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Madison, Minn., theater scripting its own destiny; it's now showing in digital format

A fundraising drive collected over $106,000 and made it possible for the City of Madison to complete a $130,000 project to fully digitize the Grand Theatre. Submitted photo

MADISON -- Madison's solution to the digital divide is pretty old-fashioned: Everyone chips in to make up the difference.

In this case, patrons of the Grand Theatre and plenty of others donated more than $106,000 since a fund raising project was launched one year ago.

The donations were combined with funds provided by the city of Madison -- owner of the Grand Theatre - and made possible a $130,000 digital conversion to the two-screen movie house located in the heart of the city's downtown.

Two weekends ago, the Grand Theatre showed its first digital format movies, while also treating patrons to the improved quality made possible by the new Dolby sound systems and new screens in each of the theater's two auditoriums.

"Night and day,'' said Maynard Meyer, who operates the theater and helped lead the fund-raising effort. He knew that the new sound system was living up to its hype when the woman in front of him literally jumped out of her seat in one of the explosions featured in the movie "White House Down.''

"I couldn't have picked a better move to introduce the new sound system with because everyone was totally amazed, including myself,'' said Meyer.

Those were his exact sentiments a year ago too, when the city hosted a block party to launch the fund drive. Over $30,000 was raised that very first night.

Hollywood is phasing out the release of 35-mm film and essentially forcing theaters to upgrade to digital systems if they want to show new releases.

Madison realized that it needed to raise the funds to make the upgrade possible, or lose its popular movie house, noted Meyer.

"The towns willing to put their money where their mouths are and do something about their problems instead of just sitting around and complaining about the demise of small towns are the ones that are going to be around,'' said Meyer.

He said hundreds of people and organizations donated to the cause in Madison. For sure, many donations came from people who appreciate the opportunity to see movies on the big screen.

But there were also lots of donations from people who realize the value of a movie theater to the community's economic vitality, and never set foot in the theater, said Meyer. In fact, the biggest donation of all -- for $5,000 - came from a Madison native now living in California.

The timing was right for the conversion, as the theater's film system was approaching the point where it needed to be replaced or upgraded. Meyer and Jim Helgemo were the only two people in the community trained and able to operate the cranky system. One or the other had to be present every night.

Now, it takes little more than a push of a button to bring the shows of Hollywood to the 330-seat theater. The first floor auditorium holds 190 seats, and its new, silver screen will accommodate 3-D movies.

Meyer said movie patronage has been up since the new digital equipment was introduced. He's noticed more out-of-town patrons as well.

The best is ahead. This theater sees its best crowds during the winter months.

Meyer knows the local passion for the theater experience well. "We even run during the blizzards,'' he said. "Even if the roads aren't plowed people just for kicks will put their boots on and tromp on down to the theater to see a movie, so we get over there and fire it up.''

The popcorn is better than anything you can make at home, said Meyer, who added that ticket prices are still a bargain too. Ticket prices remain at $5 or $4 on Monday discount night.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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