Sep 26, 2014 4:53 PM
Small towns rescuing, restoring movie theaters
The Associated Press
WEBSTER CITY, Iowa (AP) When the historic downtown movie theater in Webster City, Iowa, went bankrupt and shut down last year, some wondered whether it was further proof of the small town's demise after a factory closure put hundreds out of work.
"This community, not more than a year ago, was labeled as done. Shut the lights off we're done," said theater volunteer Jake Pulis, recalling concerns after the appliance plant closed in the central Iowa town.
Instead, residents rallied around the theater. They held public meetings, hashed out volunteer work and launched a fundraising campaign. More than $200,000 later, the theater reopened Saturday with a newly renovated marquee, an ode to its appearance in the 1940s.
"We're just getting started," said Deb Brown, another theater volunteer.
Webster City's story is playing out across the country, as residents of small communities work to save their historic downtown movie theaters. To many, the hope is that a theater's revival could aid a community's revival, too.
When the Egyptian Theatre in Coos Bay, Oregon, closed in 2011, a nonprofit group that had already been refurbishing the concession area and marquee managed to raise more money needed to fix the building's shaky foundation.
It reopened in June, a move that's led to more people visiting nearby restaurants after movies, said Kara Long, executive director of the theater's preservation association. She noted a local brewery had recently partnered with them for a beer and movie night.
"They said, 'This theater being open and this kind of event is why we wanted to open our brewery here,'" she said.
Such positive effects are common when small town theaters are revived, said Patrice Frey, president and CEO of the National Main Street Center, a group that offers tools for revitalizing main street areas.
"Renovations become a real rallying cry for the community. It provides a sense of focus," she said. "That community focus can bring entrepreneurs out of the woodwork."
In Spencer, Indiana, about an hour outside Indianapolis, volunteers, a nonprofit group and private donors reopened the 86-year-old Tivoli Theatre in 2013, more than a decade after it was shuttered. Besides movies, the venue now is used for plays, meetings and classroom field trips.
"It's a sign of hope that the downtown square can be saved," said Robert White, board president of the county preservation group that bought the building in 2005. "The atmosphere and the energy that's coming off the theater, it's spreading."
No one tracks how many historic movie theaters are being restored, but Richard Fosbrink, executive director of the Elmhurst, Illinois-based Theatre Historical Society of America, said he's seen more projects recently.
He credits the connections people have with their local movie theaters.
"It could be the theater that you went on your first date. Or it could be the theater that your grandparents met in. Or your great aunt was the candy counter girl," he said.
Dylan Morse, president of a nonprofit aimed at restoring the Grand Theater in Knoxville, Iowa, southeast of Des Moines, echoed that idea.
"These are wonderful pieces of history," he said. "They are essential to a community's identity and fabric and the experience of living in a small town."
People also appear to be rallying around theaters because the push by movie studios to switch from 35 mm film to digital has created an obstacle for smaller theaters that can't afford the $70,000 investment. Patrick Corcoran, a spokesman for the National Association of Theater Owners, said about 750 theaters out of more than 5,800 commercial theaters have yet to make the conversion.
Recently at the Webster Theater, which is nestled within a long row of downtown storefronts in the community of about 8,000, the air smelled of new carpeting as volunteers pointed out the nearly completed ticket booth. The digital projector was set to be installed later that day.
"I really think what happened with the theater was quite simply, we drew a line in the sand," Pulis said. "We had lost and lost and lost and lost, and this was the point where I think the community decided we've lost enough."