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Posted on Thu. Dec. 26, 2013 - 12:01 am EDT

Saving the Strand? Kendallville theater needs digital projectors

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The Strand Theater in Kendallville is looking for a little help.

The theater still uses film projectors, but after January movies will no longer be released on film. Technology in the film industry has gone digital, and to keep up with the times the theater needs to purchase two digital projectors. The cost is $114,000.

Bruce Babbitt, owner of the Strand, said he had planned on closing. He owns the Silver Screen Theater in Garrett and leases the Auburn-Garrett Drive-In. He had found two philanthropists in the Garrett area who were willing to buy a projector for the Silver Screen Theater.

He planned on investing in one for the drive-in, which he still sees as a viable business investment. To replace all four projectors is beyond his means, and he said it just didn't make any sense in Kendallville.

“We knew this day was coming; it probably would have happened sooner if the recession hadn't tied up the credit for a lot of the big movie chains, but as the economy improved, the big chains began converting at a rapid pace. We have been told by distributors that next year is it,” Babbitt said.

Since he bought the theater in 2001 and restored the theater, he has seen business slow. The years before the economy took a nosedive were pretty good – after all, where else can you go to the movies and only pay $4.50 a show for an adult ticket?

But that changed with the downturn in the economy, and seven years ago, a new theater built in Auburn had many more choices of movies. Despite the cost savings in Kendallville, they have only two theaters. Netflix and Redbox have not helped their traffic, either, and Babbitt has been adamant about not raising his ticket prices. He said he did raise his concession prices a bit and simply held back from doing anything else.

Enter Diane Peachey and a group of concerned residents.

Peachey, a retired investment banker, was involved in the downtown redevelopment project in 2011. HyettPalma, a specialist in downtown revitalization based in Alexandria, Va., was hired to do a study on what would revitalize the downtown area, which helped a committee of local business owners and professionals create an action plan.

One of the top items in the study was to retain the Strand Theater as a downtown anchor. Peachey firmly believes if the Strand goes, the economic health of the downtown will be seriously threatened. So she and a group of locals formed the nonprofit Strand: Keep the Lights On committee to raise funds to buy the needed projectors.

Peachey is chairman of the committee, which includes Mike Gordon, Zach Hayden and Tom Hullinger.

“We have the Kendallville redevelopment commission behind us, which is how we were able to form a nonprofit to do this,” Peachey said.

They have applied for grant money through the Dekko Foundation and are hopeful they will receive it; they should know by early December.

The Mayor's Youth Advisory Council, made up of middle school and high school students who are also involved in supporting the theater fundraising, will have $20,000 of the total $50,000 grant request. Those dollars will be used to match the donations they receive from the public. The two requests combined total $50,000, which would go a long way in their fundraising efforts.

They also are waiting to hear on two smaller grants, one of $1,000 from P.U.L.S.E. of Noble County (youth group at the Noble County Community Foundation) and $1,500 from the Amelia Frehse Charitable Trust at Peoples Federal Savings Bank.

They have raised $35,000 through events and donations. In November a 5K run raised $2,500.

Zion Moulder of the advisory council said that when he heard about the problem it seemed like a top priority for their organization.

“I do believe if the Strand … goes, the downtown would be dead,” Moulder said.

Sam Meyer, president of MYAC, said they have been canvassing local businesses for donations as well as applying for the matching $20,000 Dekko Foundation grant. There are about a dozen middle school and high school students in the group.

Abigail Stephens said the East Noble High School History Club has gotten involved and is using social media to get the word out about the fundraising. Its members have a Twitter account they use daily. They use Instagram to post pictures of items in the theater and then show a zoomed-out view the next day to get people to guess what it is, and they recently started a Facebook page.

Ray Scott, president of the history club, said they recently visited a nursing home and had the residents reminisce about their experiences at the theater. They used those memories to write a story for the Knight's Scroll, the high school paper. That story was then published in the Kendallville Sun.

Peachey said the Strand Theater is 123 years old; it first opened in 1890 as the Spencer Opera House and is one of the few continuously operating theaters in the country. The League of Historic Theaters told her it might be the seventh-oldest in the country.

Over the years the building has been redone, with the last renovations taking place after Babbitt bought it. The once-large auditorium and balcony were divided into two theater spaces by the previous owner in the early 1980s. One is slightly larger then the other. Babbitt replaced the carpeting, paint, curtains, seats and flooring. He also renovated the bathrooms and front lobby and replaced the roof, heating and cooling systems after he purchased it. In each theater he replaced the sound systems and added speakers.

“There was standing water in the projection room,” Babbitt said.

Despite all the work he has put in, it is an older structure, and Babbitt said the building takes constant maintenance.

“We have put off some projects that will need to get done, but I was fearful raising my regular prices would alienate my regular customers,” Babbitt said.

The cost of the projectors is a “necessary evil” to keep the theater running, but as a businessman Babbitt said he doesn't believe even the ability to show 3-D movies and continue running first-run national releases will improve their traffic.

Despite Babbitt's outlook on the future, Peachey and local supporters firmly believe the Strand must stay open. Babbitt said the committee is beginning to explore what it would take to someday buy the theater and make it a nonprofit business in Kendallville.

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