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A revival for small town theaters; Many helping hands push old cinemas into digital era

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By Kevin Bonham

GRAFTON, N.D. — About a year ago, Tom Henriksen was considering the unthinkable — closing the doors to the Strand Twin Theatre, a local institution that his family has owned and operated for more than 75 years.

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Like theater owners in small towns throughout the nation, he was faced with a major investment to purchase digital projection and sound equipment to meet new mandatory movie industry standards. U.S. movie studios say they will stop the distribution of conventional 35-milimeter films by the end of the year.

At a cost of about $85,000 per movie screen, Henriksen’s potential investment was $170,000.

“It’s real important that we have a theater open in Grafton,” he said back then, “but it’s not easy to come up with that kind of money.”

The community was listening.

Within days, locals organized the Save Our Strand committee to raise the money needed for the digital conversion.

“Tom wasn’t looking for help,” said Ann West, a local banker and SOS committee member. “But a couple of people felt the community just can’t let it go. And we asked Tom what we could do to help.”

In less than a year, SOS, which is forming the non-profit SOS Foundation, raised more than $160,000 toward a $250,000 goal. Earlier this month, it took possession of the Strand and its equipment; Henriksen still owns and runs the business.

Grafton is one of many communities raising funds to keep the curtains raised in their local theaters, many of them using a similar model.

Community efforts

In Langdon, N.D., the Northern Lights Arts Council has raised more than $150,000 over the past 15 years to reopen, renovate and convert to digital the Roxy Theatre, which opened in the 1930s.

The nearby Cavalier (N.D.) Cinema is still owned by Kirby Brandhagen, whose family has had the theater for decades. However, the local Save Our Screen committee will own the digital equipment, leasing it to Brandhagen.

SOS has helped raise more than $75,000 toward its initial $80,000 goal, according to committee member Kyle Gagner. The conversion is expected within a couple of months.

“Businesses have stepped up. Individuals have been sending in checks,” Gagner said. “People just really love the theater and the atmosphere. It’s great and it’s really encouraging.”

Business decision

Some theater owners, like Bob Moore, try to do the conversion on their own without community donations.

Moore Family Theatres operates the River Cinema 15 in East Grand Forks, the Grand Theatre in Crookston and the Fosston Theatre in Minnesota.

“It’s a tough nut,” he said a year ago when he made the decision to convert his theaters. “Not all of them are going to make it.”

He had estimated the cost at closer to $100,000 per screen because of other improvements made at the same time.

“Most of us didn’t pay that much for the theaters, so it’s difficult to justify spending that kind of money, even if you can raise it,” he said. “In smaller theaters, it’s tough to just break even on the operation, let alone pay off a loan for more than the building is worth.”

In the end, he decided not to make the investment in the Blackduck (Minn.) Theatre, his family’s first theater. It’s now for sale, according to the company website.

In Roseau, Minn., the Roso Theatre completed its digital conversion in October using funding from the local economic development agency and a bank, according to co-owner Sheri Anderson. Richard and Sheri Anderson bought the theater in 2009.

The theater, which opens Fridays through Mondays, normally attracts crowds of 50 to 100 per night, although the numbers can hit 150 to 200.

“Business is up and down,” Sheri Anderson said. “It always could be better.”

Challenges remain

Leaders in some communities that have not made the conversion remain hopeful they can keep their theaters open.

In Park River, N.D., the Lyric Theatre has been silent since December. The Park River Development Corp., which owns the theater, doesn’t have enough help to keep it open during the busy winter months, according to City Auditor Tom Larson.

The organization has done little, so far, to raise money for digital equipment.

“We don’t know what direction we’re going to go,” Larson said. “We’re still trying to decide.”

He said he hopes to see a theater committee formed in a few weeks to seek out funding.

In Mayville, N.D., the Traill County Economic Development Commission recently organized a subcommittee to preserve the Delchar Theatre.

The theater group hopes to raise $85,000 to buy the digital equipment and lease it to owner Steve Larson. Following the lead of New Rockford, N.D., the group hopes to obtain a U.S. Department of Agriculture business grant, according to Tom Sapo, a Mayville banker and committee member.

“We’re also looking to plan one or two community fund-raisers,” he said.

Many touched

In Grafton, at least, it seems that all Save Our Strand members had to do was spread the word.

The group raised more than $160,000 in less than a year.

The Grafton High School Alumni Association sponsored a project last summer to send fundraising postcards to former students, raising more than $32,500 so far.

Donations came from all over the country, many with personal notes describing fond memories of the Strand.

“They’re very touching. They’re just wonderful,” said Cori Dvorak, a committee member.

One donor wrote about going to a movie on her first date, back in the 1950s, with the man she eventually married.

“They’re still married,” Dvorak said.

Dozens of others mentioned working at the theater while going to high school.

Another promotion, Buy a Seat, raised more than $13,000, at $100 a seat. Donors get their name or a memorial plaque on one of the seats.

From each of Grafton’s four banks came $5,000 donations.

Central Middle School students have been part of the project, too. They’ve been painting, carpeting and cleaning the building, according to Kelly Dokken, a Central staff member helping supervise the program.

“We’re finding out just how much this means to people, not just in Grafton, but in St. Thomas, in Minto and other towns,” West said. “When there’s something that matters, people step forward. And the kids have been the catalyst.” A revival for small town theaters

Many helping hands push old cinemas into digital era

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