biggest headaches. "I am a visual person, so the picture had to be great. For months, I searched for projectors in New York, on the Internet, in a million magazines, everywhere. But I couldn't find the picture clarity I wanted," she said. "I kept seeing pixels and dots, and I didn't want to see dots!" She persevered and eventually hired Silver Screen & Sound because the company found her the highest quality digital light projector available.
Another decision is whether to incorporate a theater into a "multi-purpose" family room, along with other amenities such as a pool table or wet bar. Increasingly, though, the trend is toward home theaters that are solely used for screening purposes. The soundproofing requirements and lack of windows make home theaters unsuitable for much of anything besides watching television and movies.
Go fancy, or think dark
While this sounds a bit bunker-like, there are many home theater accoutrements to cheer up such a space. How about "rope" lighting to edge steps? Or, framed classic movie posters, popcorn machines 2 / 3 cup holders, even steel stanchions and velvet ropes? You can have a custom-made "trailer" to show ahead of the movie, perhaps including some blatant self-promotion: "Welcome to the Finley Family theater!" And, don't forget a Lutron Graphic Eye, which syncs up with the room's lighting: as the movie begins, all theater lights slowly dim.
Seating choices are widely varied as well, ranging from actual theater styles with fold-up seats, to boxy recliners, to sleek lines of the DS-220, a Swiss-made, "ergonomically-correct" chair that looks ready for installation on a space ship. "The megaplex theater squeezes in as seats as possible, to make the most money. But, in home theaters, it's a question of comfort, style and ambience," said Babak Hakakian, vice president of Domus Design Collection, maker of the DS-220.
For still more ideas, check out the coffee table book, Theo Kalomirakis' Private Theaters (Harry N. Abrams, 1997). Called the "father" of home theaters, Kalomirakis reputedly started the trend when he built a replica of New York's fabled Roxy Theater in the basement of his Brooklyn townhouse ten years ago. A one-time magazine art director, he now designs miniature clones of famous old movie palaces for wealthy clients such as business tycoon Ronald Lauder and movie star Eddie Murphy. Signature details include exact copies of the elevator doors in the Chrysler Building or the carpeting at Radio City Music Hall.
One Maryland family looked even farther back in history for inspiration; their $200,000 home theater evokes the glories of ancient Rome. There's magenta drapery, floral carpeting and seating for 13. Also staring fixedly at the 138-inch screen are plaster statues of gods and goddesses. "It's very Sopranos-ish," said Jay Montgomery, the theater's builder.
Alexander Baer doesn't believe such bells and whistles are always necessary. "I always tell my clients, you walk into this room and immediately turn the lights off. Why spend a fortune for details that are never seen?"
Sherry Wolf offers a few tips, as well.
First, think dark. Wolf's theater is painted, carpeted and upholstered in black. "The darker the room, the better the picture," she said. Second, hire a local installer, as home entertainment systems are finicky and need frequent servicing. ("A particularly heavy thunderstorm can throw it out of whack," she said.) For this reason, make sure the equipment is installed in such a way that it can be easily removed; Wolf's audio-visual closet has both front and back doors for two-sided access. Third, make sure that your whole system runs on a "one-touch basis."
"I love my remote! It's so big, I never lose it, even in the dark," she said, brandishing a black rectangle about half the size of a shoebox. It has scrolled handles on either end, for easy gripping. When touched, its large keys suddenly glow an emerald green, like the eyes of an agitated lizard.
Not that this gizmo was doing Wolf much good recently. The theater screen remained blank as her husband, sister, brother-in-law, and daughter all bickered over which film to watch. Some were lobbying for Legally Blonde, others for The Matrix. None of the haggling became too serious, though, as everyone present had already seen both features.
Wolf rolled her eyes. "You have all this fancy equipment, but it's still a major problem to find a movie everyone can agree on," she said, with a sigh.
As the family's library of nearly 500 DVDs is slanted heavily toward either action adventure or frothy comedy -- from Air Force One to Zoolander -- Wolf's suggestion was rather a surprise.
"What about Keeping the Faith?" she called out, naming the 2000 film starring Ben Stiller as a rabbi and Edward Norton as a Catholic priest. "It's all about Judaism vs. Christianity, and it's hilarious. Trust me, people, I've seen it twenty times!"
Exploring the spectrum of home theater options
There are many definitions for what exactly constitutes a home theater. Generally speaking, it can be as simple as a large-screen television (25 inches or more) and a DVD player with surround sound capabilities. By browsing the aisles at Best Buy or Circuit City, you can familiarize yourself with a variety of these "home theater in a box" options, ranging from $39 DVD players to $10,000 high definition and flat-screen televisions.
However, if you are interested in learning more about a "dedicated" space with all the latest technologies -- and you have at least $30,000 to spend -- listed below are a few sources who can advise you on a custom-designed home theater.
Light, Sight and Sound Interiors, Inc.
9141 Reisterstown Road, #48
Baltimore, MD 21117
Contact: Jay Montgomery, president
Light Sight and Sound specializes in residential and commercial jobs that integrate entertainment systems with lighting, computing and security systems.
Silver Screen & Sound
8832 Orchard Tree Lane
Towson, MD 21286
Contact: Stewart Rankin and Art Cuevas, co-owners
Silver Screen & Sound specializes in custom-designed home theaters.
Domus Design Collection
181 Madison Ave.
New York, NY 10016
Domus Design is the maker of DS-220 theater seats, as well as a complete line of ultra-modern home theater furnishings and decor.
www.hometheatreinteriors.com or www.htmarket.com
These two Web sites offer many home theater design ideas, ranging from vintage movie posters to popcorn machines.
This is the Web site for Theo Kalomirakis, the so-called "father" of home theaters. You might be inspired by theaters that Kalomirakis has designed for such celebrities as Eddie Murphy. You can also order a copy of his coffee-table book, Theo Kalomirakis's Private Theaters (Harry N. Abrams, 1997).