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In the age of the megaplex: Historic Twin Cities theaters battle to stay afloat in the ever-competitive business of showing movies

The Falls Theater marquee in downtown River Falls, Wis., is shown on Thursday, May 10, 2018. The Falls Theater just added a second screen to accommodate increased attendance. (John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press)1 / 2
Michelle Maher, owner of the Falls Theater, uses a leaf blower to clean the floors of the theater before the doors open in downtown River Falls, Wis., on Thursday, May 10, 2018. (John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press)2 / 2

RIVER FALLS, Wis. — For Michelle Maher, running her own movie theater is a labor of love.

But sometimes it's just labor.

"Michael, the vacuum is in here!" she shouted to her son last week, as they both scrambled to get The Falls Theater ready for a Monday-night crowd. She dashed from one job to another, cleaning the bathroom, picking up a paper cup, pouring a beer at the concessions stand.

She inherited the 1927 theater from her father, and she is determined to make it successful. "It is all of a piece — like the family farm. We look for any possible way to sustain it," said Maher. Her River Falls theater is one of seven surviving theaters in the metro and surrounding area built before the age of the multiplex.

The eccentric one- and two-screen theaters each have unique strategies for competing -— from $2 tickets to sriracha fries to local beer. And every one of them survives because of the love of their owners. Today, the old-fashioned theaters thrive, even as the multiplexes are locked in a battle over reclining seats, stadium seating and in-seat restaurant service.

St. Paul has two -— the Grandview and the Highland.

Both are relics of the 1930s. "Both have been losing money for a long time," said Michelle Mann, co-owner of Mann Theaters, which owns the St. Paul theaters and others.

Her grandfather added second screens in both theaters in the 1970s.

The company received $455,000 in grants and loans since 2003 from the city of St. Paul.

Was the government help needed? "It is not always necessary, but in these two cases, absolutely," said Mann.

The company has poured money into them, and is also sponsoring a GoFundMe project to raise money.

Like most historic theaters, they can't compete on luxury, so they compete with low ticket prices.

"We do not make money on the box office. We only make money on concessions," said Mann.

She said that neighborhoods benefit when old theaters thrive. "They add to the life of the city," said Mann. "I hear all these heartwarming stories — 'I met my sweetheart there.' "

On May 24, Mann celebrated the grand re-opening of both theaters, which had been closed to install new seating, concessions areas and sound systems. She hopes that will help the two theaters have a future.

"I don't know who will survive. We are all providing the same product," said Mann.

The Uptown is the oldest continuously operating movie theater in the metro area, according to assistant manager Richard Gill.

It opened in 1916 — a 900-seat theater. "They must have been pretty close together," said Gill. Today there are 348 — after remodeling and installing wider seats.

The renovation in 2012 reduced the numbers of seats and made them more comfortable. "You haven't got any springs poking you in the legs," said Gill.

The concessions stand veers into gourmet territory — vegetarian egg rolls, battered green beans, Southwest egg rolls and sriracha fries.

The secret weapon? "Everything we play is exclusive to our theater," said Gill. The Uptown only shows movies not showing anywhere else for at least a week or two, said Gill.

The Heights Theater is probably the most magnificently restored movie theater in the state.

For some movies, a musician plays an organ before the movie starts. Tasseled chandeliers sparkle overheard, and the Beaux Arts marquee gleams on the outside.

The 1926 Columbia Heights theater has been restored by owner Tom Letness. It features some first-run movies, but most nights it hosts movie classics such as "A Touch of Evil," "A Hard Days' Night" and "Bridge on the River Kwai."

The ticket prices vary from $7 to $10 for adults, depending on the event.

The architecture of the 60-year-old Riverview Theater — post-World War II midcentury modern — makes it unique in the metro area.

In the 1950s, movie houses began to evolve away from the boutique-y neighborhood theaters into regional film pavilions. Of those, the Riverview survives, with its cavernous 700-seat main room.

Owner Loren Williams has meticulously maintained the look of the era, right down to the lobby furniture.

Williams said the theater specializes in first-run movies, shown a few weeks after they come to more theaters, but just before they come out in video.

He isn't competing with the rush to luxury, but is relying on the appeal of a comfortable neighborhood theater — which isn't going out of style. "The experience of seeing a movie with an audience has been with us for 100 years," said Williams.

His prices are low — $3 for most events, $2 for children and seniors. "I am after a very different market," he said.

Along with current favorites like "Black Panther," he mixes in the older movies — such as a series of Alfred Hitchcock films, or the entire "Lord of The Rings" trilogy.

The Plaza Theatre belongs to the Woodland Hills Church of Maplewood — making it probably the only church-owned movie theater in the state.

Originally, the 1967 theater was built next to a Shoppers' City warehouse store, in the corner of a parking lot.

The church moved into the vacated store building in 2001, and bought the theater in 2013. Church leaders said they wanted to keep the theater open as a public service for the neighborhood.

The theater has none of the historic charm of older theaters, but does offer a single rock-bottom price — $3 for adults, children and seniors, for second-run movies.

When The Falls Theatre opened in 1927, it immediately became a social hub for River Falls.

Owner Maher marvels at the fact that it had leather seats for 476 people. They must have been narrow seats. Today, it seats 286.

Her father, Stan "The Movie Man" McCullough, bought it in 1972.

The make-or-break challenge to any historic theater is the moment when a multiplex opens nearby. For The Falls, that happened in 2008 — a 12-screen theater only six miles away.

"For every other older theater, that would have been the final nail in the coffin," said Maher. "All the chatter in the industry is we are a single platform, and we will not survive."

Some historic theaters adapt by walling off the balcony to add a second screen, the way that the Grandview in St. Paul has done. But Maher was unlucky — The Falls has no balcony.

Instead, she pounced when the next-door insurance office was vacated. After years of work, she finally got her second screen, retro-fitting the space with stadium seating for 48.

She spent about $500,000 on the expansion, including a $70,000 grant from Wisconsin. The second screen opened for business last week.

On a recent Monday, she scrambled to prep both theaters. With a bottle of spray-cleaner in hand, she noticed three seats that needed new springs. "I am going to get to that later," she said.

"When you do this, you clean your own business. I work a day job. You do what you can do keep prices low," said Maher.

The best news for the long-term health of the theater is behind the concessions stand — her 22-year-old son Michael. He says he wants to take over the place, eventually.

He said the surviving historic theaters have already weathered their toughest storms. Even as the saturated theater market claims victims among the multiplexes, small operators with cheap prices are surviving.

"In a small town," he said, "this is one of the top five things to do on a Friday night."

IF YOU GO

  • Falls Theatre

Address: 105 S. Main St., River Falls, Wis.

Movies: First-run films

Admission: $4 adults

Secret to success: Beer on-tap in the lobby

  • Heights Theater

Address: 3591 Central Ave., Columbia Heights, Minn.

Movies: Second-run and classic movies

Admission: $7-10 adults

Secret to success: Old movies with organ accompaniment

  • Grandview 2 Theatre

Address: 1830 Grand Ave., St. Paul

Movies: First-run movies

Admission: $8.50 adults

Secret to success: Grandview and Highland are St. Paul's only movie theaters

  • Highland 1 and 2

Address: 760 Cleveland Ave. S., St. Paul

Movies: First-run movies

Admission: $8.50 adults

  • Riverview Theater

Address: 3800 42nd Ave. S., Minneapolis

Movies: Second-run movies, art-house films

Admission: $3 adults

Secret to success: 1950s-mod architecture

  • The Plaza

Address: 1847 Larpenteur Ave., Maplewood

Movies: First- and second-run movies

Admission: $3 adults

Secret to success: Owned by a church

  • Uptown Theater

Address: 2906 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

Movies: First-run movies

Admission: $10 adults

Secret to success: Gourmet food, and exclusive screenings of movies

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