Regional theaters grapple with changed Hollywood landscape

Independent movie theaters in the outlying Brainerd lakes area communities of Pequot Lakes, Hackensack, Little Falls, Aitkin, Wadena and Onamia have either reopened in a limited capacity or remained shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Rialto Theatre marquee promotes its showing of the classic hit musical "Grease" starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Kirk Peysar / Rialto Theatre

For Rialto Theatre owner Kirk Peysar, the show must go on.

Hollywood studios have either put production of their new films on hiatus or pushed back their release dates of completed films because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Peysar persists.

“We were closed from roughly the middle of March through the middle of June,” said Peysar, who sold to-go popcorn to generate some income before reopening in June. “We were obviously disappointed … but we did so out of necessity and safety for our customers in our community.”

The Aitkin movie theater is not alone in its predicament. The Grand Makwa Cinema in Onamia informed callers in a recorded announcement it remains closed until further notice, and the Bear Pause Theater in Hackensack seems to be another business casualty of COVID-19.

“Bear Pause Theater is sad to report that because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the governor’s restrictions on theaters, we will remain closed through the end of 2020 and early months of 2021,” owners Sue and Kevin Larson posted on their website and Facebook page.


The Larsons shut down the phone lines.

The Falls is a two-screen movie theater in Little Falls that reopened June 12 with “Jurassic Park” and “The Goonies.”

“We do have guidelines we must follow, including insisting that customers wear face masks in the lobby area when entering and leaving, using the restroom and buying concessions,” according to a post on its Facebook page.

The Cozy Theatre in Wadena, like many others, is showing blockbusters from years past, such as “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Footloose” and “Jaws.” The three-screen theater reopened June 12 and like others across the state was limited to a 25% capacity due to social distancing.

The Cozy Theatre had its grand opening, however, in 1914. The first movie shown at the Cozy was called “The Last Days of Pompeii.”

Rialto Theatre in Aitkin

Located a block north of the stoplight in Aitkin, the historic Rialto Theatre in the small town of about 2,200 residents is unmistakable with its art deco aesthetic.

“It still features many of those original embellishments that the theater had since it was built,” Peysar said.

The Rialto Theatre was built in 1937 and showed first-run feature films but had to resort to offering older blockbusters such as “Grease” from 1978 and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” from 1982 when it reopened recently because of a lack of new releases from Tinseltown.


The historic Rialto Theatre is located one block north of the stoplight in Aitkin in Aitkin County. Submitted photo / Kirk Peysar

“We’re trying to just put out a schedule that appeals to all ages and all interests,” Peysar said. “Movies are intended to be enjoyed by larger crowds. … because so much of the movie experience is really based on that collective crowd energy.”

Surfaces at the theater are disinfected before and after a showing, the audience is limited to 25% of the auditorium’s 272-person capacity, and social distancing and the wearing of masks are encouraged.

“The crowds have been really good at policing themselves as to where to sit. … Our auditorium is fairly large, and so we’re able to accommodate social distancing even in the auditorium while the show is going on,” Peysar said.

The Rialto Theatre was built by Charles E. Lyons more than 80 years ago as a “movie palace” with its single screen. Peysar began working there in 1975 and purchased it in 1986.

“One of the things we added as we reopened is that we’re now doing online ticketing, and so people can buy their tickets online, so, you know, they’re guaranteed a spot. And that’s been going over really well,” Peysar said.

Unlike some other regional independent movie theaters, the Rialto Theatre offers Sunday matinees and nightly showings every day at a reduced price of $6 for all seats.


“We’re doing like all the other theaters, showing classics and old favorites … going to ‘Purple Rain’ … and then the movie ‘Jaws,’” Peysar said. “Our following, they’re really pleased with, you know, being able to see some of these old favorites back on the screen again.”

The Rialto Theatre reopened June 19 when the governor permitted some businesses to reopen if they followed certain coronavirus precautions for the health and safety of their customers.

“We wanted to make the reopening special and so we brought in the original ‘The Wizard of Oz’ that was released in 1939. Judy, as a young person, performed on the stage of the Aitkin opera house,” Keysar said of the movie’s beloved star Judy Garland, a Minnesota native.

Sunset Cinema in Pequot Lakes

Shane Martin is hoping the sun hasn’t set on his movie theater, the Sunset Cinema in Pequot Lakes, even though the independent movie theater has not reopened and no date has been set.

“This is largely dependent on Hollywood. Currently, the studios are not releasing any new product until the majority of the country has reopened its theaters,” said Martin, the owner and president of Sunset Cinema.

The five-screen movie complex employed 10 people, according to Martin, before it temporarily closed. The building opened in 2006 before he came along and purchased the first-run theater in 2008.

“Films that were scheduled to open in early July have now been pushed back to August as the country struggles to fully reopen its cinemas, so we’re waiting on the sidelines, ready to go when there is new product to show,” Martin said.

Sunset Cinema is a five-screen movie theater in Pequot Lakes. Nancy Vogt / Pine and Lakes Echo Journal

Before it closed in March, Sunset Cinemas was open daily and year-round. It offered matinee and evening shows every day, except during the non-summer, non-holiday periods.

“We expect to see a slight reduction initially, but we’ll remain flexible and we don’t anticipate major schedule changes,” Martin said of reopening plans.

According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, there are at least 40,613 movie screens nationwide — and Disney’s “Mulan” and the Warner Bros. sequel “Wonder Woman 1984” are just some of the expected blockbusters that were supposed to be in theaters soon.

“Our goal is to show first-run titles,” Martin said. “We may have to supplement that for a little while with older titles and classics until Hollywood gets back up to full steam. As for particular titles, that will have to be determined once we get a firm opening date.”

Martin said a number of things are being done to prepare to open in a safe and responsible way for his staff and guests, such as requiring the staff to wear masks, reorganizing the way customers move through lines and adding reserved seating to maintain social distancing.

The movie posters display offerings at the Sunset Cinema in Pequot Lakes before it temporarily closed. Nancy Vogt / Pine and Lakes Echo Journal

Movie magic

Peysar’s first job at the Rialto Theatre in Aitkin when he was a teen was to run the movie projector. That was almost half a century ago, but his love of the movies — and the movie theater — hasn’t waned.

“The movie business is really a very enjoyable business, and over all of these years ... the contacts and the friendships of our customers — we have people who come from across the nation who will summer in Aitkin — we look forward to their return every summer,” Peysar said.

The theater added a concession stand to attract customers when television became popular in the 1950s, but Peysar said people will always love seeing a movie on the silver screen.

“If there’s a scene that makes people laugh, there’s nothing better than having an auditorium of laughing people … and certainly with these movies, there’s nothing better to have people exiting the theater at the end of the show with smiles on their faces,” Peysar said.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

Related Topics: MOVIES
I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write articles for the Wadena Pioneer Journal weekly newspaper owned by Forum Communications Co.
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