Recapturing an Empire
…a bit of memoir and personal reflection
By Christopher P. Jacobs
Friday night, March 27, 1998, was the extremely satisfying culmination of a nearly twelve-year personal dream. When I was assigned to be the manager of the Empire Theatre in 1986, its physical appearance had been allowed to decline (and would even further) and its days of operation were numbered. Now with its rebirth as the Empire Arts Center, its appearance is in all likelihood better than at any time in its history, and its future seems limitless.
I had only been a theatre manager for about a year, running the Colony Twin for eight or nine months, and the Center Cinema in East Grand Forks for a couple of months, when Midcontinent Theatres bought out all the Plitt Theatres in Grand Forks, including the Empire. I had mixed feelings about this at first, for I was well aware of the theatre’s long history, but it was no longer what it had been when I had attended as a child. (My first "indoor" movie had been at the Empire, one of the rereleases of Disney’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, as I recall.) By the mid-1980s, the Empire had a reputation as a second-rate showplace, and in a declining market attendence had dropped off more at that theatre than any other in town. As a result it became the venue for films the theatre chains were forced to play for some reason or other but did not want to "waste" in one of their popular screens (the Cinema International, the Columbia Mall 4, and when Midco took over, the Plaza Twin). Naturally the continued showing of unpopular movies at the Empire only added to its poor image. As one of the last surviving single-screen movie theatres, it needed a hit every week in order to pay its operating costs but it was a rare week that it came close to breaking even, let alone making a profit. It stayed open because the company owned it outright, rather than renting it, but even that excuse was wearing thin with the executives looking at bottom lines.
I determined to make the best of the job, and when the theatre didn’t close at the end of the summer as expected, I convinced the office to try a four-film "Fine Arts" series with attendant publicity that fall. Only one of the four, Trip to Bountiful, had a respectable turnout, so that ended there. I even tried some old-fashioned theatrical showmanship promotions when possible, including having KBRR/KVRR’s "Madd Frank" appear on stage Halloween night with a costume contest and the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Amazingly, I was able to play David Lynch’s Blue Velvet to slightly larger if more confused than usual crowds, very likely a requirement by the studio to open the Christmas picture King Kong Lives. The only really big crowds, however, were the full houses for the free Saturday matinee family series, sponsored by WDAZ-TV. They were a touching sight to behold in the ususally empty auditorium of over 500 seats. When King Kong Lives played, I somehow managed to convince a friend to dress up in a gorilla costume and climb the Empire marquee. It got newspaper and TV coverage but didn’t increase crowds enough to notice. But still the theatre closed in January 1987, its equipment sent off to other theatres. I went back to the Colony (where I would stay until it closed about seven and a half years later), but for the next six months or so the Empire was still "my" theatre. While it sat dark I was allowed to set up my home 16mm projector in the booth, and run prints from my own collection for myself and a few friends. One winter night the boiler sprung a leak, so it was a good thing I was there when it happened. It was quite an experience seeing my prints of things like Intolerance and Broken Blossoms, among others, on the huge Empire screen.
Then unforseen circumstances closed the Center Cinema in East Grand Forks and inspired Midco to reopen the Empire as the "bargain house," moving the equipment over from the Center. Suddenly the crowds reappeared. The films scheduled now had already been popular hits and now were only 99 cents. Seats were packed and soon the theatre was in the black. Midco replaced the screen and finally started to catch up on routine building maintenance. Profit margins were slim, however, so as many things wore out or broke they were not repaired unless crucial to operation (for example the motorized drapes eventually stayed put, an unused poster case was boarded up when the glass was broken, and the front of the marquee, hit by a tall truck, was simply recovered rather than rewired). As movie attendence in general was back on the increase, Midco started plans for a multiplex big enough to allow closing of the Cinema and Empire, so operations could be consolidated. The Empire changed back to a first-run theatre to absorb all the new movies being released. The Cinema closed in fall of 1993 just before construction of the Midco 10 was begun. Then the Empire finally closed in April 1994, a month before the Midco 10 opened. Again its film equipment was used in other theatres, some of it at the Midco 10 itself.
I had hoped the theatre could somehow be used for revivals of film classics and/or be taken over by one or more of the local arts groups. If given an opportunity I would suggest as much to anyone who would listen, including the Midco district manager, John Doherty. Those groups who toured the building found it interesting but somewhat too intimidating a project to undertake. Executives at Midcontinent Media and its theatre division were open to the idea of donating the structure to a nonprofit organization if no one wanted to buy it. It would be a good tax write-off and a positive gesture to the community for a corporation that had begun in the film exhibition business. When Hal and Kathy Gershman and the North Valley Arts Council became involved, their enthusiasm and commitment to the idea led to it becoming the reality we can see today. The story of their tireless campaign has been told before. It is now a multi-purpose arts facility that the entire region can be proud of. Its film projection capabilities are still incomplete as yet, but with time and money and donations that will soon change. In its final years as a commercial theatre, walking into the Empire still produced a flood of memories. Now, looking brand-new inside and out, it inspires visions of still-untapped potential. Seeing the gold-trimmed purple velvet drapes behind the 40-foot proscenium open before a capacity crowd only serves to intensify those visions. As its rejuvenated marquee proudly proclaims, the Empire truly is "a jewel in the heart of downtown Grand Forks."
Opening Night Photos