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Rural community digs deep, saves movie theater

Kim Satrom, right, purchases movie tickets for her and her children from Macey Satrom, 14, behind ticket counter, before a showing of "Epic" at the Page Theater on June 15. The theater in Page has recently raised enough funds to upgrade from a slide projector to digital projection technology. The city raised a total of $70,000. Different families volunteer at each showing to run the projector and sell tickets and concessions.

PAGE -- In small-town North Dakota, the Page Theater has always been supported entirely by the community. But with limited funding and resources, it has struggled to keep up with the film industry since it first opened in 1969.

Recently, the delay in technology advancements threatened its existence. When the film industry stopped making 35-millimeter films, theaters across the nation had to upgrade to digital projection -- a $70,000 to $90,000 investment.

"We were basically forced to make the upgrade or not have a movie theater," said Duane Dows, a member of the Page Community Club.

For Dows, there was only one option: raise the money.

The Community Club, which runs the theater, set a goal of $70,000 and kicked off its fundraising efforts Dec. 12.

Community steps up

"When you look at needing that amount of money out of a community our size," he said, "there's probably some skepticism to begin with."

But Dows didn't let that drag him down.

He and other club members asked community families, friends and neighbors to help save the theater.

"(The response) was overwhelming," said Marvin Thorson, president of the community club, "but, not entirely unexpected."

Thorson said residents of Page, in northwest Cass County, have always been great at stepping up when they're needed.

The club received more than $70,000 in upfront donations and about $20,000 in pledges, which will be collected throughout the next four years and used for general maintenance and emergencies.

The upfront contributions were used to purchase a new digital projector, which allows the Page Theater to show new films. Dows said the theater may have been able to continue showing older films without the upgrade, but it wouldn't have been a desirable situation.

Improved quality, less work

The new projector provides better sound and audio and reduces the amount of work needed from volunteers.

Randy Mewes, a long-time volunteer, said it used to take an hour to set up a movie.

Before the upgrade, each movie would arrive in the form of four or five reels. A volunteer would then have to connect each reel of film and put it on two larger reels. After the movie, the film needed to be taken apart and packaged for shipping.

Now, the movies come on a disk the size of an old VHS tape and starting the film is as simple as pushing a button.

"It still takes us about an hour ... to download a movie off the hard drive, but you can start it and leave the room," Mewes said.

The upgrades have helped the movies run more smoothly. Thorson said in the past, faulty equipment would sometimes cause delays or interruptions in the middle of a film.

"People joke that they'll miss their intermissions," he said. Despite the jokes, the community has shown a great response to the upgrades.

Volunteers run the theater

As community members made their way to the theater Saturday night to see the new film "Epic," Macey Satrom was busy inside the ticket booth honing her math skills. The 14-year-old counted money and sold tickets, while her siblings helped their parents with popcorn.

"That was a lot of math," she said after tending to the last customer in line.

Satrom's mother, Gwen, started volunteering at the theater with her husband 16 years ago. Now, she brings her three children -- Macey, Makenna and Liam.

She said they started volunteering because someone asked them to help, but they continued because it was fun for the family.

They are just one of the many families that volunteer in the theater.

About four men take turns running the projector and a handful of families are on the list for helping behind the counter.

"It's all volunteers who show the movies, sell the popcorn and do what needs to be done," Dows said. "It takes a lot of people rotating through, so it's not a lot of work for any one person."

Without help from the community, the theater wouldn't be able to operate. So, with just three months, 250 people and $70,000, the community saved more than its theater. They saved a long-time tradition of weekend movies.

"The community came through, so it continues to live on," Mewes said.