FARGO — For nearly the past four months, the Fargo Theatre, the highlight attraction of Fargo, if not all of North Dakota, has been dark.
The downtown landmark closed March 18 to help in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak, and for the most part, only staff has been inside since.
“It’s been so quiet. It’s just not the Fargo Theatre without the people here,” says Emily Beck, the operation’s executive director.
It may be relatively quiet, but there’s one thing she hears over and over: “When is the Fargo Theatre reopening?”
Beck says two factors will determine when the Fargo opens its doors: the health and safety of guests and staff, followed closely by the availability of films to screen — both of which are uncertainties at this time.
“We’re waiting for the right combination to come about,” she says.
She says a date to reopen has been set a handful of times, only to be moved back due to renewed health concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19.
As the pandemic continues to rage, film distributors have either postponed releases or pushed them to online viewing services as many theaters around the country — including the Marcus Theatres chain that owns Century Cinema and West Acres Cinema in Fargo and Safari Cinema in Moorhead, have yet to reopen.
While some Fargo patrons have suggested the theater screen classic films until contemporary titles come back, Beck says classics can be spendy to show, though the Fargo may do that for a soft reopening.
Beck says one silver lining of the closing is that staff members have been able to undertake some projects that would be hard to tackle if there were people around, including adding wheelchair seating closer to the stage for live performances.
While cleaning the facility, the staff also recovered some historic items, including programs from the 1920s and the original blueprints for the building.
Indeed, Fargo Theatre employees have been quite busy since the building closed to the public. Workers immediately shifted their efforts to seeking alternative revenue streams, such as grants, setting up an online store and even selling popcorn for curbside pickup.
“It’s been really popular,” Beck says, adding that nearly every time they offer it, they sell out. She estimates that popcorn sales alone have generated about $3,000 in revenue at $7 a pop since they started doing it in April.
A bigger amount is within reach. The Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau will match up to $50,000 in donations by the end of July. As of the time this article was written, Beck says the theater was only $1,000 away from meeting that goal.
The staff has also been busy with some projects that may not directly raise money for the theater, but keeps the organization and its patrons interacting.
“The day we closed our doors, I knew staying engaged with the community would be really important,” says Sean Volk, development and engagement manager at the Fargo. “When we realized people wouldn’t be able to come to the Fargo Theatre, we wanted to bring the Fargo Theatre to them.”
Volk and the staff organized Netflix watch parties, inviting people to simultaneously watch the same movie and comment online.
Volk and Operations Manager Nicole Larson also started hosting a virtual movie club to encourage discussions on particular films available to stream online. “If Beale Street Could Talk” was last month’s topic.
While Volk says some of the titles going forward may be more irreverent and fun — "Best in Show," streaming on Hulu, will be discussed on July 22 — Beck says the June selection was timely as it opened up dialogue about race in America.
“It is our goal and intent of having that in movie club. It’s a wonderful way to start conversations,” she says.
Volk also started producing behind-the-scenes virtual tours of the Fargo, taking viewers backstage, under the stage and even inside the Mighty Wurlitzer organ, a feature an in-person tour group couldn’t view.
“People really miss the theater,” Volk says. “It’s been fun to hear people tell their stories of their experiences in the theater.”
Hearing back from people started happening the day the theater changed its marquee message to “Wash your hands & be excellent to each other,” the latter part a nod to “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”
“That was the day we closed and I was changing the marquee and feeling emotional,” says Beck, who still gets choked up talking about it. “I’ve always loved that movie and that line. I knew the marquee is such a visible landmark, and I wanted to give the community a lift.”
It wasn’t just a lift. It completely took off, going viral locally and then nationally, being retweeted by “Bill & Ted” screenwriter and then the film’s co-star, Alex Winter.
Staff members recently asked Fargo Theatre followers on social media to fill out a survey about their feelings on reopening. Beck says about 70 percent stated they felt “comfortable or very comfortable” returning to the building once a health and safety plan was implemented.
“It’s encouraging, but it’s not decisive,” Beck says. “It lets us know that when it’s safe and financially viable, they’ll be there. It’s nice to see that audiences miss us as much as we miss them.”