You won’t find swanky, oversized seats. The box office takes only cash for the $2 and $1 tickets for movies that were popular a couple of months ago. And the concessions in the tiny lobby, while basic, include popcorn of buttery renown.
And that’s just how devoted patrons of the Plaza Maplewood Theatre — an institution on St. Paul’s East Side since 1967 and the only discount movie theater left in the east metro — have liked it.
So when Woodland Hills Church, located in an adjoining lot and owner of the theater for the past dozen years, announced it was not renewing the Plaza’s lease, the plans were greeted by those fans with an emphatic thumbs-down. It will be taking over operations at the end of this month to both keep running it as a theater and for part of its ministries.
Despite assurances that the church isn’t planning changes, and says it will bring improvements to the theater, patrons appear unconvinced.
“What’s going to happen next? Why does everything have to be about the bottom line? It’s just not fair,” said theater loyalist Rich Rudin who with his son, Cody Pratorius, created a website with an online petition opposing the changes; it has drawn more than 1,100 responses. “Why can’t it stay the way it was?”
Second-run theaters pick up films more cheaply weeks after their initial release, and flourished before the rise of the multiplexes. “In the ’80s, they were all over the place,” said Natahn Block, who was leasing the Plaza Maplewood from Woodland Hills Church. The Plaza is one of only four discount theaters serving the entire Twin Cities, he said, and the only one east of the Mississippi River.
He was hoping to secure a new five-year lease to get financing to convert the theater’s projection and sound systems for its two screens from 35-millimeter to digital, a conversion costing about $150,000.
“I’m heartbroken. That was my baby for 15 years,” Block said. “And I don’t understand why. There could have been any number of negotiating tacks we could have taken, but those discussions were never even considered. Personally, it’s going to be a tough burden.”
No changes planned
Woodland Hills Church, which had its own humble beginnings meeting in Battle Creek Middle School, then Harding and Arlington high schools before buying the property in 2001, now draws weekly attendance of about 2,000. It has reached a point where it’s ready to find a fresh purpose for the Plaza building more in line with its goals, said Pastor Greg Boyd.
“We believe that if our neighbors give us a chance, they’ll find out that what they’ve loved about the Plaza isn’t going away, and the theater is only going to get better,” he said. That includes the discount prices and movie selection, he said. The church is planning the digital screen conversion, as well, and there’s a chance its current staff will remain.
“We don’t plan on changing the movies played at the theater, and we won’t push our beliefs on anyone who attends movies there,” Boyd said. “No theater operator could ever promise prices will stay the same forever, but we have no plans to increase ticket or concession prices in the near future.”
Community outreach is one of the core missions of Woodland Hills, which was planted as a church in the Baptist General Conference but is considering closer ties with the Mennonites.
Earlier this year, the church got a city permit to open a food shelf in its building, and it also joined the Project Home program, offering shelter to homeless families. The church helps run a job-skills training program and Close to My Heart, a local day care serving low-income families and children with special needs.
“Now we want to see how we can use the Plaza for community programs, too,” Boyd said. “However, we know that our neighbors — including a lot of people from our congregation — love the theater, so we want to make sure the movie operations aren’t negatively impacted by the church programs we’re planning to start up.”
Those specifics are still being worked out.
Block, who also co-owns the Woodbury 10 Theatre, said he will most miss being part of the community. He frequently made the Plaza available for local fundraisers and held garage sales selling movie paraphernalia to raise money. Patrons were generous in contributing to the theater’s improvement fund jar in the lobby.
It’s clear from the response that many share his disappointment, he said. “It will be those comments that get me through many a dark day to come,” he said.