Higginsville fights to keep movie theater

Fifty miles east of Kansas City, here’s how a number of small-town folks experience movie night:

They walk from their homes to a downtown restaurant, and after supper they stroll down Main Street to the Davis Theatre. It’s a beauty, once a livery building, resplendent from a movie palace transformation circa 1934 and careful restorations.

Even the glass block concession stand, backlit in coral neon, is something to see. First-run movies are $7, and concession prices are a relief instead of a shock.

The movie house has longtime, loving owners, a married couple who greet devoted patrons night after night. To this day, the theater is a character in the real-life plot of Higginsville.

How could such a thing even exist in 2012? It might not for long. While the Davis has beaten the odds till now, it can’t defy a new antagonist: digital technology.

Movie studios are phasing out 35 mm film. Digital movies are vastly cheaper to copy and distribute. But that means theaters must have digital equipment to screen regular and 3-D movies, a cost of $70,000 or more per screen. Fran and George Schwarzer are indeed loving owners who also love their town, but they aren’t wealthy.

Total price tag to digitize the theater’s grand auditorium and three smaller rooms: $300,000. The couple started spreading the awful news that the Davis would have to close. But at a town meeting last summer, residents couldn’t bear the thought of it.

“No, no, no,” Michelle Wahlers-Anderson remembered saying. “That’s not acceptable.”

With the Schwarzers’ blessing, they hatched a plan — a long shot. They’d band together to save the movie house, raise funds for the switch to digital and ultimately operate a nonprofit community theater for movies and performing arts. They started last June and formed a fundraising group, Friends of the Davis Theatre 4.

Then along came the Reader’s Digest “We Hear You America” contest, providing new hope. Backers of town projects across the country submitted entries, and online voting will determine the winners. The grand prize is $50,000. Higginsville’s online voting drives have vaulted it into second place.

Wahlers-Anderson grew up in town and saw her first movie, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” at the Davis. Her parents and aunts and uncles all went.

“It was a big deal,” she said. “As a teenager, the Davis was my Friday and Saturday nights. It’s a part of me. I have children now, and my oldest is 14. I feel comfortable with her going there with her friends. I don’t have to worry.”

Vicki Thompson knows how she feels. Thompson and her husband are in their 60s and go to the Davis for date nights. Like a lot of folks in town, she had her first job at the theater, selling tickets when she was 13. Now she takes her grandkids there.

“I have to say that the Davis has the best popcorn of any theater anywhere,” she said. “George swears that Fran developed her own formula.”

Since June, Friends of the Davis Theatre 4 has raised about $15,000 through donation drives, benefit concerts, a Halloween carnival and, yes, bake sales. The efforts are impressive for a small town, but the total is far short of what’s needed. Townspeople are pushing hard to boost its standing in the Reader’s Digest contest. Voting ends March 1. Higginsville’s population is about 4,700.

“We’re thinking we can do this in stages,” said Colleen King, president of the Friends of the Davis Theatre 4.

The first goal is to raise $90,000 to digitize the main auditorium — the Grand Lady — and to make it ready for other performing arts events. It already has a stage and sweeping fringed curtains with a monogrammed “D” on each panel.

The Davis isn’t alone in facing the digital switch, which has been on the horizon for several years. Of the 39,000 movie screens in North America, about half have been converted to digital. Whatever theater casualties occur will take place in the next two years as the industry ends the use of 35 mm film.

Small-town theaters across the country have found ways to make the conversion or are in the midst of trying, said Brad Bills of Independent Film Services in Leawood. The most likely casualties will be theaters with a small number of screens in larger markets, he said. “It’s an interesting phenomenon,” Bills said. “People in small towns do not want to see their movie theater close.”

For the Davis, going nonprofit probably would have been a good plan from the start, Fran Schwarzer said. The couple never intended to make a big profit, and they haven’t. Mostly, she said, they break even.

The Schwarzers became almost-accidental theater owners in 1998. The Davis had served as a concert venue since the 1980s and was about to close. One plan was to raze the building for a parking lot. Higginsville needed someone to step up.

“We didn’t know anything about owning a theater, except for my selling tickets when I was 15,” Fran said. “I can remember sitting across from the banker and he said, ‘What if this doesn’t work?’ It was like somebody threw cold water in my face. I never considered that it wouldn’t work.

“We understood from the beginning that this was a service. You figure if you didn’t do another thing in your life, at least you did this; you made a difference in the community.”

From her childhood Fran recalled the murals of palm trees on the lobby wall. During the restoration they eventually found them under seven layers of paint, wallpaper and paneling. The Schwarzers installed new chairs in the auditorium and aired out the seating from 750 to 500. They saved several rows of the 1950s metal and fabric chairs at the back of the room.

In 2004, the Schwarzers expanded into the space next door and added three smaller theaters. On a recent Saturday night, one was showing “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” which is where Geri and Dennis Stewart were headed after saying hi to George in the lobby.

Fran was selling tickets that night, and teenagers were in the concession stand. George sets up the movies for screening, but his “real” job is as a water plant operator.

An artist and interior designer, Geri Stewart used a photo of the main auditorium’s interior from an old newspaper clipping to replicate the giant exotic flowers, long gone but fondly recalled, on the front wall to the left and right of the screen. It’s easy to see, said King of the Friends group, how losing the theater would leave a hole in the community, a historical loss and a present-day one.

Last summer, when the final “Harry Potter” movie was released, a crowd of 150, many in costume, gathered at the community center for a “Hogwarts” feast. Then they paraded a block and a half to the Davis for a midnight showing.

Pretty cool, King thought at the time. The movies — and their movie house — brought people together.

“It feels like home,” she said.