How do you save small town charm?

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in Kent, Washington. It was a middling-sized town of 15,000 people way back then, and I rather like small town living, but I didn’t like Kent, and I can trace my dislike to one specific event.

The town had a classic movie theater, the Vale. As a kid, I loved that theater: we’d go out of our way on our walk home from school to check out the movie posters, anticipating the shows we’d see on the Saturday matinee. It was not an upscale theater, and we got a steady diet of “B” horror movie features — stuff like Die, Monster, Die and Frankenstein Conquers the World and every Japanese rubber monster movie ever made. They’d also show other stuff for our parents — I recall that Elvis movies were popular, and my parents took me to see The Hank Williams Story there — but really, it was the place in town that fed kids’ imaginations. Saturdays, a bag of popcorn, a mob of friends, and the wolfman on the screen? Paradise.

And then it went out of business, the town tore it down, and put up a bank in its place. That was the trend for quite a few years of my youth in that town—small businesses were flattened downtown, and a succession of banks and gas stations were erected everywhere. It was hostile and inhuman and not a good place to grow up. It was a place for people in cars with money to shuttle their cash around.


Anyway, I had a painful flashback last week. Morris also has a small, classic, single-screen theater, to which I regularly make a pilgrimage. Even when they show complete crap (hey! just like my childhood theater!) I go to enjoy the experience … and yes, I saw the Transformers movie, bad as it was, but it was still fun to sit there with an enthusiastic crowd of kids. It’s been struggling, like many small theaters, and it was put up for sale. That was dreadful in itself, but then we heard an offer had been made for it.

By a church. Not just any church, but one of those annoying random evangelical cultie churches, conservative as heck, but with a fervent congregation and apparently, more money than god or sense. They offered to buy it outright, and had every penny on hand.

As awful as Kent was, at least they didn’t replace everything in town with a church. Morris has got 14 or 15 churches as it is—the last thing we need is another parasitic institution that contributes nothing to the tax base and encourages further ignorance in the population. This could have been a nightmare.

Fortunately, though, a whole lot of people got together and dug into their wallets and put together a community consortium that made a counter-offer, promising to maintain the place as a theater … and that offer was accepted. Morris will be maintaining a first-run movie theater for at least some time to come!

Realistically, there’s still a lot of struggle to come. In these days of DVD players and home theater systems, it’s hard to keep a small movie house profitable, and this one also needs some extensive renovation and perhaps a little radical diversification to make it a destination of wider interest. We have an enthusiastic and ambitious steering committee (I’m not on it) at work right now to put together a plan—I’ll be contributing what I can to their efforts.

It’s also just great to see a community come together and work to preserve this special element of the town.


  1. Lucyv says

    You were lucky in Morris.
    In Walthamstow, east London (UK), an Art Deco cinema with listed status struggled for many years before being sold in secret to the Church of The Kingdom of God.
    The council and local peaple opposed it being turned into a church and we fought it all the way to the highest court, but we can’t get the church to sell it so it can be a cinema again. We are the only London borough without even one screen.

  2. flame821 says

    we have a theatre like that near the hospital, the 19th st theatre. It shows ‘art house’ movies for the most part (as Allentown is awash with multiplex) it is fairly sucessful and has had a small community grow up around it. (Coffee house and a music store that specializes in Indie records)

  3. PeterTe says

    Great save Morris. During my childhood years I was lucky enough that my mother worked in a small cinema. I’d walk home from school and duck in to catch whatever was on at the time. I watched Star Wars, Jaws, Grease etc over and over. My wife still can’t believe how many times I’m willing to watch the same movie even today. There was something nice and comfortable about the place, of course I knew everyone, could take my friends for free (and later discounted – darn you capitalism) and got to go in the projection rooms too, so I was bound to love it. Sadly I didn’t become a director (Cinema Paradiso anyone?) and it closed in the 90’s to reopen as … a carpet shop. Now my hometown has a googleplex like every other midsize town. I still love the movies but it just isn’t the same … drifts off to dab misty eyes.

  4. Kseniya says

    Unfortunately, in the minds of many folk, small town charm and having lotsa churches go hand in hand. Sigh.

    Nice story, though. I love those old theatres. The few that are left, that is. My dad told me that 30 years ago in Boston and Cambridge you’d find a little art-house every couple of blocks, and some would show a different double-feature of classics every night – yes, a different pairing every night of the week! Plus a midnight showing of yet another film! (I think The Harder They Come was the midnight movie for years and years. I’ve known the soundtrack album my whole life, but I’ve never seen the movie. Sigh, again.) You could see over a dozen different films in a week without changing theaters. And it probably cost like $2 to get in.

    Sadly, nearly all those little cinemas disappeared years ago, leaving only the usual multiplexes, and three or four art houses scattered across Boston, Cambridge and Brookline. I’m sorry I missed all that. DVD’s fill that gap now, for sure.

  5. Bob L says

    “the last thing we need is another parasitic institution that contributes nothing to the tax base”

    That is an interesting thought; churches speeding up urban decay as they remove commercial space from the tax base. Has anyone brought this up the Morris city council that maybe they might want to consider this in their zoning laws?

  6. says

    You all got lucky on another account too– from what I understand, the norm is that when a movie theater is sold, it is often under contract NOT to be used as a theater again. This lets the owners (usually a big chain) close a little movie house for good, and not have any remaining competition when they build a big-box theater later. The college town near me has two such theaters, one has been a succession of gymnasiums, and the other is vacant. Seriously– what are you going to do with an old theater building with no parking down near the college kids BUT put an art movie house in it?? That would make great sense, but Kerasotes (or AMC or whatever they are) doesn’t want Fellini to draw too many kids away from going to see Transformers, I guess…

  7. Steve LaBonne says

    That is an interesting thought; churches speeding up urban decay as they remove commercial space from the tax base.

    This is a HUGE problem in inner-city Cleveland.

  8. says

    The county I grew up in had a population of around 25,000, with 2,500 living in the most populated town. We had the one theater, with two screens, for the entire county.

    It’s still standing, but every time I drive by it I remember going with my dad to see Jaws, Excalibur, and Conan the Barbarian. Then, once I got older me and my friends went to see Batman, Jurassic Park (my money was on the Velociraptors), and the chick flicks to appease the girls I dated.

    I live around Cincinnati, now, and miss living in such a small town. Even if I went to see a movie, by myself, I knew that someone I knew would be there, and I’d still have company if I wanted it.

  9. says

    Just wanted to say that this post reminded me of Daniel Pinkwater’s “Snarkout Boys” series — a couple of books about the adventures of some small-town kids and the local midnight-movie theater. One of my favorite books growing up, and required reading for sixth-graders of all ages.

  10. Mark Borok says

    My hometown of Newton, MA is also being taken over by banks (not curches, it’s mostly secular Jews there). I can’t figure out why anyone needs so many banks, sometimes two branches in the same neighborhood. Oh, and a Starbucks that’s a stone’s throw away from another Starbucks.

    The Academy Twin Cinema, where I saw “Rear Window” and Disney’s “Jungle Book” became a Pier One Imports and is now a “mega-bank” that looks like it wandered over from downtown Manhattan.

  11. Stu says

    It could have been worse.

    In Park Slope, a neighborhood church was bought and turned into an American Apparel. They have faux witty things written on the marquee all the time. It’s really irritating.

  12. andy says

    You’re lucky. The small town I grew up in had a movie theatre that burned down when I was a toddler. It turned out that the guy next door in the appliance store torched his own place for the insurance, taking out most of the block (and that theatre) in the process.

    Now, the next town over (about 4 miles) did have one of those old art deco places and I spent a lot of happy hours there- in fact that was the place I first saw Star Wars at back in ’77.

    Eventually they too got one of those multiplexes at the outskirts of town and the Maco Theatre went on the block. Unfortunately, the christian filth in that town got their hands on the place, and the downtown there got ever more grey, boring, and dingy.

  13. says

    I want to second the Snarkout Boys books recommendation — the Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death and the Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror.

  14. MikeJ says

    When I was a kid, the theatre for Saturday movies wasn’t an old movie palace, just a suburban shithole. I still loved going to see Hammer horror flicks there though. I touched my first boobie there!

  15. Yee Haw says

    May I suggest something like the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin? Rip out every other row, add “tables” and serve food and beer. Add some video karaoke, etc. and make it a destination spot. Not as kid friendly, but way more fun.

  16. Bill Dauphin says

    In these days of DVD players and home theater systems, it’s hard to keep a small movie house profitable

    …or a big movie house, for that matter. In my local area there were two giant multiplexes, both owned by the same company. Within the last year, one of them has been shuttered and the other has begun a fairly radical transition: They’ve added a restaurant/bar in the the lobby, where they sell dinner/movie packages and also feature live entertainment on weekend nights. They’ve also enhanced the lobby concessions to include fast-food meals, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and a seating area. Further, they’ve converted at least one of the existing theatres to IMAX 3D capability and several more to a premium configuration that features reserved-seat ticketing, leather seats, and the ability to order concessions from your seat. Finally, they’re adding a large new addition to the building, which will contain either one or two large audtoriums with balconies and giant screens (i.e., emulating the old “movie palace” experience).

    These moves can only be designed to compete with the home theatre/DVD experience: They’re working hard to make going to the movies an experience that can’t be duplicated at home, no matter how good your home theatre is.

  17. says

    The steering committee may want to look at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Mass for inspiration. It’s a pretty successful non-profit theater that shows a lot of art house and independent cinema that the mainstream theaters don’t play.

    Another part of their success seems to be the decision to host a lot of special events. The Coolidge has a partnership with the indie bookstore across the street and often hosts author talks and book signings. They also have some themed film series (e.g., “Science on Screen”!), which occasionally involve talks on cinema history or something else related to the movie that they screen.

    I’m not sure how much of those things really apply to a cinema in a middle-of-nowhere town in Minnesota versus a college city like Boston, but they’re ideas worth stealing if they could make them work.

  18. cm says

    If any members of that Morris consortium are reading this: YOU GUYS RULE! Nice job!

  19. Lynn says

    OMG! I grew up in Renton and Kent, WA! Moved to Kent at age 12.

    I remember that theater, and the gradual decline of downtown Kent.

    Then they “revitalized” downtown by putting in a bunch of specialty shops and chi-chi places. Better than run-down, I guess, but it sure didn’t have the same small town flavor.

    The whole trend in movie theaters over the last thirty years was, I suppose, inevitable, but none-the-less pretty sad.

    Another thing I remember was the wonderful Lewis and Clark theater, out near SeaTac airport. At one time it was the biggest indoor theater in the country. It was *big*, with a balcony, and wonderful paintings along the side panels showing images of the L&C expedition.

    Some of that is sort of still there, I think, but the theater has been chopped up into a bunch of small, modern-style theaters. I’m sure there are good reasons for theaters to go in that mega-plex direction, but it was a sad day when they ruined that theater.


  20. Jason says

    The whole trend in movie theaters over the last thirty years was, I suppose, inevitable, but none-the-less pretty sad.

    Huh? Instead of one theater with one screen showing one movie, and with uncomfortable seats and a bad sound system to boot, we now have much better theaters with multiple screens showing multiple movies. Sounds like a good deal to me. The rise of home video has given the movie theater industry a much-needed kick in the pants.

  21. says

    I remember the Lewis and Clark well — one of my favorite theaters out there.

    We were in Kent a couple of weeks ago, and yes, they now have a theater again! Of course, it’s a gigantic 14-screen omniplex with ticket prices that made me gasp, but hey, it’s better than nothing.

  22. says

    A bank is just the church of a different fundamentalist religion. :)

    The (middle sized, not small) town I’m living in now is undergoing that metamorphosis – with banks and CVS pharmacies popping up on every corner. One intersection has a CVS and a Walgreens on opposite corners – less than two miles from more CVS and Walgreens pharmacies.

    The number of churches to the Christian religion – at least in the small downs down here – has always been quite large.

  23. Steve LaBonne says

    One intersection has a CVS and a Walgreens on opposite corners – less than two miles from more CVS and Walgreens pharmacies.

    This particular kind of nonsense has blighted quite a bit of the landscape around where I live. How dumb are the CEOs of those companies??

  24. stogoe says

    #24: Yeah, but the multiplexes are showing only this week’s new blockbuster on half of their screens and the last two weeks’ blockbusters on another third. It’s hard to get enthused about beer delivered to your seat when half the city’s screens are taken up with the same flashy pap as everyone else.

  25. says

    It’s pretty sad that I’m right there with you guys, ok so mine was a small three screen theater but I could ride my bike there. My town had a few of the real cool old theaters like this was about but they were gone before my time. But at the same time we do still have a drive in, nothin’ like a couple people in a trunk so you can save the three dollar admission because we spent the money on beer. Ah, summer.

    Obviously we’re all talking about theaters but its the same in all segments, few towns have personality anymore, they all look exactly the same, sell the same crap, its dull and now they want the whole world to be homogenized. Makes me sad.

  26. Smitty says

    Re: #4
    I live about a block away from the Avalon, so it’s nice to see somebody else recognizes what our neighborhood almost lost. It was an uphill battle, for sure, but it’s turned out to be a nice small town-y movie experience in the sea of the DC >$10 movie-megaplexes.

  27. twincats says

    My sad tale of cinematic loss centers on the Monetery, CA of 1979. I was stationed at the Presidio (learning Russian) and often frequented two utterly unique and charming theatres.

    The first was simply called by its address; 812 Cannery Row. This theatre was probably less than 2000 sq. ft. and had no seats; only ridiculously thick padded shag carpet and scads of throw pillows. There was also a single row of benches in the very back, if laying on the floor wasn’t your style. It was mainly an art theatre but they showed Rocky Horror every night at midnight and all those showings were well attended. This gem was absorbed by the Monterey Aquarium, so not a total loss, but still…

    The second was called the Dream Theatre and was a couple of blocks north of the 812. This theatre was much larger, but with a relatively small section of normal theatre seating in front. The rest of the auditorium was equipped with old-Vegas-style showroom booths, complete with little tables, just right for snuggling up to your current sweetie. None of the booths matched and they were all decorated (painted and upholstered) in a different style. This wonder was transformed into a block of tourist-trap shops last I saw. *sigh*

    At least neither of them became churches, banks or gas stations!

  28. phat says

    An old theater here in Lincoln, NE just reopened as a view-n-brew. I hope they can make it.


  29. Kseniya says

    Mark Borok – Newton? I lived there for six years when I was little (age 5 to 11). I asked my dad about the Academy and he remembers going there! He claims that it was on Beacon St., right in Newton Centre, and that we lived less than a mile away – in Four Corners.

    The Coolidge Corner in Brookline IS a great theatre. The comment about it (above) is right-on. My dad (once again) informs me that he knows it well, and used to attend 24-hour science-fiction movie marathons at the Coolidge (and, in earlier days, at the marathon’s former location: the great Somerville Theatre.) I’ve never been, but my kid brother, now 16, is interested so maybe we’ll raise a posse and go together next year. :-D

    (A new experience to look forward to. I love being a geek!)

  30. Kseniya says

    Oh, and any residents of the greater Boston-Providence-Worcester area should check out the Mendon Twin Drive-In while it still exists. Twenty dollars per car, thirty for over-sized vehicles seating 8 or more. Two screens, each showing a double feature every night! Stereo hi-fidelity sound beamed directly to your car radio! Retro snack bar with reasonably-priced snacks, and some cool stuff (coke machine, juke box with real 45 rpm records) that is older than… well… God!

    ** ilovethatplaceitissocoolommygod **

    Ooh. I feel breathlessly 13 again. Is that bad? :-)

  31. Jeb, FCD says

    One of the last “cool” theatres to see Rocky Horror at midnight closed x number of years ago. I was pretty young when it happened, so I don’t remember the timeline correctly. The theatre kept the name but was resurrected as a bar. Check it out at Varsity Theatre. It’s one of the coolest bars/musical venues ever. Lots of big name acts played there before making it big.

    Maybe you can do that in Morris.

    “Make it so, Number One!”

  32. Natasha says

    The Senator, an historic, art-deco, big screen theater in North Baltimore was 12 hours from a foreclosure auction, when enough contributions ($109K) were received locally and internationally to save it.

    I took the #8 streetcar to see movies there as a kid; when my daughter had a photography exhibit in the restaurant across the street, we sat at our table and watched John Waters filming “Cecil B. Demented” at the Senator; and I was there Saturday night with daughter and son-in-law and their friends to see “Harry Potter” on the BIG screen! The owner, Tom Kiefaber, came out to address the audience as he does before every screening. Historic, indeed.

  33. Kseniya says

    Another tidbit from my dad, who claims to have been to a very old, large and elegant single-screen art deco styledmovie theatre in Bala Cynwyd, PA. Is it still there, he wonders?

  34. tony says

    I lived in the area until a few years ago, but I don’t recall the theatre in Bala Cynwyd… I do recall the thatre in Wayne, however (pretty close), and the theatre in Phoenixville (claim to fame: it was the movie theatre in ‘the blob’) was partially renovated and showing movies and plays… just not very often!

  35. jmano says

    Congratulations, Morris, and thank you! My grandchildren love that theater. Also, one would think that, in a town with around 5,000 college students, Monday and Tuesday nights would be good nights to show “art” films, classics, and non-mainstream films, followed by discussion groups. I’ll bet some of the town would even join the gown to see Casablanca, Farenheit 9/11, or Jules and Jim.

  36. lala says

    If it makes you feel any better… when the original theater of my own small hometown went out it was taken over by a small hands-on science museum for kids. An interesting choice for small-town, Southern Baptist redneckville. I was always pleased yet puzzled by that little slice of reason in the midst of the perpetual “good ol boy” glow of the old downtown…

  37. Crudely Wrott says

    Ahh! The old “theater for a church scam!” Guilt swapped for delight, that is, images of imagination swapped for constructs of understanding. The oldest doge on the planet. Also a scientific principle, popularly known as the “Oops Factor.”

    The most unexpected and unflattering things will happen at any given moment, no matter what the effort or reason for the effort. All jobs take longer than first estimated. Life goes on and many are entertained. Some are put out.

    Even so, reasonable people seem to eek out a slim margin of acceptability and worth, similar to how biological evolution does. Interesting and amusing. By prevailing in small skirmishes a war is won, after a fashion.

  38. Kyra says

    Ooooooh, wonderful!

    I have no movie theatre in my hometown, so seeing movies takes a car and a twelve-minute drive and my parents are not big on movie theatres so I think I saw Jurassic Park and Saving Privater Ryan and that was it until I got my license. Then I moved for college and there was a movie theatre half a block away if you climbed a chain-link fence, and I saw Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest ten times.

    Glad to see the theatre stayed up; even more so to see that sort of church get screwed out of their attempt to screw over Morris. There’s plenty of them around here, big elaborate buildings on significant acreage that always cause me to wonder how many starving children they could feed with the money spent on construction and heating the place. And it’s not enough; I pass fields that have so far escaped being turned into high-priced housing developments and there’s a nice big sign over ’em saying “This field is the future home of ______ _______ Church.” If I ever find a forest being labeled as such I’ll be tempted to come around once construction has started and put up a sign that says “Caution: Orcs at work.”

    A few years ago there was a deal in the paper about one of those megachurches forcing a homeless man off of church property, where he’d been living in something like a storage shed or a boxcar. They couldn’t care less about helping him, they just didn’t want him trashing up their property with his existence. To which I can find nothing to say but “By their works you shall know them.”

  39. ifriit says

    You know, I wonder if the growth plan for neighboring Auburn was influenced by the transformation of Kent.

    I grew up in (just outside, really) Auburn probably a decade or less after PZ left Kent, and it was almost diametrically opposite. The city council tried very hard to maintain local businesses, and as far as I know it’s still on the books that franchise businesses have to get special permission to establish stores there. There is not one single Starbucks store there, in fact; the only ones are in the grocery stores.

    So, the problem there was also pretty much the opposite; businesses winked in and out of storefronts in Auburn’s core with great regularity, and the stores that were there were generally unpleasant. It got to the point by the time I left that no one voluntarily shopped in Auburn at all; most headed to Federal Way to the Seatac mall area. The small businesses simply couldn’t survive, and the town wouldn’t let the well-connected franchise businesses in, so the downtown core just became more and more stagnant.

    Today, downtown Auburn’s great if you want hardware, or to have your nails done… and that’s about it. If you want to see a movie, well, the Supermall’s only 10 miles away.

  40. ifriit says

    Oh, and I would note that as a result of Auburn’s growth plan, it wound up pretty much exactly how PZ described Kent. Lifeless and painfully boring for a child; nothing to do, nowhere to go.

  41. Martha says

    Oh my! Please, tell me Don’s is still there and not a church! A deep-fried oderred church that serves fries in bulk for communion… no, see, it just doesn’t make sense, it couldn’t have been converted.

  42. JJR says

    Sugar Land, TX lost its one old-timey art-deco movie theatre a good many years ago. I’m fortunate that I got a chance to see one movie there–Raiders of the Lost Ark, with my Dad. It was awesome. But it was torn down before I started High School. Couldn’t compete with the suburban mall multiplexes, etc.

    At least in Houston, we turned one classic theatre into a Bookstore, which is a quite awesome store.

    That and we imported an Austin invention known as
    Alamo Drafthouse…

    …which I go to frequently to enjoy free Anime showings presented by Houston-Based ADV Films; the directors & voice actors are frequently on hand, too, which is really cool.

    Sugar Land lost its “small town charm”, if it ever had any, years upon years ago…it’s just another Houston drive-in suburb now. Richmond-Rosenberg, the county seat down the road, are still small towns, comparatively speaking, but I haven’t taken the time to really explore them.