Saving Morris’ silver screen

Show time on a snowy evening at the Morris movie theater in western Minnesota.  Photo courtesy Dave Aronson

The movie theater in my northwestern Minnesota hometown is gone, just like lots of others around the state. It’s become a trend, in part, because it’s very expensive to maintain and operate a movie theater. Even so, the folks in the western Minnesota city of Morris have done just that and in a most interesting way.

You can hear the details today in my new Minnesota Sounds and Voices report on All Things Considered.

The photo above shows the Morris movie theater in all its evening, neon-lit glory. And take note of the snow. The image, snapped this past winter and supplied by Morris theater booster Dave Aronson, makes a key point.

If you live in rural Minnesota and your town doesn’t have a movie theatre, you’d better be prepared to drive anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour to see a first run feature film. That’s year round, regardless of the weather and road conditions you might encounter.

The theaters closest to Morris are 25 miles one way in Benson, or 45 miles the other direction in Alexandria.

So when movie mavens in Morris learned six years ago the theatre owner wanted to sell, they banded together as a cooperative to buy the place.

Years later the co-op members are still volunteering their time to paint and fix and clean, even to keep the place running. Volunteers take shifts to turn on the lights, plug in the popcorn popper and even run the projector. And the big job of converting to digital projection is done and almost paid for. The Morris Theater is open 364 days a year – closed on Christmas – showing first run films.

Their rationale for spending all the time and money on the old show hall?

The ticket buyers’ dollars circulate among town businesses – think of this as the ultimate ‘shop local’ exercise. People come to a movie in town and stop to shop and eat before or after the show.

The Morris formula is out there for anyone who wants to save their hometown theater, but be prepared for the consequences. It takes lots of organizing and volunteering hours to make it go.