Aurora theater reopens with popcorn, tears and a screening of ‘The Hobbit’

The Aurora movie theater in which 12 people were killed and dozens more were injured in a barrage of gunfire on July 20 reopened Thursday night with a new name, a newly painted façade and an entirely new auditorium where the killings took place.

About 2,000 people — including victims, family members, first responders and community leaders — were invited to the grand reopening ceremony that Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan said demonstrated the community’s resilience.

“We as a community have not been defeated,” he said. “We are a community of survivors. … The reopening of this theater is part of that recovery process.”

Hogan was one of several speakers who addressed attendees from a stage in what had been Theater No. 9, just a few feet from the spot where James Holmes is accused of opening fire in the crowded theater during the midnight premier of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

The auditorium has been renamed the Extreme Digital Cinema and now features a floor-to-ceiling wall-to-wall silverscreen, new seats, new carpet and new wall hangings. A Cinemark employee was overheard saying, “Pretty much everything in here is brand new.”

The invitation-only event elicited a range of reactions in those who attended. While many were talkative and outgoing, others were somber and reflective. Some of those who were there on July 20 entered the redesigned lobby seemingly absorbed by the experience. Many people were heard commenting on the new pale green and blue color scheme throughout the building as if the colors were among their most vivid memories of that night.

Tables filled with bags of free popcorn and soft drinks, and employees wandering through the crowds offering free candy, lent something of a surreal air to the occasion. The digital marquees over each theater entrance read, simply, “Remembrance.”

And while some seemed to have little hesitation re-entering the auditorium where so much death and mayhem had occurred the last time they were there, it was clearly overwhelming for some. At one point before the guests spoke, a young woman who’d entered with a look of determination quickly came back out and broke down crying in a friend’s arms.

Others were crying before they even entered the lobby.

Reopening the theater, which is now called Century Aurora, has been controversial. Family members of nine of the 12 killed signed a letter to Cinemark calling the reopening and estimated $1 million makeover a crass publicity stunt. Several victims’ family members boycotted the reopening ceremony. Some preferred that the theater remain closed and that a memorial to the dead and wounded be erected on the site. At least eight lawsuits have been filed against Cinemark, alleging a variety of security shortcomings.

But Hogan, in his comments to the attendees, said that the community overwhelmingly wanted the theater to reopen. He called it a step on the path of recovery.