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Plains towns pitch in to sustain old movie houses

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LANGDON, N.D. — Every Friday through Monday night, from her perch behind the Skittles and the M&Ms, 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 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 (pop. 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.

The revival is not confined to North Dakota. Main Street movie houses like the Alamo in Bucksport, Maine, 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 Cineplex is 200 miles round trip, the town theater — one screen, one show a night, weekends only — is an anchoring force, especially for families.

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 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 sound-proof "cry rooms" for fussy babies.

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

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."

North Dakota ranked first in the nation for binge drinking in 2009, and some volunteers at the Lyric in Park River include teenagers assigned to community service by the court.

For older residents, theaters area 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."

 

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