Heidi Alberts shows the former employee memory wall, called "the wall of shame...er... fame," which is decorated with photos and signatures of all the young people who have worked at the State Theatre. The theatre serves as a first job for many youth in the area. Many have worked there throughout high school. Photo by Larry Dobson
Sisters Nicole Bjerke and Heidi Alberts (from left facing camera) talk with Melanie Dobson in front of the concession stand about activities at the State Theatre and about the challenges of making the $75,000 investment required to upgrade the theater from old-fashioned 35 mm film projection to digital projection. The upgrade was necessary because fewer and fewer films come out on 35 mm film each year. In order to show the latest shows, it was necessary to have the latest equipment. Photo by Larry Dobson
By Tara Lindquist
and Larry Dobson
Sisters Nicole Bjerke and Heidi Alberts are proud of their movie theater on Main Street in Kasson and appreciate all the local support that made it possible for them to upgrade from film to digital projection equipment last November. Without that upgrade, they would have been forced to close because few movies are being made on 35mm film anymore. Even with the upgrade, though, operating a movie theater in a small community is a financial challenge and it takes the kind of dedication these sisters make daily as well as the continued patronage of area movie fans.
Going to the movies has been an American past time since the first motion picture was shown at a music hall on 34th Street in New York City in April, 1896. Three months later, the first movie theater in a converted store opened on Canal Street in Louisiana. Three months after that, in October, 1896 the first motion picture theater in the United States was built. By the mid 1920's small town theaters were common throughout the United States.
On the evening of February 25, 1937, Kasson's State Theatre pulled up the curtain for the first movie to ever roll in Dodge County, and moviegoers gathered outside the front entrance paid twenty-five cents for adults, ten cents for children to see it. The theater was built by Henry Workman and managed by William Forkey. The theater featured sound absorbent material on the walls, and the projection and sound equipment were considered state of the art. Even the front of the theatre was considered a noteworthy achievement of modern architecture in the area.
The theater operated for 30 years but by 1967 television had become the popular American entertainment experience, and movie theaters everywhere were struggling to survive. Like many theaters in small towns, State Theatre didn't survive and closed in 1967. For the next 30 years the building served other purposes, including housing the Kasson Church of Christ, until the sisters decided it was time Kasson had a movie theater again.
Nicole and Heidi heard that the theatre was going up for sale and were urged to purchase the building and turn it back into a theatre. "Our dad (Harlan Jacobson) really pushed us to turn the building back into a theatre," Nicole explained. "An attorney set us up with a gentleman that owned a four-plex movie theatre and he helped us get started."
They purchased the building during the summer of 1998 and opened in November. "We did a lot of work to get the building back into a working theater again."
Throughout the remodel they worked on keeping the theatre as close to the original design as possible. "We took out false ceilings and found the old paint theme hiding and worked on restoring that," Nicole explained. "We redid the front entrance of the theatre as well."
They also had to take out a daycare room that had been put in near the entrance of the theatre to reopen the foyer for ticket and concession booths. The exterior of the building was done redone as well.
When they reopened the theater in 1998, movies were still coming out on 35mm film, which was run on film projectors and subject to problems that could be quite frustrating. As examples, during a showing of "Gone with the Wind," the film fell of the platter and unwound around the projection room. Another time, during a Harry Potter movie, there was scene with fireworks and right then the film started on fire. In that case, the audience at first thought it was just part of the movie, but it was the end that night's showing.
Today fewer movies are coming out on film because of the problems with film and the simplicity of digital. A couple years ago, the sisters faced the hard decision of either having to go digital or close the theater. Going digital came with a steep price tag, $75,000, and operating a small town movie theater is not a high profit business.
Movie theater tickets have gone up in price since those 25¢ adult tickets back in 1937, but very little of the ticket sale price actually goes to the theater owner. On a typical movie, the royalties the theater pays the movie companies ranges from 35% to 60%. The sisters said, when the Star Wars prequel came out, the rate was a whopping 90%.
Taking on an investment of $75,000 to stay open was a serious financial challenge. "There just aren't that many movie prints made in 35mm anymore," Nicole said. "We had to switch to digital."
Heidi and Nicole turned to the community they serve and let them know the theater was going to stay open. They began a fundraiser in December of 2011 to raise money to help offset the costs of the new digital projector system, starting with t-shirt sales and donation buckets set up in the theater. That raised $30,000. A generous local donor put up $15,000. A $25,000 low interest loan from the EDA and a bank loan helped finance the equipment upgrade.
"We are so grateful to everyone that has helped support us and the upgrade," Alberts said. "We still have to do updates to the equipment and we always will. There are software upgrades that have to be done every so often, but we are so thankful that we were able, with the help of the community, make the switch and keep the theatre open."
Almost 14 years to the day after the sisters opened the theatre, in November of 2012 the new equipment was installed. "We just hope people continue to come to our theatre to enjoy movies here," Alberts said. "We are so grateful to everyone who has supported us and who continues to patronize our business."
Many people do patronize the theater, 15-16,000 annually today, although it is fewer than the 20,000 who used to come when the sisters first opened it. They come for the theater popcorn and other concessions as well as for the movies.
State Theatre is more than just an entertainment center, it is also an important training ground for young people just starting their work experience. There are pictures of past high school student employees on a wall in the hall off the foyer. "Kids start at 15 and work until they graduate," Nicole said. She laughed, "They go off to college and when they come back, they look around and say, 'Wow, it looks just the same.'"
The theater is a family project, too. Heidi has three children, Ella, 14; Ava, 11; and Delia, four. Nicole has two, Jordyn, 15 and Rilee, 13. They work in the theater during the summer.
The theatre is open seven days a week. Monday through Thursday, the movie starts at 6 p.m. Friday and Saturdays there are two showings, one at 4 p.m. and the other at 7 p.m. Sunday has two showings, one at 4 p.m. and one at 6 p.m. On days with no school, the theatre often opens at 1 p.m. to show a free movie. It also does a daycare day during the summer months where they offer a free movie, one day a week, for kids of all ages. They also host group movie days and classroom movie days as well. "We've had girl scout groups go through here."
Heidi and Nicole said they enjoy operating the theater and through it contributing to the vitality of the community. They also enjoy seeing their former employees grow up and prosper after working at the theater. Operating a small town theater continues to be a financial challenge; they want to remind everyone that it is really important to support your local theater, as it is to support all local businesses, so they can continue to provide quality entertainment and youth employment.
To see what is playing go to www.kassontheatre.com or call 507-634-6300. See you at the movies!