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Continued: Folks step up to save Main Street movie theaters

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Last update: September 7, 2013 - 10:02 PM

“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.”

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