MAYVILLE, N.D. – The marquis lights are on at the Delchar Theater in Mayville, but they are not illuminating any movie titles.
Although North Dakota movie theaters can be open, Delchar owners David and Heather Torgerson temporarily have closed the theater.
“We’re able to be open at low capacity, but we don’t have anything to market,” David Torgeson said. “The fact that we can be open is great, but we need new product.”
The dearth of new movies, combined with movie studios opting to stream the few films that have been released in 2020, resulted in a lot of empty seats, said Torgeson, who owns the theater with Heather, his wife. Movie studios have released few films this year because they are concerned they won't be profitable during the pandemic.
Theaters and other businesses have been hampered this year by pandemic-related restrictions.
Initially, when the Torgesons – both of whom work at May-Port High School – reopened the Delchar in June, they showed classic movies at the theater.
They continued showing movies, including “The Wizard of Oz” and “Jurassic Park,” throughout the summer; in the fall, they featured Halloween movies. For the first several months, attendance was pretty good, Torgeson said.
But by November, the movies the Torgesons were featuring were on television and few people were going to the theater. It cost more to heat the theater and pay the movie fees than the couple were making in ticket sales. On Nov. 13, they temporarily closed the theater.
The three and a half months the Delchar has been closed this year represent the longest period the theater has not shown a movie since the Torgesons opened it in May 2014. They bought the theater, with a capacity of 222, from its previous owners for $1 in January 2014. The Mayville-Portland Economic Development Corp. then formed a committee to raise funds for theater upgrades, including a digital projector.
Tom Capouch, Mayville-Portland EDC secretary, chaired a camera committee that raised nearly $40,000 in private donations. Fundraising events and the EDC funded the remainder of the cost. The Torgesons also got a $20,000 no-interest loan for the theater upgrade, which also included a new screen and sound system.
The Mayville and Portland communities threw their support behind the fundraising efforts. It all demonstrated that the communities believed it was important to have a theater in Mayville, Capouch said.
“It’s a wonderful thing, especially for kids,” he said.
Since 2014 , the Delchar has shown movies in the theater Friday nights through Sunday nights or Saturday nights through Monday nights, depending on the local high school and college sports schedules.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Torgesons also rented out the Delchar for special events, such as private parties, meetings and school events.
From 20 to 40 customers came to movies during the evening showings, pre-pandemic, David Torgeson said. Attendance was especially high in 2019 when several blockbuster movies, including “Avengers: Endgame” and “Frozen II” were released, bringing in as many as 150 customers per night.
“That was a crazy year, which was good going into this year,” Torgeson said. The installation of the digital projector allowed the Delchar owners to show first-run movies, which increased the gate receipts.
“We started getting them a lot sooner and that really helped,” Torgeson said.
Besides the cushion that a good 2019 gave the Torgesons, the sale of popcorn also has helped the theater weather the last eight months. The couple have had several popcorn nights, which have been a big hit with customers.
“We started selling on weekends and the demand was amazing. … One day we had people lined up from here all the way around the corner to the alley,” Torgeson said.
During the popcorn nights, the Delchar has sold as much as 45 pounds of unpopped corn in a couple of hours, the equivalent of 70 large bags of popped kernels. The smell of popcorn lures in customers off the street, Torgeson said.
“You can smell it a block away,” he said, noting that he requested that the new popcorn machine he bought in May have a pipe added so that the smell would waft outdoors.
The couple plan to reopen the theater with limited capacity on Dec. 26, when they will show the new release “Wonder Woman 1984.”
“Everything is on plan and on schedule for that,” Torgeson said. Seating will be limited to 25%, or about 40 customers, to ensure they are socially distanced, he said.
The couple hopes that “Wonder Woman 1984” will be the beginning of more new releases, and that their customers will opt to go to the shared experience of watching movies at the Delchar instead of streaming the movies at home.
“I think it’s a way to find some commonality with the community,” Torgeson said. “It’s nice to take your family out and treat them to the experience.”