HARMONY, Minn. (WCCO) — New technology may end up forcing a historic Minnesota theater to close its doors for good.

The JEM movie theater in Harmony, Minn. needs to convert to a digital projector in order to stay in business but that comes at a hefty price — $75,000, to be exact. And that’s money the couple who runs the theater just doesn’t have.

Harmony, Minnesota has a population of 1,080. The small town hasn’t changed much over the years. The downtown looks just like it did in the 1920s.

But within the old pictures and newspapers is a history of “The JEM” movie theater.

The theater opened with silent films in the 1920s. A few years later, 93-year-old Merlyn Hoiness worked for Warner Brothers and would count the number of people who attended each movie.
He would then report it to the company so they could collect their percentage.

“I saw ‘Trail of the Lonesome Pines’ a 120 times,” Hoiness said. “It got to the point it was almost running through my head.”

The theater burned down in that location in the 1930s. A new owner opened it back up, next door, in 1940.

“I tell my grandson, it’s where grandpa and I held hands and watched all the movies,” says Marilyn Trouten, Harmony’s tourism director.

She’s trying to help the current owners, Michelle and Paul Haugerud, keep the theater open.

The film industry just informed them that within the next year it will no longer provide theaters with 35mm film. In order to stay open, they will have to upgrade to digital. They say that costs $75,000 — a price they can’t afford.

“We’ve always kept prices low so families who are financially hard shipped can still get their kids out of the house,” Michelle said.

She and Paul have owned the theater for nine years, while continuing to work their full-time jobs.

“Even if we raise prices, that just means the film company gets a bigger percentage,” she said.

They hope to raise funds and get people from other Minnesota communities interested in their small town theater.

If you can help, you can find information at their website.

Comments (15)
  1. M says:

    Just another angel of big business trapping and forcing people to change in the name of making more money.

  2. Brian says:

    This kind of stuff is why I stopped going to movies. The magic is gone. It’s all about me spending $20 on a ticket and a soda to watch a movie the same way I would at home. Surround sound and digital projector. These digital projectors just don’t have the same feel as film.

  3. Jay says:

    This is very similar to when movie theaters had to install sound equipment in the late 1920’s. Many smaller theaters went out of business then because they couldn’t afford all the equipment needed for sound films. Digital projection is slowly becoming the standard, pushed by the big film distribution companies. If there isn’t a way for small independent theaters to get financing to do the digital upgrade, many of these small businesses will close.

  4. Dale Gribble says:

    Why are my tax dollars paying for this? Socialist Minnesota!!!

  5. Sara says:

    Dale – what ? Where does it say that????????

  6. Maynard Meyer says:

    We run the Grand Theatre in Madison, Minnesota (Pop. 1,600) and we are also in the process of raising funds for digital projection to keep the theatre rolling. Like it or not, digital projection is here and those theaters who don’t convert will be out of business. The Grand has been going since the early 1900’s and has always enjoyed great community support when changes need to be made.

  7. GodsCountry says:

    OK number 1, Dale what are you smoking?? i know for a fact this is a privately owned/operated theater as i am from the harmony area.

    Number 2:
    this is truly a historic site to the town. it’s good to see this story out there and have people aware of it. there aren’t many theaters out there any more that you can see a movie and buy treats for UNDER $10!!

    Number 3. PS- their popcorn is amazing!

  8. Harris says:

    Dale’s comment: another case of someone commenting on a story they didn’t read. This is the last theater in Fillmore County and it would be a shame to see it close. Cost is about $4 and the popcorn is great. I grew up in Harmony and have many good memories of the Jem. Free shows and candy during Christmas were great. Had my first real kiss there!

  9. Susan Holst says:

    We have been taking our kids there since they were very youny. Now they are able to go on there own. It would be a shame for it to close.

  10. Gardoglee says:

    This is not just an issue in Harmony, but all over the country. Stories are popping up from every state of theaters and even a few remaining drive-ins which will be forced to close if they cannot come up with the price of a digital upgrade. One question I have is whether the film distributors will still provide older films for re-release in 35mm format, or whether those will be converted to digital. If they will not be converted then since most theaters will be required to remove their exisiting 35mm projectors to install digital projectors, it would effectively make older films only available on television and online video…which, since several studios also now have their hands in the cable and online video businesss seems a bit too convenient.

    1. Jay says:

      Production and distribution of 35 mm prints is much more expensive than digital. The distributors are gradually producing fewer 35 mm prints for distribution since it is a big savings for them. There are other advantages, such as being able to play the movie digitally any number of times will not degrade the picture or sound. Once a distributor decides to release the film in digital only, any theater with only 35 mm projection is shut out. In other word, the film-only theater will no longer have that “product” to sell. The success of any theater, especially those with only one screen, depends on being able to book popular films. Like any business, if you can’t sell any popular products, you’ll go out of business.

  11. Sarah in Outstate MN says:

    I live within 30 miles of this theater and have seen many movies there. I hope it doesn’t shut down.

  12. Hank Hill says:

    There are very RICH folks in Harmony such as the owners of Niagara Cave & Harmony Enterprises to name but a few.who could underwrite this improvement- but there is very little harmony in Harmony as you can see from the vacant storefronts on main street.

  13. zachary says:

    I grew up going to this theater and hearing the film go a watching a real movie how it should be is the best feeling in the world. My grandma and grampa held hands for the first time its a major part of the city and even more to my family.

  14. Stanley Krute says:

    Here in Yreka, Siskiyou County, CA, we’ve had a husband and wife operating our small theater, the Broadway Twin, for almost 40 yrs. Just spoke with the owner today, and he’s put the theater on hiatus while he finds some way to deal with the same issue. His film distrbutors won’t be providing film copies after Sept. 1st.

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