Big screen entertainment part of Brainerd’s history
Before there was the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter, there were other movie theaters in Brainerd. The Paramount Theater was located on Front and Fifth streets, for example, until it was demolished in 1995; the building once contained the Park Opera House, which was built in 1890.
Lois Range’s religious upbringing discouraged watching movies, she said, so it is ironic she received a prestigious movie theater industry award before her retirement.
The National Association of Theatre Owners once named her “Exhibitor of the Year.” The 88-year-old Baxter resident was the former manager of the Paramount Theatre in Brainerd.
“I just applied to be a cashier to work no more than three nights a week. And about two weeks later, the manager didn’t show up — didn’t tell anybody — so the owner wanted me to be the manager,” Range said of her long tenure with the Paramount.
The Paramount Theatre was located on Front and Fifth streets until it was demolished in 1995. The building once contained the Park Opera House, which was built in 1890. It was remodeled in 1914 and reopened as the New Park Theatre and as the Paramount Theatre in 1929.
“The Sleeper Opera House was built in 1882 and it burned down on January 2, 1898. And then they rebuilt it in 1890 and it opened again … and it was built at the cost of $23,000,” Range said Thursday, Nov. 11. “And eventually the operas quit and it became the Paramount Theatre.”
The Paramount Theatre offered movies for 25 cents in 1943, according to the Brainerd Dispatch, and was closed in 1985.
“The movie that impacted me the most because of the crowds that came night after night was ‘E.T.,’ and it ran for weeks,” Range said.
But the Paramount Theatre was not the only theater that showed movies in Brainerd’s early days.
“It’s a necessary social thing, especially starting with teenagers to now.”
— Steve Saurer, Lakes 12 Theatre general manager
The Bijou Theatre showed "A Fish Story," for example, according to a December 1907 ad in the Brainerd Daily Dispatch. Fred H. Low opened the Bijou Theatre in 1906 in a remodeled storeroom, and admission cost 10 cents for adults and 5 cents for children at the time.
The Columbia Theatre opened in 1914 on the southeast corner of Sixth and Laurel streets. It was remodeled in 1920 and reopened as the Lyceum Theatre before it closed in 1930.
“It’s true — back in the day — that people dressed up to go to the theater,” said Steve Saurer, general manager of the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter. “You also needed a (film) projectionist.”
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The Palace Theatre on Front Street opened in 1932 where the American Legion in downtown Brainerd is now located but closed in 1950.
“Back in the day, even at the Paramount, the lobbies were very small, and the concession stand was very small,” Saurer said as he reminisced with Range at the Lakes 12 Theatre.
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Range said of ticket booths, “The Paramount Theatre, when I first went there, people had to get their tickets outside.”
The Brainerd Theatre opened in 1938 on Sixth Street near Front Street as a single-screen theater before becoming a two-screen theater that closed in 1985. It was converted into a roller-skate rink before it was demolished in 1999 to make way for a parking lot.
“It literally was just the Paramount and the Brainerd Twin, which was across the street operated by a Floyd Bunnell,” said Saurer, a 60-year-old resident of Sartell.
The Gull Drive-In used to be located less than a mile northwest of the Brainerd International Raceway. It opened in 1949 but the property was later sold, according to Saurer, to Babe Winkelman, the sportsman and television producer.
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“When movie theaters started, it was a concession stand attached to the theater,” Saurer said. “Now, it’s a theater attached to the concession stand. … The concessions have become a bigger part of the business.”
The Westport Shopping Center in Baxter used to have a three-screen cineplex leased by Tentelnio Enterprises of Alexandria. And the Westgate Mall across from the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter also included a three-screen cineplex leased by Mann Theatres.
“It’s a necessary social thing, especially starting with teenagers to now. One of our biggest newfound crowds is the retiring senior citizens. They’re very good customers,” Saurer said.
Lakes 12 Theatre Assistant General Manager Abby Harting worked at the Westport theater and at Movies 10, which opened in 1996 where the Lakes 12 Theatre is now located. Movies 10 expanded and reopened as the Lakes 12 Theatre in 2012 while the mall theater closed.
“A lot of times movies from Movies 10 would get moved from here and go play over at Westport when they started to slow down, but not at a discounted price,” Harting recalled.
Harting, a 43-year-old Brainerd resident, started work with Mann Theatres in 1996.
“I remember the early 2000s when it was teenagers Friday nights, and it was just crazy, the noise,” Harting said.
The Westgate theater put the Paramount Theatre out of business, according to Range. And the Westport theater closed in 2007, according to Harting, who also worked at that theater.
“What happened with the Paramount was there were too many theaters at that time,” Saurer said.
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But the Lakes 12 Theatre is now busier than it was before the coronavirus pandemic temporarily or permanently shuttered last year many theaters in the region and across the nation, according to Harting and Saurer.
“The studios seem to be getting back to theatrical releases rather than streaming, which is very helpful for us, too,” Saurer said.
FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .