Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Keeping a small-town Minnesota movie theater open February 11, 2011

“WE’RE DOING IT for the community…it really is important to us to keep this asset in our community.”

Those words scroll across my computer screen like credits on a movie screen.

Credit for the above statement goes to my cousin, Tim Kletscher, who along with his wife, Susie, last week bought the DeMarce Theatre in Benson. With a $50,000 forgivable loan from the Benson Economic Development Authority and the promise of future investments, the couple signed papers that will keep this western Minnesota movie theater going.

The DeMarce Theatre, a long-time business in downtown Benson in western Minnesota, will remain open. The neon lights on this building are lit during movie times.

Larry DeMarce, 74, who has operated the family movie theater for more than 40 years, will stay on as manager. “He really is the face of the theater and really is a local icon,” Tim says. The theater has been in the DeMarce family since 1925 and is the only movie theater in Swift County.

For Tim, 38, an elementary school teacher, and Susie, 40, a stay-at-home mom, their purchase represents an investment in the future of a town which may have been without this entertainment option. DeMarce planned to retire soon and the time was right for the pair to buy into Benson.

“We bought the theater to keep it going, to help out the community, to provide a ‘part-time’ job for our kids when they are older, and for something for me to have when I retire from teaching,” Tim says. “It (buying the theater) was always something we’ve talked about the past few years, but never said anything to Larry until November.”

For the residents of Benson, population 3,376, keeping the theater open is good news. “Tim and I will be giving people a chance to take a break from reality, get out of their homes and help keep downtown Benson alive,” Susie says.

That’s important in this community, where the nearest theater is in neighboring Morris, in Willmar, 30 miles away, or Alexandria, some 45 miles distant.

Tim says the lower cost of attending a movie in Benson—current ticket prices range from $3.50 for children 12 and under to $5 for adults ($4 for seniors)—is part of the “big draw” locally.

Ticket prices may increase some after the Kletschers upgrade from obsolete 35 mm equipment to a digital projection system this summer. But they still plan to keep prices affordable, honoring the commitment the community has made to them, Tim says. If they go with a 3D projector, 3D movie prices will be a bit higher than a regular movie.

Yet, bottom line, this couple has their community in mind as they invest in its future. And Benson residents are assisting by contributing to the $50,000 Theater Legacy Fund, set up to repay the public investment.

I appreciate that small-town attitude, that depth of community ownership found in residents like Tim and Susie, who have called Benson home since 1994 and 1996 respectively. I’m not saying such strong connections don’t exist in bigger communities. However, in smaller towns, lives are so intertwined that residents comprise the threads woven into the fabric of a community.

While my cousin and his wife are planning electrical and technological updates to the theater building and maybe some new paint inside the lobby, they intend to maintain the architecture and feel of the building and keep the DeMarce Theatre name.

I haven’t seen the old theater, but Tim tells me there’s a stage in front of the screen.

My head is already spinning with possibilities. So is Tim’s apparently. “I’m hoping to get my buddy from Alaska, who’s a poet/storyteller, to come this summer and do a show. He used to teach here with me and he performs at the Fringe Festival in the Cities and in Kansas City. He’s hilarious,” Tim says. In the past, the local Dreamland Theater group and the White Sidewalls performed in the historic theater and the Kid Day Coronation happens here every summer.

Susie has ideas too. “As a parent, I realize there aren’t a lot of places in Benson for kids to hang out,” she says. So she wants to add more games in the lobby or perhaps upstairs. She’s also pondering rentals for Saturday afternoon birthday parties. “I feel I am kind of a kid at heart so that is where most of my thinking goes.”

I like the parental perspective Susie brings to the future of the theater. That can only benefit the families of Benson.

Tim and Susie plan to use this drawing of the DeMarce Theatre on their business cards for TSK Productions, LLC. Local resident and school secretary Pam Anderson created the art.

NATURALLY I WONDERED if Tim and Susie are big movie buffs, expecting that, since they have purchased a theater, they would be. I was wrong. With two young children, their movie attendance has been limited to kids’ movies.

Yet, Susie has her favorites, like The Sound of Music and The Ten Commandments, which she watched every year on her family’s black-and-white TV while growing up in Blue Earth.

“My parents didn’t take us to the theater…and we didn’t have a movie theater in Blue Earth (which is part of my motivation in wanting to keep the one in Benson going), but I do remember my cousins taking me to The Empire Strikes Back when I was around eight years old,” Susie says. “I recall them asking me what kind of “soda” I wanted and I responded chocolate…not knowing they meant “pop.” They were from Colorado and I hadn’t heard “pop” called “soda” before.

I loved the movie and I remember seeing Return of the Jedi later on…one of my all-time favorite movies. I loved the humor and the drama.”

Well, Tim and Susie, I expect you’ll see a lot more movies now that you own a movie theater in Benson.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


12 Responses to “Keeping a small-town Minnesota movie theater open”

  1. Dawn Tietz Says:

    This brother of mine and his wife have much more ambition than I would to take this kind of project on. Good for them. We all hope it works out for them. We will have to be sure to get to a movie some time at the theater. Maybe a family reunion would be a possibility?!?!? One brother ran for a state office, so now I just need my other brother to buy his cattle truck so he can haul elephants around like he used to talk about as a child. That one would deserve a blog too.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Dawn, I agree that this movie theater undertaking is ambitious. But I have no doubt that Tim and Susie will succeed, especially with the great community support in Benson. It’s interesting that you should mention a family reunion at the theater. I had thought the same thought. Great minds think alike.

      Readers, Dawn is referring in her comment to her oldest brother, Jeff Kletscher, who recently ran as a DFL primary candidate for the House District 5B seat in northeastern Minnesota.

      As for those elephants, please let me know when your brother Randy buys them and I’ll be there with my camera and notebook.

  2. Jen Remboldt Says:

    Living in Benson and knowing Tim & Susie (our children are the same ages); I wish them great success as our town needs the theater to remain open!! I commend them for stepping up and supporting our town!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      With the strong support of the Benson community and with the enthusiasm they’ve shown, I fully believe that Tim and Susie will succeed in their venture.

      Thanks, Jen, for stopping by Minnesota Prairie Roots with your comment.

  3. Terry Says:

    Way to go, Tim & Susie! If you haven’t already done so, watch The Majestic with Jim Carrey – it’s inspiring!

  4. Terry A. Says:

    Good for them! I used to live in Benson, so I’m happy to see it.

  5. Karen Vernon Says:

    I am really pleased to hear that the Benson theater will remain open. I purchased an old house in Holloway and will be moving in this summer. Benson is only 20 miles Holloway, so I know I will be a frequent patron at the DeMarce theater. Not only do I enjoy going to the movies, but I would truly appreciate the opportunity to listen to the White Sidewalls band or a comedy act now and then as well. I also think it’s great that Tim and Sue are interested in adding activities for kids which will keep them off the streets and out of mischief. Rural life can be very boring for the young. Thank you!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Karen, thanks for stopping by Minnesota Prairie Roots with your comments regarding the DeMarce Theater in Benson. I’m certain that Tim and Susie will appreciate your suggestions.

      The only thing on the comedy–I would suggest carefully screening any comedians under consideration. We’ve had several comedy shows at the art center/theater here in Faribault which were totally inappropriate for this venue and the targeted audience. I nearly walked out twice, and should have. From what I understand, “this won’t happen again.”

      With the support of the Benson community and the surrounding area, I think Tim and Susie can bring such entertainment to the DeMarce and succeed. The community seems very supportive.

  6. GrandmaJ Says:

    We are blessed that Susie and Tim are gracing our community with their foresight. They have big shoes to fill, the DeMarce Theatre has had many years to establish their name, but beyond the structure of a theater is the staff that makes you want to come back. “Mr. D” has been the showman since I moved here in 1973 and began taking my nieces to the Christmas free movies on Saturdays. From there we blossomed to our own 3 children, and now every available ‘child/family’ movie is seen by the next generation of grandchildren. Friday night movies are almost as regular as going to church on Sunday!

    I was fortunate to grow up in SD in a smaller sized town than Benson WITH a theater. And Sunday afternoon or evening was the time we planned to going.

    As Joni Mitchell says in “Big Yellow Taxi” ‘you don’t know what you got till it’s gone’.
    Let’s hope we never see that happen!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      You said it so well. All too often we don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone.

      When I talked to Tim today, I told him, too, how fortunate Benson residents are to have a theater. It sounds like the community is really supporting the DeMarce. And it takes community support in a small town to keep a theater, or any business, around. I expect great things from my cousin and his family.

      Thanks for sharing the sweet memories your family has of the DeMarce.

      • GrandmaJ Says:

        MR D aka Larry has been a family friend for many years. 2 of my sons at 8-11 were his ‘handymen’ at projects he would need assistance with. It started when they needed money to go to the movies–the best one to ask if he needed help was the source of their entertainment. This was the beginning of a friendship that has gone to the youngest being one of MR D’s day-off coverage for many years and he still changes the marque for them. Recent years of step-ins of the community came when his wife was in failing health and ultimate death and then he fell and broke his hip–WE all stepped up and kept his business going as well as took care of Larry. The community did this. And they would do it again, and again.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        This is what I love about small-town Minnesota. Neighbors helping one another. Thanks for sharing this story, too.

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