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Blackduck Theater opening gets big draw

For Bob Mabe, owning a movie theater has been a dream since childhood.

"I always liked theaters," he said. "As a kid, I always thought it would be cool to own one. (Theaters) were always magical to me."

That dream finally came true on July 5 when the doors of the Blackduck Theatre finally reopened with a turnout that far expected Mabe's expectations.

"(I'm) a little bit less nervous," he said, reflecting on the nerves he felt before the movie began. "I didn't think there would be such a big turnout. We didn't have any advertising. I mean, we did today. It's just been word of mouth practically."

When the doors opened at 6:30 p.m., only a few people wandered inside. But fifteen minutes prior to showtime, the ticket line was out the door and around the corner. Over 100 people attended the opening screening of "Despicable Me 2," the sequel to the popular animated film featuring a villain who adopts three young girls to further a plot to steal the moon.

Inside, the dimly lit space now features a snack bar with popcorn, candy and soda but maintains its previous northwoods feel with rustic log siding and wood carvings. Outside, with the exception of cars occupying the majority of the street's available parking, the surrounding stores sat mostly empty. The reopening of the theater is something Blackduck residents hope will bring a revitalization of the downtown area.

"So many things have closed in Blackduck," 38-year-long resident Sue Davis said. "On this street, there used to be a restaurant, this and the hardware store." She added that the movie theater was the last to go.

Her husband, Jack Davis, echoed similar thoughts.

"Like most of us, we thought it would never open again," he said.

For residents like the Davises, July 5 dissipated that rumor for good after Blackduck and area residents almost packed its one screen house.

"A lot of work was done on the chairs," Mabe said. "We had a lot of bolts and stuff missing. It took forever to fix those. I haven't really changed a whole lot other than the sound system and projector. I've got to do some roof work here very shortly."

The projector was a big investment for Mabe, who ordered the equipment from a company in Germany. It took longer than anticipated to ship, but he anticipates that the equipment will be easier to fix and maintain than before.

"It's all digital; used to be a 35 millimeter," Mabe said. "The 35 millimeter had big huge plates and I was never versed in that at all."

Thirty-five millimeter film projectors dominated the movie theater industry until 2008 when many began making the switch to digital formats. By 2012, only about 30 percent of movie theaters nationwide still used 35 millimeters, the Blackduck Theatre among them.

"The (digital) projector is something that the guy who installed it is familiar with and he lives about 15 minutes from here," Mabe said.

Technician Joe Edwards recommended the particular projector to Mabe and knows how to remotely fix bugs and problems via a computer from his home.

"He doesn't actually have to be here," Mabe said. "He can do all uploads right from his house if he wants to, and if it ever breaks down, he can be here in 20 minutes."

When theaters across the country began making the transition from 35 millimeter projector systems to digital formats, the previous owners of the Blackduck Theatre had a difficult decision to make. In addition to several other circumstances and reasons, they decided not to go through with the upgrade which ultimately led to the closing of the theater in early January. That's where Mabe comes in.

"It's a huge investment and they didn't know if they wanted to do it," Mabe said.

The work doesn't stop there. In order to even get the movies into his theatre, Mabe must fill out

applications to film companies, pass credit checks and sign agreements.

"They get percentages of the movies and you have to agree to play their movie for so long," he said. "For so long" adds up to approximately two weeks per film and Mabe has to sign agreements for each one.

Elaine Baazard, a 40-year Blackduck resident, brought her granddaughter Solie Isaacson, 12, to see "Despicable Me 2" on July 5. Baazard and her husband watched the newspaper everyday to see when the theater would finally reopen. Like the Davises, she saw how the lack of businesses affected the town.

"I work at the drugstore and traffic downtown was less," Baazard said. "They used to do matinees and the buses used to come from Red Lake and all around the community when they had fun programs. Then, it was gone. It makes a difference."

Before Trail's End opened a few doors down, the theater used to feature a small restaurant where movie goers could have pizza and other food before and after shows. In the now-empty space across from the ticket counter, there were tables where people could sit and eat and a set of doors that opened into the theater.

"You could watch the previews and they closed (the doors) when the movie came on," Jack Davis said. "There were many, many times that people came to watch a movie and then afterward their pizza would be ready for them."

For now, Mabe is sticking with the classic popcorn and candy choices, but with the turnout experienced on opening night, it appears the town is happy to see the Blackduck Theatre back in business.

"We used to get somebody else's children and bring them with us (to the movies)," Sue Davis said, with a smile and laugh at her husband. "We don't even bother anymore."