AURORA | Kara Blanton stood alone Jan. 17 eating popcorn in the lobby of the same movie theater where many of the patients she saw July 20, 2012 were injured. Blanton was an on-call surgical technician working in the operating room of the Medical Center of Aurora in the early morning hours that day.
The theater was the site of a massacre where 70 people were wounded and 12 were killed -— a tragedy that deterred Blanton from going to movies for a long time afterward. Months later, she summoned the courage to resume her movie-going habits, and on Jan. 17, she drew on that same bravery to attend the reopening of Aurora’s Century 16 theater.
“It’s kind of hard, but I’m happy for the closure, kind of a new beginning,” Blanton said.
For her, attending the reopening ceremony was cathartic. It was her way of showing the alleged shooter, James Holmes, that he didn’t shatter her spirit.
“We have to move on,” she said. “We can’t let that kid get the best of us. We have to move on, live our lives and be happy.”
The Century 16 theater marked its reopening with a “remembrance” ceremony and a new name, Century Aurora, where guests were served free popcorn, candy and soda and offered a free screening of the film “The Hobbit.” The film was shown in what is now called the “Extreme Digital” or “XD” theater, formerly known as theater 9, the scene of the mass shooting July 20.
The event was attended by victims, their families, Aurora City Council members, Aurora police, and other lawmakers including U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden.
In a speech to more than 200 people inside the renovated theater 9, Mayor Steve Hogan spoke about resilience and recovery. Hogan, flanked by Gov. John Hickenlooper, the chief executive of Cinemark and local pastors, said the July 20 theater massacre would never be forgotten.
Many people are still grieving, Hogan said, but the faces in the crowd reminded him that the theater shooting would not define the city of Aurora.
“As I think about everyone here tonight, I see resilience, I see strength, I see heroes, I see healing, and I see hope,” he said. “We are a community that has not been defeated. We are a community of survivors and a community that is united in our recovery.”
Several families boycotted what they called a callous public relations ploy by the theater’s owner, Cinemark. They claimed the Texas-based company didn’t ask them what should happen to the theater.
They said Cinemark emailed them an invitation to Thursday’s reopening just two days after they struggled through Christmas without their loved ones.
“It was boilerplate Hollywood — ’Come to our movie screening,’” said Anita Busch, whose cousin, 23-year-old college student Micayla Medek, died at the theater.
But Pierce O’Farrill, who was wounded in the shooting, returned to the theater Thursday night and immediately walked to the back door where he remembers the gunman emerging.
“The last time I saw (the gunman) was right here,” he said as he stood near the exit door. “It’s important for me to come here and sit in the same seat that I was sitting in. It’s all part of the healing process, I guess.”
James Holmes, a former neuroscience Ph.D. student, is charged with 166 felony counts, mostly murder and attempted murder, in the July 20 shootings at the theater.
A judge has ordered Holmes to stand trial, but he won’t enter a plea until March. Dozens of first responders to the massacre joined survivors at the multiplex for the ceremony.
“We as a community have not been defeated,” said Hogan. “We are a community of survivors. We will not let this tragedy define us.”
Others echoed those remarks.
“We certainly recognize all the different paths that people take to mourn, the different paths that people take to recover from unimaginable, incomprehensible loss,” Hickenlooper said at the ceremony in a half-full theater. “Some wanted this theater to reopen. Some didn’t. Certainly both answers are correct.”
He credited Cinemark CEO Tim Warner for flying to Colorado himself after hearing about the shooting to see what he could do. Warner told attendees that the caring reaction by first responders, the community and the world to the tragedy was a testament that good triumphs over evil.
Vanessa Ayala is a cousin of Jonathan Blunk, a 26-year-old Navy veteran and father of two who was killed. Ayala said she believed the multiplex should have been torn down and, perhaps, turned into a park. At the very least, she said, the auditorium where the shooting occurred should be a memorial.
“It’s not about letting the gunman win,” Ayala said. “He’s already lost. He’s lost everything he’s going to be. He’s a moron.”
Police officers surrounded the perimeter of the theater during the ceremony. Guests socialized with each other for about an hour before speeches were made. The exterior and interior of the theater were remodeled after the shooting, though much of the original layout is the same.
The walls are painted with bright yellows and greens, colors that were comforting for Cheyenne Avery, a junior at Gateway High School. Avery was a friend of A.J. Boik, one of the 12 people who died. She said the interior of the theater is now brighter and livelier than it once was, but she had mixed emotions about being inside.
“It’s really overwhelming just being back and knowing it happened here,” she said. Richelle Hill, an Aurora resident who was in the fourth row of theater 9 the night of the shooting, said she and her fiancée mustered the courage to attend the reopening ceremony at the last minute. “We didn’t want to give (the alleged shooter) the whatever-you-call-it, the ‘Yay, I got it,’” she said. “No. He didn’t. Aurora is strong and resilient.”
In his speech, Hogan acknowledged that the theater reopening was considered to be distasteful by some families of victims. He said everyone — whether they came to the ceremony or declined to step foot in the theater again — made a “valid choice.”
“My personal choice is to be here,” he said. “I cannot allow the shooter in any way shape or form to win.”
Hogan said Aurora will continue on the path to recovery by looking toward the future.
“We will move forward with hope in our hearts and the confidence of better days to come,” he said.
Hickenlooper said that for many people, attending the reopening ceremony was therapeutic. “For many here tonight,” he said in his speech, “this is the path to healing and part of that process (is) the ability to find light where there was darkness and the opportunity to push toward finding joy and happiness, and making sure you don’t allow evil to trump good.”
The decision to reopen even divided at least one victim’s family. Tom Sullivan, whose son, Alex, was killed, had long planned to attend the event, stressing the importance of healing and of reclaiming the theater from tragedy.
“The community wants the theater back and by God, it’s back,” Sullivan said. “Nobody is going to stop us from living our lives the way that we lived our lives before. This is where I live.”
Sullivan has said movies are a way for his family to come together, and that Alex was celebrating his 27th birthday when he was killed. Alex’s widow, Cassandra Sullivan, joined the boycott, however.
So did Tom Teves, whose own son, Alex, also was killed.
“They can do whatever they want. I think it was pretty callous,” Teves said.
Sandy Phillips, a San Antonio, Texas, businesswoman, lost her daughter, 24-year-old Jessica Ghawi, an aspiring sportscaster. She didn’t attend the ceremony but said she understood the practicality of reopening the theater and wished Cinemark had asked families about plans for the theater and how they would like their relatives to be honored.
“They could have avoided a lot of ill feeling,” she said of the company.
It wasn’t known if there would be a memorial. Cinemark reportedly spent $1 million on renovations. Before it did, it allowed survivors and families to visit theater 9.
Jacqueline Keaumey Lader, a U.S. Marine and Iraq war veteran, did so. “It does help significantly,” she said. “It’s taken the power away from the place.”
Cinemark planned to permanently reopen the theater Jan. 25.
Associated Press writers P. Solomon Banda and Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.
Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or [email protected]