Effort to save Higginsville movie theater gets $25,000 boost

Hold on to that “Town saves theater” headline.

The townsfolk of Higginsville, Mo., worked hard to win $50,000 in a recent Reader’s Digest contest, a cash infusion that would have gone a long way toward preventing their downtown theater from going dark.

They competed against local community projects nationwide, and although they didn’t hit the jackpot, they took second place and $25,000 in winnings. Not too shabby.

“We were pushing hard there at the end,” said Colleen King, president of Friends of the Davis Theatre 4, the group raising funds to keep the much-beloved Main Street cinema open. The 3.8 million votes cast online for the Davis was bested only by the town of Lake City, Iowa.

“We wanted that money bad,” King said. “But this is a good boost.”

Reader’s Digest is planning an award presentation for its “We Hear You America” contest later this month.

Donations and a variety of fundraisers that began last summer, including a recent volleyball tournament, netted about $18,000, King said, bringing the total amount raised to more than $43,000.

Unless the theater is equipped to show movies digitally, owners Fran and George Schwarzer have said they will have to shut the doors. Around the country, many small-town theaters, smaller suburban complexes and drive-ins are struggling with the same issue. The movie industry is phasing out 35-mm film and switching to digital production.

Theaters that aren’t digitized won’t be able to screen regular and 3-D movies. And the switch isn’t cheap. Equipping the main auditorium at the Davis would cost about $70,000. The total price for all four theaters is about $300,000.

“We’re starting to feel the panic,” King said. “The theater is a big part of our Main Street. It’s vital.”

When the Schwarzers began telling folks the bad news last year, the response was immediate: There had to be another way. Many in Higginsville, a town of about 4,700, have fond memories of the Davis since childhood, and the theater is still a part of local date nights and family nights.

The Davis already is feeling the ill effects of fewer movies available in 35 mm, Fran Schwarzer said. The theater was dark for about a week but will reopen Friday with “The Avengers,” a first-run movie.

“It’s happening sooner than we thought,” she said. “I’m very happy that people are understanding the importance of the theater to downtown and that we need to preserve our historic places.”

The theater building, once a livery, was transformed in the 1930s into a movie palace. It was a music venue for a time before the Schwarzers restored it as a movie house and added the three smaller theaters.

Plans are to save the Davis in stages, first digitizing the main theater — the Grand Lady — and to ready it for other performing arts events. Ultimately, the Davis would become a nonprofit community theater.

The Friends group is writing a business plan and acquiring nonprofit status, which will improve its chances at grants and donations. And the town’s homemade fundraisers will go on, King said.

“We are not stopping,” she said. “We will make this happen.”