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Wendy Reuer, Published July 09 2013

Lisbon rallies to save town's movie theater

LISBON, N.D. – In March, Scenic Theater owners Al and Betty Michels were struggling to keep the lights on at their one­screen historic movie theater here as they faced the expensive conversion from 35 mm screenings to the digital age.

Al Michels knew other small towns have been forced to watch the slow demise of their sole movie theater. For some it was because of the financial demands of screen conversion, and for others it was because demand simply dropped with the population.

So when a group of seven residents came to Michels with their S.O.S. (Save the Scenic) mission and said they would help his beloved theater weather the expensive conversion, Michels didn’t know how to respond.

“It pretty much brought tears to my eyes,” Michels said. “There weren’t any words.”

On Tuesday evening, Michels fought back his emotions once again as he told the crowd of more than 100 Lisbon residents that they had surpassed the fundraising goal of $100,000 to reach more than $123,000 in three months, and the lights of the historic Scenic Theater would remain on for many years to come.

Michels estimated that more than 300 individuals donated about $75,000 and a $47,500 rural development grant from the United States Department of Agriculture was awarded to the theater.

S.O.S. Committee President Amy Lyons said from the first donation of a quarter from a small boy to young girls who donated their babysitting money, the community came together for the sake of the Scenic.

“Our generation needs to step up and take over some of these fundraisers our parents did,” Lyons said. “We just knew that is what you do; support the community.”

Locals believe the Scenic Theater is one of the longest continuously operating theater in North America. Al and Betty Michels bought the 1911-built theater about 12 years ago. Running movies on weekends, the couple worked hard to retain the theater’s historic glory. The original five­colored bulbs of the marquee still light up Main Street in Lisbon.

Jasper Schneider, state director of the USDA office in Bismarck, said small- town theaters serve as one of the only family­friendly night spots, but they can face a rough existence in lightly populated cities where cash flow is slow. He said the recent demand to convert from film to digital movie screening can be the last straw for some theaters.

While the historic Fargo Theatre just finished a successful fundraising effort for digital conversion, a two­screen theater in Valley City recently shut down.

Schneider said a number of small theaters across the state are looking to hold on to their modern nostalgia by keeping the lights of their movie theaters shining. The USDA recently assisted theaters in Hettinger and Beach, and in Page the Page Community Club raised $60,000 between December and March to keep its theater doors open.

Being 70 miles from the next closest theater, Schneider said the Lisbon area certainly would have lost an entertainment focal point, but it was the community’s backing that really turned his head toward the city of about 2,000.

Schneider received letters from Lisbon residents who ranged in age from grade-schoolers to retirees begging for the USDA to consider awarding Lisbon the grant, a response Schneider said was overwhelming to see.

“We like to help communities that help themselves,” Schneider said.

The Scenic Theater remains closed while the digital conversion is completed. The sound system was also upgraded from four speakers to 23. The equipment was purchased by the city of Lisbon and will be leased to the Michels for a nominal fee. Michels said he is expecting to show the theater’s first digital movie, “The Fast and the Furious 6,” in about two weeks.

Now that the Michels have ushered the Scenic Theater into the digital age, the couple is hoping to sell the business to spend more time with their 13 grandchildren.

“We’d really like for a young couple to maybe take it over, keep it going for another few generations,” Michels said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530