Twenty minutes before the doors were set to open, a long line of women snaked outside the Hollywood Cinema in Arbutus, beside a poster that said: “DON’T MISS THE CLIMAX.”
It was less than a week before Valentine’s Day, and some of the women had plans — one said she hoped her husband would get her a diamond.
But on Feb. 8, they marked the holiday of romance a different way: a wine and movie night at the theater for the premiere of “Fifty Shades Freed.”
About 300 people, mostly women, packed the movie theater to see the third installment in the erotic drama trilogy made famous by the E.L. James novel “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
The $18 tickets for the adults-only evening, which featured wine, snacks and a table of erotic toys for sale, sold out in all four of the movie theater’s auditoriums, said Sharon Gutschick, director of marketing for RC Theatres.
“We are here to see this hot, hot movie,” said Sharon Cugle, who lived in Arbutus for more than four decades before recently moving into a condominium in Elkridge after her husband died. Cugle sipped wine in the theater’s recliner seats with her friend, Cathy Schuler.
“Neither of us have a man in our lives, so we’ve got to fantasize,” Cugle said, laughing as she explained that the movie “leaves little to the imagination.”
“We’re going to enjoy it to the fullest,” Cugle said.
The Fifty Shades movie night tracks with a broader trend around Valentine’s Day often called “Galentine’s Day,” said Stef Woods, an American Studies professor at American University.
The holiday started as an episode of the comedy sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” envisioned as a day to celebrate female friendship.
With the Fifty Shades event held almost a week before Valentine’s Day, Gutschick said, the theater did not replace traditional date-night Valentine festivities, but added to them.
“I think that certainly the movie release is coming out at a time when it’s popular for date night,” Gutschick said. “But there’s something about a movie like this that women like to get together and see.”
“I don’t think it’s instead of that — it’s just a fun way to get the romantic stuff starting,” Gutschick said.
And, Gutschick added, "Not everyone has a significant other on Valentine's Day.” The event, she said, offers both single and coupled women a romance-themed event to attend.
"I think that it’s kind of the perfect combination of the movie title and the chance for them to get out with their girlfriends and have a night out, enjoy each others’ company,” Gutschick said of the event.
The women-geared event offers one opportunity that an event aimed at couples might not have: a representative from Pure Romance, a network marketing company that sells adult toys and products marketed to women.
“If you were with a date, you wouldn’t necessarily want to be a part of that,” Gutschick said.
April Wille, the Pure Romance representative who also sold at a wine and movie event in Arbutus for the movie "Bad Moms Christmas,” said women at the events were comfortable talking about and buying the adult products.
“They were all so excited,” Wille said of women at the Bad Moms evening. “We laughed the whole night.”
Wille and her colleague, Crystal Duncan, handed out “wedding favors” with coupons to buy sex toys online, and sold two different “mystery bags” for $30 — one kind was labeled “mild”; the other, “wild.”
Arbutus has always been a relatively conservative place, said Wille, who lives in Pasadena but whose family has roots in the Arbutus area. She said events like the Fifty Shades premiere, during which women openly discuss sex, could not have happened in Arbutus 10 or even five years ago.
“When I first started this, the topic was very taboo,” Wille said, noting she has been selling for Pure Romance for five years. “A lot of times they didn’t even speak to their friends about the topic. Now they’re just much more open.”
These days, around Valentine’s Day — Wille’s busiest time of year — women “want the fun stuff, to spice things up,” she said.
“I think the move to ‘Galentine’s Day’ is both a smart marketing move, and it’s affirming in the sense that none of us should need someone to be whole,” Woods said.
For the occasion, Beth Uhden, owner of the Village Junction Bakery in Arbutus, provided 300 royal iced sugar cookies, shaped as hearts and neckties “to go with the theme of the movie.”
Uhden said before the event that she also had plans to watch the movie with a group of about 16 women, who she said have gone to each of the three movies in the Fifty Shades franchise.
Asked why she enjoys the series, Uhden laughed.
"It’s just the anticipation,” she said. “If you’ve read the books, definitely wanna see them.”
Flowers and chocolate
Though the Arbutus movie night added a twist to the area's Valentine’s Day celebrations, couples are still celebrating in the traditional way, with flowers and sit-down dinners.
Allison Glascock, owner of Blue Iris Flowers, a Catonsville staple that moved to Arbutus after a fire last year, said that her shop filled about 250 to 300 orders on Valentine’s Day last year.
Because the holiday falls on a Wednesday this year, she expects even more — Wednesdays are the busiest Valentine’s Days for florists, she said, likely because people send bouquets to their significant others’ offices. She said the average person spends around $75 on a bouquet for the holiday.
To accommodate the rush, Blue Iris has doubled its usual staff of four or five, and they worked through the weekend after flowers arrived on Saturday, delivered from warmer climes in South America.
Flowers are not the only romantic staple offered in the area: Shops such as the Village Junction in Arbutus and SugarBakers in Catonsville are selling chocolate-covered strawberries and romance-themed cookies and tarts. SugarBakers even let people order a “Love Bug” cake — a $38 six-inch cake decorated like a bug.
Even a clothing boutique in Catonsville is marketing its products for Valentine’s Day. Sarah Garry, co-owner of B Boutique, said the store is offering Valentine’s Day gifts including jewelry, purses and accessories.
Local restaurants also geared up to host couples for Valentine’s Day dinner.
“Don’t go outside of Catonsville — we have a wonderful variety of restaurants to go to,” said Teal Cary, director of the Catonsville Chamber of Commerce. “You don’t have to go far to find a wonderful dinner.”
Bettina Tebo, head of the Arbutus Business Association, also said there are “plenty of places for people to go and enjoy themselves for a nice dinner out without leaving Arbutus.”
Catonsville Gourmet, a restaurant on Frederick Road in Catonsville, is an option for couples who make spontaneous plans; the restaurant does not take reservations, manager Mateo Diaz said.
The BYOB spot, which seats 70-80 people, was serving a special Valentine’s Day menu all week to accommodate those who cannot make time for a midweek date night.
Valentine’s Day “does land on a Wednesday, so we don’t expect it to be crazy,” Diaz said. “But if it is, we’re ready.”
At first glance, a Fifty Shades wine and movie night and a Valentine’s Day date with flowers and chocolates seem vastly different.
For Woods, the American professor, however, they are two sides of the same coin: "Valentine’s Day has become an economic boon, a Hallmark holiday,” she said.
The National Retail Federation estimates that total Valentine’s Day spending this year will reach $19.6 billion, with the average person expected to spend $143.56 on candy, cards, flowers and evenings out.
At SugarBakers, marketing representative Staci Finney said that Valentine’s Day helps catapult the business out of the slow month of January — “it gets the momentum going for spring,” she said.
For Glascock, the florist in Arbutus, it is the “single busiest day of the year.”
Valentine’s Day is good for business — and “Fifty Shades of Grey” and its sequels, Woods said, fit right into that tradition of selling something, in this case tickets and toys, around the holiday.
“I think you could say that what’s portrayed has definitely varied within our cultural norms of the time,” she said.
But, Woods said, “Sex has always sold.”