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Old movie houses find audience in the Plains

With their jewel-like marquees and facades of careworn utility, the small town Main Street movie theater is thriving in North Dakota.
Image: Roxy Theater in Langdon, N.D.
Volunteers have been helping make small theaters, like the Roxy in Langdon, N.D., centers of their communities.Fred R. Conrad / The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

Every Friday through Monday night, from her perch behind the Skittles and the M&M’s, Amy Freier awaits the faithful at the historic Roxy Theater. There is Dale Klein, the school bus driver (large Diet Pepsi with a refill). And there is Jeannette Schefter, the social worker (large plain popcorn, medium Diet).

“You know who comes,” said Ms. Freier, one of 200 volunteers in this town of roughly 2,000 who are keeping the Roxy’s neon glowing. “They’re part of the theater.”

In an age of streaming videos and DVDs, the small town Main Street movie theater is thriving in North Dakota, the result of a grass-roots movement to keep storefront movie houses, with their jewel-like marquees and facades of careworn utility, at the center of community life.

From Crosby (population 1,000), near the Saskatchewan border, to Mayville, in the Red River Valley, tickets are about $5, the buttered popcorn $1.25 and the companionship free.

“If we were in Los Angeles or Phoenix, the only reason to go to a movie would be to see it,” said Cecile Wehrman, a newspaper editor who, with members of the nonprofit Meadowlark Arts Council resuscitated the Dakota in Crosby, its plush interiors now a chic black, red and silver. “But in a small town, the theater is like a neighborhood. It’s the see-and-be-seen, bring everyone and sit together kind of place.”

The revival is not confined to North Dakota; Main Street movie houses like the Alamo in Bucksport, Me., the Luna in Clayton, N.M., and the Strand in Old Forge, N.Y., are flourishing as well. But in the Great Plains, where stop signs can be 50 miles apart and the nearest multiplex is 200 miles round trip, the town theater — one screen, one show a night, weekends only — is an anchoring force, especially for families.

It is a tradition that comes with a delicate social choreography (kids up front, teenagers in the back — away from prying parental eyes) and in spite of nature’s ferocity (subzero temperatures can freeze the coconut oil for the popcorn machine).

Steve Hart, 40, a farmer in Langdon who helped revive the Roxy, tells of a paralyzing Christmas blizzard several years ago. The phone started ringing shortly afterward.

“Do you have a movie?” people wanted to know.

“An hour later,” he recalled, “there were 90 people on Main Street, even though there was only one path through the drifts and the movie was ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.’ ”

To Tim Kennedy, a professor of landscape architecture who has traveled across the state to survey little theaters for a book, the communal will of rural towns that keep theaters going represents “buildings as social capital,” forged “outside the franchise cinemas and their ubiquitous presence at the malls.”

Of the 31 operating historic theaters identified by Mr. Kennedy, 19 are community-run, little changed from the days when itinerant projectionists packed their automobile trunks with reels of film and hit the road. Many retain the upstairs soundproof “cry rooms” for fussy babies.

Their collective rejuvenation reveals a can-do spirit — as in Cando (population 1,250), home to the historic Audi Theater.

'Nickels for Neon'
Robert Schwanz, a 55-year-old farmer and electrician in Crosby, volunteers at the Dakota, fixing the sound system, mending wires, repairing the projector. “Our grandparents homesteaded,” he said, sitting in an empty row of seats one recent afternoon. “We’re only two generations out. It’s part of the culture to take care of the neighbors, help each other.”

Crosby citizens launched into John Wayne mode in 2000 when the owner could no longer afford to keep the theater going with a “Nickels for Neon” drive.

Today, the Dakota is a star with many roles. It is a destination for high school students on a Saturday night. It is where county employees and local farmers discuss noxious weeds, and where the crowd pours in after football games to watch highlights on the big screen. On Oscar night, the program is shown live. Everyone in town gussies up and walks a red carpet donated by a local furniture company.

To Tom Isern, a professor of history at North Dakota State University Fargo, citizens championing theaters represent “a bounce back from the bottom” for small North Dakota towns. Crosby, for instance, is the seat of Divide County, which lost 14 percent of its population over the past decade but is now rebounding due to oil revenues. Baby boomers are in a position to help.

“They are the last picture show generation on the plains,” he said, “who can remember that movie theater experience and want to transmit that to their kids.”

Films veer heavily toward G and sometimes PG-13 ratings.

“Sex and the City?” said Ms. Freier, the Roxy volunteer. “People don’t relate to that here.”

Lauren Larson, a school counselor in Fargo and co-owner with her husband, Steve, of the Delchar, has a motherly eye. When she spied a 14-year-old watching “The Last Boy Scout,” which is rated R, she called his father. “It’s hard for me to let them in when I know the movie is not good for them,” she said.

Binge drinking
For the parents of teenagers, the appeal of a hometown movie theater is often safety more than sentiment. “The snow can kick up in a matter of minutes,” said Dean Kostuck, the father of Hailey, 16, and Hillary, 20. “You’ve got to worry.”

At the Lyric in Park River, a silent-picture-era theater once presided over by Laura McEachern, who dealt with rustling candy wrappers “by stalking the aisles with a pen flashlight and shining it right in your eye,” her 81-year-old niece, Lorna Marifjeren, recalled, most of the volunteers are teenagers like Trey Powers. “If the theater wasn’t here, a lot more people would be drinking,” he said.

North Dakota ranked first in the nation for binge drinking in 2009, and some volunteers at the Lyric include teenagers assigned to community service by the court. “Most sure don’t mind,” said Jim Fish, the juvenile court officer for Walsh, Cavalier and Pembina Counties. “It’s a neat fit. There is a sense of helping the community out.”

For older residents, theaters are a link to a rapidly vanishing past. Movie rentals are the biggest threat, said Babe Belzer, 74, who led the drive to restore the Lyric with fellow Jazzercisers.

“If you can get a whole living room of kids watching a movie for three bucks, what a deal,” she said. “But at the theater,” she continued, “the phone doesn’t ring, it’s not time to change the clothes from the washer to the dryer, and there isn’t anyone at your door. It’s kind of the heart and soul of our town.”

This story, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.