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Hollywood in Hendricks: Little town's big fight to re-open old movie theater

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It's a heartwarming story straight out of Hollywood, of a community seeking to revitalize a tiny town fighting for its existence by rebuilding their local movie theater, which closed over 40 years ago.

Only this story isn't the figment of a screenwriter's imagination, but the very real tale of the people of Hendricks, Minnesota, who are hoping boom times will return to their Main Street by bringing the former Lake Theater back into permanent use.

The theater shut in 1972 as a result of a declining population and the growth of television, but it could have a new life under the name of the Red Barn Theater thanks to a community effort led by three friends, Gary Johnson, Ron Rybinski and Jay Nelson.

Each of the project's main players have a significant role in the town: Johnson is a school board member charged with helping the local school function and grow; Rybinski runs a community garden that supplies the town with free or low-cost vegetables; while Nelson takes on responsibility for the entire town, as the mayor of Hendricks.

Between them, the community and local sponsors, they have managed to raise enough money to make a serious start on the project with local support, reported in the Hendricks Pioneer.

But they will need another $60,000 more to fully finish and re-open the building, though $20,000 should at least be enough to buy the equipment needed to show films. A GoFundMe campaign has been launched to help raise this amount.

Not only do the trio hope to create a building that will drive more people to the town – which has a population of just over 700 – but one that also represents a modern take on the character of the area and its people.

"We're recreating the feel of being on a farm," Nelson told Bringmethenews. "But creating this feel from art and interior design."

"We're using objects found on area farms, but in ways people may not expect. Attendees will feel more like they're entering an urban loft than a rural theater."

He continued: "Purposefully, the theater is designed to be something you wouldn't expect to see in a small town. There's symbolism here, for visitors to Hendricks find the town offers much more than what they'd expect in a small town. ... Our main motivation is to add to our quality of life, and to help attract families with children to Hendricks. Another positive will hopefully be an increased foot traffic for our business district."

Town's fight to remain relevant

The town, which sits just a stone's throw from the South Dakota border, has had its fair share of struggles in recent years.

Its residents had to fight tooth and nail against state plans to dissolve its local school district in 2012, MPR reported, which came after the town chose to open its own high school so kids no longer had to travel 12 miles to Ivanhoe every day.

More recently, the town has learned of plans to open a massive dairy farm upstream from the town's Lake Hendricks, which Nelson fears will result in runoff from an estimated 26.1 million gallons of manure it would create going into the lake.

"Lake Hendricks is a very shallow lake fed by surface water," he told KDLT. "We're exceptionally susceptible to runoff and so that's where are concerns are based."

Any impact on the lake would be bad news for the town, which has recently completed a re-branding effort with help from Pizza Luce marketing director Corey Sax, entitled "Hendricks – the Little Town by the Lake".

And like many of Minnesota's more rural areas, it has suffered from a declining population in recent decades as people choose to stay closer to the cities. Along with the creation of the high school, the re-opening of the theater would be another way of attracting much-needed youth in the town.

Building work progressing

Nelson describes the former Lake Theater as a "non-descript" building when it first opened in 1938, when it would not only show movies but also had a large stage for vaudeville acts. This stage is also being rehabilitated with the hope of using it for live musical performances.

Several local community members clubbed together to buy the building in mid-2013, and though last winter's weather delayed the start of the rebuild until late March, much progress has been made since then.

"When we began the rehab, we had three solid structural walls but everything inside had incurred problems from decades of roof leaks," Nelson said. "There was a strong stench of mold and ceiling tiles dangled from above.

"We gutted the building and jack-hammered out half of the original cement floor. We're finishing up the rehab now."

The reaction from the community has been nothing short of incredible, Nelson says, with people giving not just their money but also their time to help get the place built.

But the job isn't finished yet. More money is still needed to finish off the work and get the necessary equipment to turn it into a fully-functioning theater.

The facade is the last thing that will be done, and if they reach that point then the Red Barn Theater will truly be the attraction Hendricks wants – and, maybe more importantly, needs.

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