Morris Theatre Celebrates 10 Years as a Co-Operative

Morris Theatre Celebrates 10 Years as a Co-Operative

By Tehya Wachuta, Feature Editor originally published in Issue 4, Volume 30 of The University Register on Friday, November 3, 2017

There’s something alluring about any movie theatre — the freshly buttered popcorn, the colossal screens, the stories which films transport the viewer through, the intimacy of the audience sharing an emotional experience — and the Morris Theatre is no exception. On the week of November 13, there will be a gallery exhibit at the Stevens County Historical Society to commemorate the Morris Theatre Co-Operative’s tenth anniversary.

Ten years ago, the owner of the Morris Theatre, Curt Barber, decided to sell the building and retire. In order to keep the theatre running, nearly 200 community members banded together and formed a co-operative.

Morris Public Library director Anne Barber, daughter of Curt Barber, was shocked at the community’s effort to keep her father’s theatre.

“It was crazy because they really pulled it together very quickly,” she said. “I’m very impressed that they were able to do that in such a quick fashion, and that they were able to learn how to build films and string film through the projector. To be able to do that with virtually all volunteers is very impressive.”

UMM English professor David Ericksen is the president of the board. He was first introduced to the Morris Theatre the day of his campus interview.

“I’ve always liked movie theatres,” he said. “When I came here for my campus interview, we were walking down the street and there was this little teeny deco theatre, and I thought, ‘This is great; this is gorgeous.’ So I said, ‘Can I go in here?’ It was the middle of the show, and the owner was sitting there. He used to run it by himself. I said, ‘This is beautiful. Tell me about this place,’ and he did. He was obviously proud of it, but it was sort of run-down, still is, and he took me up to the balcony. When we came here, we used to go to the movies regularly, and about seven or eight years after we got here, we heard the place was closing, and lots of people were going to buy and organize it. I was part of that original group, and I’ve been on the board since then. It was mostly because I really like movies, and I really liked that building.”

The theatre opened in 1940. Before that, Morris had two other theatres, the Orpheum and the Strand, neither of which were exclusive to films. The current theatre is one of the oldest buildings in Morris, which was another motivation for the co-op to save it.

“Morris had a bad spade of tearing down its old buildings; it doesn’t have as many as some small towns do, so I just felt like this one needed us, needed my help,” Ericksen said.

Communication, Media, and Rhetoric professor Barbara Burke is also part of the co-op. Movies are important to her, both professionally and personally.

“I’ve been a filmmaker; I’ve been a film scholar; I’ve been a media professor. I’m looking at [film] from different directions. But you don’t have to be a professional to just love movies,” Burke said. “Morris really has a lot of people who care about this community. People, and I’m one of those people, feel deeply about a sense of place and community that has been built around things like appreciating movies. Movies give us ideas that take us places we’ve never been; they tell us stories in ways that are vivid and memorable and lasting, even though a movie may only be ninety minutes long.”

Burke finds that the theatre is an important part of the Morris community.

“[The theatre] is important socially,” she said. “It’s a place that you can say you’ll meet your friends, get together. Tons of community teenagers go there for their first date. They get their first job there. They can go there without parental supervision. I’ve seen kids ride their little bikes over, go see the kid movie, and feel all grown up. That’s an important thing we have in small town America that we shouldn’t give up.”

Ericksen agrees that the theatre is an important place for a variety of people to come together.

“[The theatre] ties people together,” he said. “When I’m sitting there on a Tuesday night, college professors, students, retirees, people who have lived here all their lives, people with less education, people with more education, they all see the same movie. We need more experiences like that.”

Burke feels that the large screen a theatre offers is is a prominent part of that experience.

“The amazing stories you see on the big screen are really different than watching on a computer screen or something smaller. The big screen is still a visceral experience, and it’s a collective cultural experience when you’re sitting in a room with people and they start laughing; suddenly the movie is funnier.”

Barber, like Burke, believes that watching a movie in an audience creates an entirely different atmosphere than one would have watching the same movie alone.

“It’s essential to have a movie theatre because it’s a place where people gather to share an experience, rather than just having that experience on your own,” she said. “I find that there’s a different energy when you’re in an auditorium full of people, watching the same thing, experiencing the same things.”

This personal connection is especially important to Ericksen, and something he feels our modern culture needs to value.

“Stories are important to me. We tell stories a lot of different ways in American culture, and I like them all, but movies are one that is changing. [A theatre is] one of the places that a communal experience of storytelling still takes place. I like the idea of trying to keep that going. It makes for connections, and I think that’s important, the physical connection of being there, in that space together, but also the conversation [about the movies] is something that we need more of in the world today.”

The story of the theatre itself will be displayed at the gala opening on November 28 in the Stevens County Historical Society. Students in Burke’s Digital Media Production class have put together a video explaining the early years, middle years, and co-op years of the theatre’s history.

In addition to the gallery exhibit, the Morris Theatre will also hold a film festival in February where movie fanatics can purchase a package ticket allowing them to see multiple movies in a row. The theatre plans to show one movie which reflects life in the midwestern United States, a few family friendly movies, and a few quirky films which have been shown in the Twin Cities Film Festival. The theatre will also host the Ummies, the UMM student-made film festival, complete with jurors to decide which student-made films are best of show.

The theatre is currently adding a second screen, allowing two movies to be shown at once. Students can buy discounted movie tickets at the information desk in the student center for five dollars. The price may seem small, but it can be a significant support to a small business like the theatre.

“No matter where you’re living, even if it is for a short period of time, try to support local businesses like the theatre, the restaurants, [or] the small shops in town,” Barber said. “I’ve lived on and off in Morris all my life, and I’ve seen a lot of places leave for various reasons. It’s a really hard living, and I would encourage students to stop in and spend five or ten bucks because it really makes a difference.”

The Morris Theatre has had a long past, and it has a long future as well. The co-op welcomes students and community members alike to get involved — whether that be volunteering, learning to run the projector, or simply seeing a movie — and become a part of that future.

“It’s a place that’s been there forever,” Burke said, “and it could be your place, too.”

Photo courtesy of MPR News