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Creating a new dynamic for an iconic theatre

The community icon that is the Morris Theatre has new life. The new look will hopefully be a reality soon.

To celebrate the purchase and preliminary renovation of the 68-year-old theatre, the Morris Theatre Cooperative, Inc., is putting on the "You Own It" Gala Celebration on Saturday, March 29.

"It's been six months and people have done a lot," said Tina Didreckson, theatre manager. "It's been cleaned, painted -- it's totally changed the way movies come to Morris."

The gala will feature a free showing of "The Wizard of Oz" beginning at 3 p.m. From 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., the event will feature live music, free popcorn, door prizes, a silent auction, tours and a coop membership sign-up table. The grand finale will be the tearing up of the mortgage.

The event also will serve as a forum to pass on information about joining the cooperative, immediate plans to improve the picture and sound quality, and a capital campaign to pay for a complete historical renovation and the addition of two screens so Morris-area residents will have a choice among three first-run features.

"It's a way to say 'Here's your place, and here's what's next,' said David Ericksen, a cooperative board member.

Saving the theatre

The cooperative was formed last summer when former owner Curt Barber put the theatre on the market.

The group sought members to help save the theatre and they closed on the purchase on Oct. 1. The mortgage was $115,000, and the group so far has raised $98,000 toward paying off the debt and making preliminary improvements.

"The goal was getting (movies) early, keep it fresh, keep people coming here to see movies first," said Greg Thorson, who books feature films.

The theatre averaged about 1,060 people per month for the first quarter under the coop's operation, and since March 1 more than 1,000 movie-goers have attended showings.

"We're going in the right direction," said Renee Kannegiesser, a coop board member and accountant.

The coop has more than 100 members who paid $250 apiece for a share and voting rights. To ease the financial burden, the coop said people can pay their memberships in full, monthly or quarterly. People can also get involved by donating time to the renovation or operations.

The coop's goal is to show potential members that their money and efforts are a benefit to themselves and the community, as a whole.

The group wants to have a top-to-bottom cleaning and new visual and sound equipment ready by April. Then, they want to head straight into the capital campaign to raise between $500,000 and $600,000.

Architects who have studied the theatre told the coop that the dollar amount needed to make it a multiple-screen theatre.

"Realistically, that's what it's going to take," she said, noting that members already have volunteered to do some of the work rather than have it hired out to a contractor.

Restoring an icon in a

modern age

Planning for the restoration of the theatre's original Art Deco interior and exterior is already underway, and Barber recently added a new furnace and new roof.

But generating revenue will be the most important task in bringing the theatre back to the shape it was in when it opened on Oct. 2, 1940.

That's difficult to do in the modern marketplace without offering multiple screens. Movie companies insist that first-run features must be the only ones shown on a screen for up to four weeks, and the cut they take from profits is considerable, Thorson said.

"The dynamics of the industry have changed so much since the '40s," he said. "Not everyone wants to see 'Horton Hears A Who' or a sci-fi classic. You need multiple screens to compete."

The revenue stream would improve significantly even if the Morris Theatre offered two screens instead of one, Kannegiesser said.

Ericksen said the ultimate goal is to provide a community asset that will keep residents, students and children in town for dinner and a movie instead of seeing them leaving town for the evening to catch a first-run movie in a multiple screen complex in a larger community.

Thorson said "it will be a sad day in Morris" if the coop's efforts aren't successful.

That, and a contrasting image, are what continue to drive the coop members.

"When you see 200 parents and kids streaming out of here happy after a movie," Thorson said, "you know you've done the right thing."