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Main Street movie theaters alive and well in North Dakota
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The Rockford Theater in New Rockford, N.D. (Photo courtesy of Tim Kennedy)
In some small towns in rural North Dakota there's treasure to be found. Many small towns still have an old-fashioned movie theater on Main Street. The theaters are the focus of a new exhibit, "Memory Palaces of the Dakotas."

Moorhead, Minn. — The Dakotas have been called America's outback -- a boring landscape of endless flatness. But, where some see monotony, Tim Kennedy sees beauty. Kennedy learned more about the state from his students at North Dakota State University.

He discovered the movie theaters in many communities were still open, years after most movie houses had been replaced by multi-screen theaters. Kennedy says there are 29 communities in the state that have kept their theaters open.

"It's a paradox that within the one state in the union that has a diminishing population ... has an increase in privately-run independent movie theaters," says Kennedy.

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Image The Avalon in Larimore, N.D.

Kennedy says the names of the small prairie theaters evoke grandeur. The Bijou. The Grand. The reality is, they never lived up to their name. But for Kennedy, walking into an old theater like the Cooper is a memorable event. It's in Cooperstown, a community of more than 1,000 people, about an hour northwest of Fargo.

"It's like a time machine. You walk into the lobby and the ticket office is right out of 1912," Kennedy says. "It's all wooden with pressed tin panels on the wall. The seats in the front of this kind of shotgun theater, with a single loaded center aisle, are wooden seats."

Kennedy has snapped pictures of the theaters, mostly their striking marquees. He's also recorded a trove of stories. There are the exploits of the Sickel twins, who restored the Avalon theatre in Larimore. When they died, the theater was willed to the town.

There's the case of the lady from Belfield, who operated the popcorn machine. Years later, when she applied for a job with the government, she discovered her fingerprints had been burned off. Kennedy says one of the most touching stories is the tale of Richard Johnson.

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Image Tim Kennedy

For years Johnson operated the Rockford theater in New Rockford, North Dakota. Kennedy says Johnson was a colorful personality. For 20 years, he was the town's Santa Claus. Unlike the movies he showed, Johnson's story doesn't have a happy ending. After one appearance as Santa, Johnson was driving home and got caught in a blizzard.

"He ran smack into a train at a railroad crossing, and never knew what hit him. But in speaking to folks in town, they refer to it as the night that Santa Claus died," says Kennedy.

As a tribute to Johnson's memory the community took over the theater.

For rural communities struggling to survive, keeping the movie theater open can be more than just a boost to civic morale. Cecile Wehrman helps run the restored movie theater in Crosby, North Dakota.

"This is a quality of life issue. We need to hang onto this because we're trying to attract new people to this community," says Wehrman.

About 1,000 people live in Crosby, just 10 miles from Canada, in the northwest corner of the state. Crosby is doing well. The town has a hospital and two doctors. A new pasta plant has just opened.

Wehrman says the theater has become one of the town's recruiting tools. Wehrman says they hold business meetings in the theater. And it's occasionally used as a youth center. She says saving the theater even forced residents to learn new skills.

"We have developed a whole stable of people in the town that are aware of grant sources and how to write grants. And what it takes to get a grant, and what matching money is. And kind of just how you pull a project like this together," says Wehrman.

Wehrman says the success of the Crosby theater gives people a reason to be optimistic about their future.

Tim Kennedy says saving a local theater will not fix all the problems facing rural communities. But he says it can give a community faith in itself.

Tim Kennedy's show, "Memory Palaces of the Dakotas," is on exhibit at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, through April 27, 2003.

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