News Column

Folks step up to save Main Street movie theaters

September 8, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 08--WINDOM, Minn. -- For eight months, it sat empty. No blockbusters, no popcorn, no Saturday matinees.

In the movie industry's massive switch from film to digital, it looked like the little State Theater was yet another casualty.

But then residents came to its rescue. This month, its classic, red marquee will rise again.

People in small cities across Minnesota are rallying around their Main Street movie theaters, helping them pay for the pricey new digital projectors needed as 35-millimeter film is phased out. Sick of seeing businesses shutter their downtown storefronts, they're writing checks, throwing fundraising galas and convincing city councils to chip in.

The State Theater, now a nonprofit, switched out its whirring projector for a digital behemoth in May. The Historic Comet Theater in Cook, Minn., raised $81,000 for new gear via the Kickstarter fundraising website. This weekend in Luverne, Minn., volunteers hosted a speakeasy-style party, with classic cars and live music, to help pay for the Palace Theatre's upgrade.

"If people are going to want to move back to small-town, rural Minnesota, there's gotta be a reason to come back," said Dianne Ossenfort, president of the Palace's board. "And a downtown theater is one of the reasons."

As film gets more difficult to find, movie lovers have worried most about small-town theaters. The expense of buying a new digital projector -- plus upping ventilation and retrofitting a booth -- often exceeds $60,000. That's a big figure for a single-screen theater, some of which are open only on weekends. A year ago, industry groups predicted that thousands of theaters would close rather than convert. Some have.

But many little theaters are provoking passion. Across the country, residents are helping pay for the digital equipment, via county grants and online fundraising.

"In a lot of cases, it's the only entertainment for miles around," said Patrick Corcoran, vice president of the National Association of Theatre Owners.

The movie industry's conversion has no hard deadline, but film versions of the latest flicks will be tough to procure by the end of the year. So far, about 75 percent of theaters nationwide have made the switch, Corcoran said. Drive-ins are lagging -- about half have yet to switch. Many might be waiting until this season's end, he said.

"It's an enormous changeover of the industry in a very short period of time," Corcoran said.

A marquee, in pieces

The State Theater's marquee sits in 19 pieces, dusty and dented, on the floor of a construction shop in Windom. But volunteers hope it will be welded, painted and mounted by late September -- just in time for an anniversary party.

A year ago, residents in this southwestern city of 4,600 formed a nonprofit, raised $13,000 and bought the State through a contract-for-deed. Then they cleaned. Friends brought brooms, buckets and bleach.

"We scraped up gum that had two coats of paint on it," said Buckwheat Johnson, president of Windom Theater Inc. "Two different colors!"

Their little theater up and running, the volunteers then began raising money again -- this time for a digital projector. Thanks to a couple of big checks, one from a woman who grew up going to the theater, they brought in $20,000. The county contributed a low-interest loan. Then a guy called: He had a used digital projector, much cheaper than new.

"Our theater is looking good and running good," Jean Fast, secretary of the nonprofit, said with pride.

The movies themselves look better -- sharp and clear, showing after showing. They sound better, too, thanks to new so-called surround sound. Plus, now the film doesn't start on fire, as "Kung Fu Panda" once did. Johnson used to get those calls.

"They'd yell, 'Buckwheat! The film's on fire!'?" he said.

Attendance skews older.

"We have what we call the 'Lincoln' crowd," Johnson said, referring to the most popular film they've shown, so far. Johnson and Fast believe that the theater has survived because of older donors' nostalgia.

"Most of these individuals grew up with the theater," Johnson said. "Mom and Dad dropped them off for Saturday matinees, they went on a Friday night with their high school girlfriend. It's part of their history."

"They'd like to see it continue for their kids and grandkids."

'How do you help one?'

On a recent muggy evening, the group gathered in the Palace Theatre's lobby to plan.

"Dianne, do you think the upstairs needs to be mopped? They swept it." Eugene Marshall asked, then answered his own question. "It's a speakeasy. Probably not."

"We want it a little musty," Ossenfort nodded in agreement, with a crescendoing laugh.

For months, the Palace has shown a warning before each movie: "In six months or less, this theater and others like it will be forced to go dark," a trailer-like ad cautions.

The stately Palace, which underwent a $1 million renovation in 2007, hosts plays, concerts and weddings, in addition to movies. But movies make up half its revenue, said La Donna Van Aartsen, treasurer of the volunteer Blue Mound Area Theatre Board of Directors.

So on Saturday night, the group hosted a $25-a-ticket party, staging a speakeasy next door, in an old Odd Fellows club donated to them.

Already, the City of Luverne has pledged $25,000 and loaned $50,000. At a meeting last week, the Palace board asked the county for $25,000. The Rock County Board of Commissioners approved a $10,000 gift, on a 3-2 vote.

The Palace is "a jewel," said County Commissioner Jody Reisch, who voted "yes." But the board "struggles with the idea of taking taxpayer money to support a nonprofit," versus roads and bridges in need of repair.

The owner of the local drive-in theater, too, has approached some commissioners, putting the board in a tough spot.

"How do you help one and not the other?" Reisch asked. "Unfortunately, the movie industry is going to force a lot of these small theaters out of business."

When the city was debating the merits of restoring the Palace, years back, "there was a lot of talk in town" about whether it would just be cheaper to build new, Darrel Van Aartsen, construction manager for the renovation, said as he sat in the Palace's balcony.

"And maybe it would have," he said, gesturing toward the grand stage, surrounded by colorful, Craftsman-era detailing. "But you never get something like this back again."

Jenna Ross --612-673-7168

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(c)2013 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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