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Dave Olson, Published February 22 2013

Safari Theater fading to black, but it’s not alone on F-M’s cutting room floor

FARGO - The final curtain has dropped on many movie houses in the Fargo-Moorhead area over the years.

And soon, it seems, the final credits will roll for the Safari Theater in Moorhead, which is up for sale and not expected to remain a place where films are shown.

The Safari is getting out of the business because it needs to convert from 35mm films to showing digital flicks. Milwaukee-based Marcus Theatres, which owns Safari, has said the cost of installing the necessary equipment can’t be justified for a value-priced theater.

The list of movie marquees that have already disappeared from Fargo and Moorhead is a long one and includes the likes of the Lark, the Towne, the Grand and the Cinema Lounge, to name a few.

Gone, perhaps.

But not quite forgotten.

Off to the races

Mark DuBord, of Fargo, will tell you how he and his friends rode their bikes to watch Westerns at the Towne Theater, which was at 508 NP Ave. in Fargo.

Kids received a ticket with a number from 1 to 10 printed on it. Before the main feature rolled, projectionists ran short clips “of some goofy race.” DuBord recalled.

“There were 10 contestants (in the clips), you would take the number you were given and cheer for your guy,” DuBord said.

“Imagine a theater full of kids screaming for their contestant to win. Of course, the lead would change many times, creating more excitement,” DuBord said.

“If your guy won, you would receive free candy,” he said. “I never remember the movies, but I remember those races.”

Mike Humphrey, of Fargo, has memories of several theaters long gone, including the Towne, the Grand and the Roxy.

As a boy, Humphrey would visit Fargo on weekends and grab something to eat at the cafeteria in the lower level of the Herbst building in downtown Fargo before heading off to see a double feature for 25 cents.

Sometimes he’d head across the Red River to the Moorhead Theater at 414 Center Ave., which, Humphrey recalled, ran “The Sound of Music” for one whole year.

Farrell Hanson, of Hague, N.D., remembered how patrons could view a movie at the Towne Theater for free if they bought groceries at Piggly Wiggly.

He said he can also remember several theaters from the late 1940s through the late 1950s, including the Park, Princess, Grand, Roxy, Isis and “the granddaddy of them all,” the Fargo in downtown, which unlike its contemporaries is still in business.

And there’s a reason for that, said Matt Olien, a producer and documentary filmmaker at Prairie Public Broadcasting.

Niche market

“I think the Fargo Theatre has probably survived through good leadership and fundraising. It couldn’t exist without fundraising,” Olien said, adding the Fargo Theatre is facing the same issue as the Safari.

“Right now, they have to convert to digital projection because there will be no more prints coming out of the studies or the distribution companies at the end of this year,” Olien said.

“I think a lot of small-town theaters are going to go under because of this,” he said. “I honestly don’t know how they’re going to survive.”

Olien said the Fargo Theatre will survive because its fundraising has been going well and people understand the necessity of converting to digital.

The Fargo Theatre began its fundraising effort to support the digital conversion in November and so far has secured about $171,000 of its $200,000 goal, said Emily Beck, the theater’s executive director.

She’s confident the theater will reach its fundraising goal and is grateful to those who have donated.

When the anticipated Fargo Theatre conversion is completed, Olien said it will make it easier than in the past for Beck to get movies for the Fargo.

“She’s not waiting and waiting for that print to come,” Olien said, referring to the alternative films that set the Fargo Theatre apart.

“If you’re able to get that niche of foreign films, independent films and live theater, then you can say, ‘We are different,’ ” he said.

To donate to the Fargo Theatre fundraising drive, log on to www.fargotheatre.org or visit the theater’s concession stand.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555. Reporter Charly Haley contributed to this article.