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Emily Welker, Published May 03 2013

Historic Hawley movie theater gets another run

HAWLEY, Minn. - When a movie ends, most of us get up, walk out and leave the stories behind.

But Jim Bortnem decided he didn’t want the stories at the old Garrick Theater here to end, even as the dilapidated old movie theater itself was flickering out to its final credits.

Now, the credit goes to Bortnem. After 11 years of work to remodel the building, starting when the city of Hawley sold it to him for a dollar on the condition he put a new roof on it, the Garrick Theater, constructed around 1918, is just about ready to reopen.

“They were going to turn it into a parking lot,” said Bortnem, who didn’t give a specific dollar amount of how much he’s spent to restore the simple, Art Deco-style theater.

“After $100,000, I quit counting.”

The theater sat vacant for 13 years after a stint as an apartment building, which was what it was turned into when it stopped showing films in 1989.

Bortnem and his crew have spent the last three years of intensive labor turning the building into an events center instead of a parking lot.

“We have lots of parking lots.”

Bortnem had only been in the theater once himself, but his children remember seeing countless films there.

He’s already discovered some of the old stories the theater has seen: old movie posters going back to the films of the 1960s, and the original projection equipment. Bortnem even uncovered and restored the theater’s original balcony, which was hidden inside a two-bedroom apartment.

All these elements will be on display, along with the original light fixtures of the building. Bortnem said the footing and walls of the building were sound, and the condition of the building allowed him to do modern construction while keeping the feel of the original building.

The lobby and entrance are mostly the originals. Among its new features are several murals he commissioned from a Cormorant-area artist.

Restoring and renovating historic old buildings is a trend that’s gaining ground in communities across the region, said Gwen McCausland, of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.

She said saving old buildings and getting them up to code so businesses can get in there instead of razing them is something that takes careful planning. “It can become a money pit.”

Bortnem, who owns several old buildings in downtown Fargo in addition to the Garrick Theater, agrees the remodeling has to be a labor of love to keep someone from giving up on it.

“I knew exactly how I wanted it to look from the beginning,” he said, but even so, he admits there have been plenty of days when things didn’t go right for him and his crew.

“We drink a lot of coffee, talk a lot and sketch a lot on napkins,” Bortnem said.

The facility is expected to be officially completed in two or three months. The Historical Society is looking for anyone who has pictures of the old theater, particularly the interior. It has only been able to find some in society archives.

McCausland suggested contacting the Historical Society’s Mark Peihl with finds.

The old pictures, and the stories they tell, might go into the event center’s exhibit space. It’s already hosted regular weekend services for a newly formed local Lutheran congregation, said Bortnem, as well as some mystery dinner theater shows.

“If you tear a building down, there are no more stories for it to tell,” he said. “Why not put them back to work?”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541