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Life with the big screen: Barber recalls days in dad's movie theater

Anne Barber spent many hours at the Morrsi Theatre including serving popcorn. Barber's dad Curt owned the theater. Rae Yost/Stevens County Times

Hours after the Morris Theatre had closed for the night, Anne Hennen Barber and her friends would be inside the theater acting in front of the big screen.

"We used to go into the theater after hours and play games all the time," Barber said. Most nights the friends would play an improvisational game called "Two Chairs." Two actors would be given a scene to act out and, during the game, they could tag another friend in the audience to join them or replace them in the scene.

Barber was in high school during the 1980s.

"I had a lot of fun friends with great imaginations," Barber said. "It was so innocent."

Innocent indeed because Barber had permission from her father, Curt Barber, the owner of the Morris Theatre, to use the theater after hours.

Barber and her friends, many of whom worked with her at the theater during their teen and young adult years, spent "countless hours" in the theater.

For Barber, the theater seemed as familiar as a home.

"I remember going to the theater to hand out at dad's office," Barber said. "I liked hanging out in my dad's office. He'd be counting money, doing the books...."

As Barber walked through the theater one recent afternoon she points out the small window in her dad's office through which he could watch the movie on the screen.

But her dad never watched many of those movies. "He had an old black-and-white TV. He'd always be watching an old movie," Barber said. The movie "Casablanca" would be playing on her dad's TV while "Beverly Hills Cop" could be playing on the movie screen.

The film projection room is next to her dad's old office. Both are on the upper floor of the theater. When Barber reached age 14 she started working at the theater.

She sold concessions but never sold tickets. "I never wanted to sell tickets," Barber said.

The concessions area is about the same as when Barber worked behind the counter.

Her dad promoted her to assistant manager when Barber was a junior at Morris Area High School.

Barber's walk through the theater took her inside the film projection room. A reel-to-reel projector system has been replaced with a digital projector.

"When I first started, it was reel-to-reel with two projectors," Barber said.

The two projector reel-to reel system was replaced with a one projector and platter system.

She learned how to build a film with the platter system. A film is built by piecing together the entire spool of film. Two films had to be pieced together if there was a double feature. She'd thread the projector with the single spool of film and as the projector ran the film would enter the platters which formed a type of stack.

If the film fell off the platter stack there would be a mess. Thankfully, Barber said, that didn't happen often.

Setting the focus on the film projector could be a challenge. Barber was trying to focus the 1991 movie "The Doors," the film about Jim Morrison the rock band the Doors, which was difficult. The film is known for its many unfocused, trippy, scenes.

"If you don't get the film focus right in the opening credits, you were screwed," Barber said. "Mid-way through the film, I was stll sweating."

She may have struggled with "The Doors" but Barber was comfortable and confident with the movie theater equipment.

While content to work and hang out in the theater Barber wasn't always content with the movies shown at the theater.

She and her friends often mocked popular movies such as "Top Gun," "Dirty Dancing" or "Roadhouse."

Barber was often asking her dad to show interesting movies at the theater. He obliged when he could because he liked interesting movies. But, Barber said, her dad needed to show popular movies to make money.

Some of those interesting movies he did show were: "Wild at Heart" directed by David Lynch

"Red" ("Rouge") directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski (from the Three Colors trilogy,) "Raising Arizona" by Ethan and Joel Coen and "Vampire's Kiss" by Robert Bierman.

When Barber graduate from UMM and left Morris, she didn't leave her love of the movie theater behind.

She has a master's degree in film production and has taught film production at several different colleges. Barber and her husband Gary Wahl moved to Morris in 2013. This past year, Barber was part of the committee that organized a year-long film project which culminates in this week's Prairie Light Film Festival, Sept. 7-13.

A second screen opened at the theater in August. Barber is thrilled with the second screen.

Barber was recently inside that second theater for the first time watching the movie "The Black Klansman" when she started to cry.

"I was moved to tears," Barber said. "I really had a very visceral experience. To me it was because they did it right."

For more information about the Prairie Light Film Festival, check the Morris Theatre's website or Facebook page.