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Big screen debut at the Empire Arts Center

From left: Scott Pitts, Hal Gershman, Leonora Gershman Pitts holding son Murphy, Kathy Gershman and Willa Gershman Pitts. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

In a pleasant twist of fate, Hal and Kathy Gershman, who rallied to save a movie theater from demolition 20 years ago, will see their daughter's films displayed on the big screen in the very venue they helped to preserve.

The theater is now the Empire Arts Center, and it will screen a trio of Leonora Gershman Pitts films at 6 p.m. Tuesday. The event, which begins with a 5:30 p.m. social, coincides with the installation of a top-notch movie projector that will revitalize the Empire's ability to operate as a movie theater, Empire Arts Center Executive Director Emily Montgomery said.

The new equipment, paid for through a $10,000 grant from the Myra Foundation and $15,000 in individual donations, replaces a projector that dates back to a time after renovations were completed following the 1997 Flood, Montgomery said.

While the Empire has been a venue for the performing arts since the building's restoration after the flood, it first opened in 1919 as the New Grand movie theater, according to the Empire's website. The theater showed first-run pictures and later, budget movies, before it closed in 1994.

FILE PHOTO: The Empire Arts Center, during an event focusing on fentanyl, in May 2016. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)The shuttered Empire looked like it was slated for the wrecking ball when the Gershmans stepped in.

"It's going to look like a tooth gone in the front of the mouth if we create a lot right there," said Kathy Gershman, who couldn't bear to see a recognizable piece of downtown real estate demolished and replaced with a parking lot.

Hal Gershman contacted the Empire's owners at the time, MidContinent Media, who donated the building to the North Valley Arts Council for a dollar, he said.

At the same time, the couple launched a fundraising campaign in 1996 to turn the theater into a space for the performing arts complete with a stage, an orchestra pit and dressing rooms in the basement.

FILE PHOTO: Empire Arts Center. (Sam Easter/Grand Forks Herald)The community pitched in, even after the 1997 flood wiped out their initial renovation efforts, Kathy Gershman said.

"There were so many people in Grand Forks who were so excited to save it," she said. "It just exceeded our expectations."

While Hal Gershman expressed excitement at seeing his daughter's films on the big screen, Kathy said that the screenings served a larger purpose.

"Leonora's coming home to show her films, but it's not just for people to see them," she said. "It's to raise money for the theater."

Leonora Gershman Pitts. submitted photoPitts left Grand Forks to study drama at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She has appeared on NY and LA stages and in television shows such as "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and "The Grinder." Most recently, Pitt co-wrote and directed two short films, "God I Hope I Get It" and "Step 9," both of which she will introduce to audiences before the screening on Tuesday evening.

"We were really fortunate that Leonora Gershman Pitts actually offered to come back to Grand Forks (for the showing)," Montgomery said. "She's showing it free of royalties. We thought it was a nice way to have someone who's been successful in the film industry return to their roots here."

Although Montgomery said the theater hasn't planned out future film screenings yet, she hoped to show movies at the Empire several times a year. Films could range from old classics to indie films and kids movies, she said.

FILE PHOTO: Empire Arts Center. (Sam Easter/Grand Forks Herald)"We'd like to show movies that aren't going to be shown in town," she said. "We'd rather supplement the market."

Montgomery said there are plans to create a film committee to select which movies are shown. While the committee will include members of the Empire's board, there are openings for community members to join.

"We'd love any local film buffs interested in getting involved to come and help us," she said. "The sky's the limit now that we have a projector."

A previous version of this article reported an incorrect name for Emily Montgomery, the executive director of the Empire Arts Center. The article reflects the updated information, as of 10:45 a.m. July 12, 2016.

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