Single screen theaters: Another endangered resource

Movie theater on main street of Central City, California, Shasta County, which owes its existence to the construction work on Shasta Dam, November 1940. Russell Lee, American. (Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington, DC )

Once upon a time, I lived in a tiny house in a beach community that’s really part of San Diego but pretends that it isn’t. (It even has its own zip code.) I could decide to go to the Cove Theater at 6:45 pm and be in my seat, fresh buttered popcorn in hand, when the film began at 7:00. Spence, who took my ticket at the door, had been a fixture there for decades. So I have some faint idea how important a local movie house can be to a small town.

The story of JEM Theater on the main street in Harmony, Minnesota, which Michelle and Paul Haugerud bought in 2002 and faced the problem of finding the money to convert to digital projection, shows how a community can work together to preserve a treasured resource.

The JEM wasn’t just for movies. Youth groups held meetings there. Many local kids had their birthday parties there, accompanied by a movie or a videogame. The Haugerud daughters had slumber parties in the auditorium; after a movie, they settled down, if that’s the right word for a slumber party, in sleeping bags down front and in the aisles.

Many in Harmony believed that the JEM brought business to town. Julie Barrett, owner of the Village Square Restaurant across the street (and famous for her daily pies) said, “When people go to the movie, they stop at the Kwik Trip, our hardware store is open until 6:30, so you know they might try to kill two birds with one stone when they come to town.”

Over the situation hovered the fate facing every small town—the hollowing out of the center by the big-box stores down the road.  Pull off any interstate highway, and you’ll see that the main streets of small towns have turned into empty storefronts, municipal offices, or struggling boutiques. When the JEM faced the need to go digital, Paul was concerned. “If we take one more thing away it’s going to hurt the community. I’m scared to death that main street is going to look like Harmony in the 1980’s when I was growing up. It was pretty bare.”

It’s a great story, the kind that doesn’t get publicized on front pages or television and computer screens across the country like the latest scandal or faux outrage currently dominating the news cycle.

And the old Cove Theater? It’s an upscale furniture store now.

(Note: a hat tip to Balloon Juice’w own mistermix, who pointed the way to this story.)