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Iconic Polson theater expands with 70 years of history

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POLSON — Remember what if feels like to settle into a comfy theater seat, minus all the distractions of home (dogs, kids, the drone of a dryer) and – popcorn in hand – sink into a story on the big screen? 

Even now, amid a pandemic, audiences can indulge in that experience at the new Showboat Stadium 6 in Polson. And once inside, they’re apt to notice it doesn’t feel like the old Showboat. The six state-of-the-art auditoriums include deluxe stadium seating, excellent sound and high-definition screens. 

In addition to standard concession fare, the theater also sells caramel corn, made in-house. And those smaller one-stall bathrooms? They were replaced with spacious, tiled six-stall restrooms. 

What should have been a season of fanfare and celebration for Polson Theatres and the owners’ brand-new six-plex on Main Street has morphed into a quiet opening of an impressive new addition to downtown Polson. 

“We just didn’t see COVID coming,” said co-owner Becky Dupuis, whose parents, Howard and Ayron Pickerill, have owned the Polson Theatres chain since 1971. “A year ago, my projections looked totally different than they do now.” 

Her husband, general manager Gary Dupuis adds, “We opened the end of August with a very, very soft opening.” But stay tuned, they say. “When all the COVID stuff is over, we’ll have a big party.” 

The family-owned business, which also operates eight other movie theaters across Montana and in Salmon, Idaho, broke ground on the expansion project in August 2019. They had been eyeing Polson for an upgrade for several years, but the company’s 2011 conversion to digital equipment in all its movie houses meant they had to postpone the investment. 

“We knew we just needed to provide more screens here,” said Becky. “We knew people were going to Kalispell and Missoula and in general, the whole thing needed a remodel anyway.” 

The theater – originally called the Park – was built in 1950 by W.A. Simons, who also constructed The Wilma in Missoula. The new Showboat’s largest auditorium, with 171 seats, has the same footprint as that original theater. Another large auditorium seats about 130, and the four smaller ones seat around 70-80 people each. 

The biggest factor in deciding to go forward with a major expansion was community enthusiasm. “Polson has just always supported the theater for the size of town it is,” said Becky. “It’s a good show-going community.”

The couple said a large group of retirees with expendable income, an influx of tourists during the summer months, and loyal viewers from the tribal community all contribute to the theater’s economic viability. 

In deciding to ramp up to six screens, “We decided to build for the future,” Gary says. 

“In the end it was kind of go big or go home,” Becky adds. 

The family debated whether to build from the ground up at the new Ridgewater Development on Polson hill, or remodel their downtown venue. The latter plan won out. They purchased the adjacent parking lot from Glacier Bank, moved the building that housed the Chamber of Commerce, which they purchased several years ago, and broke ground in August 2019. 

Pandemic rescue package

They were well on their way when the pandemic struck last March. And by then, they were committed. “We certainly couldn’t have stopped half way through construction and said ‘we’re going to go back,’” Gary said.

Like many business owners, they expected a brief interlude before they could reopen their theaters. 

“We thought we were going to be closed two weeks, then another two weeks,” Becky recalls. But ultimately, all of their theaters were closed for three months. 

Four have since reopened; five remain closed until the pandemic eases, including Ronan; and two, in Shelby and Whitefish, are permanently closed. After shutting the doors from March until the end of August, the Polson theater has ramped up in stages, with the final two auditoriums slated to open before Christmas. 

To cope with the crisis posed by the pandemic, the Dupuis immediately applied to the Small Business Administration for a loan through its Payroll Protection Program and also received an Economic Injury Disaster Loan last spring. But by fall, the business was still hemorrhaging with little income and expenses mounting for the Polson remodeling project. 

When Becky read that the state of Wisconsin had a grant program tailored to help smaller movie theaters weather the pandemic, “I got on the horn to the governor’s office.” 

She was put in touch with Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, whose staff used existing funds to create a Montana Movie Theater Assistance Grant Program. 

“I’m eternally grateful to the state,” she said. “Those people are problem solvers and workers.” 

That infusion should help the company survive at least until early summer when the Dupuis hope people will once again emerge from their homes, hungry to see movies on the big screen. 

Still up in the air is the future of Ronan’s Entertainer Cinema. Although it’s not a moneymaker for the company, it does boast $100,000 worth of digital equipment, very comfortable seats, and room in the front where a band or comedian could perform. 

“I don’t want to just write it off. It’s a nice little theater,” said Becky. She wonders if it could do double duty as a movie house and smaller event venue. “We want to figure out how to make it work – how to keep it part of the community.” 

Renovation is a family affair

In some ways, the pandemic was helpful to the building process in Polson, simply because it’s much easier to remodel an empty theater than to try juggling construction while screening films every day. 

“It made this job go that much faster,” said Gary of the shutdown. “We were able to just blow into those two auditoriums, tear out the concessions and bathrooms and start going.”

Finishing the Showboat’s interior was a family affair, with parents, siblings and kids pitching in. “It’s a lot of hands-on work,” said Gary, looking around at the largest auditorium. 

The family crew installed seats and aisle lighting and hung speakers and screens, while local film producer David King offered to cut fabric for the acoustic wall panels.

“The construction people are just amazed at the work that goes into an auditorium,” Gary says. He adds that the entire construction crew “all stepped up to the plate and did a really good job.”

A changing market for movies

The theater owners find themselves in a decidedly different market due to the pandemic. Movie making has been on hold since last March and the films that were slated for release last spring and summer are just now hitting theaters. 

“Hopefully when we get going, we’ll just have so many great movies we won’t know what to do with all of them,” said Becky.  

At the same time, with so many people still stuck at home, the major distribution companies are now releasing films to theaters at the same time they introduce the movies on their own streaming platforms. 

“Our relationships with studios is symbiotic; we both need it,” said Becky. “We didn’t realize how hooked in we are until we didn’t have any movies. You can’t even try to make money when you don’t have that new product.”

It’s a strange equation with studios dictating to theaters which show is screened in which auditorium and for how long. The Dupuis are hoping, with six screens, they can offer more choices to movie-goers and keep the options fresh. 

Becky also looks forward to screening more independent movies, documentaries and art films. “In a town the size of Polson, there’s going to be a certain number of people who come to those kind of movies, and they’re usually very loyal.” She’s also hoping to show releases from film festivals such as Sundance or the International Wildlife Film Festival.

The Showboat will once again host the crowd-pleasing Flathead Lake International Cinemafest Jan. 29-31. The Dupuis say the six-plex will allow them to screen blocks of films in different auditoriums, while still adhering to social distancing requirements. 

The couple is also exploring other ways to use their new facility, including private showings, which enable someone to rent an auditorium for up to 20 people for $150 and watch a current film or one from the Showboat library. 

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Gary spoke to a family who opted for a private showing. “They said they enjoyed the fact that they didn’t have to wear masks inside and could talk to each other during the movie.” 

Keeping cinemas safe

Until COVID-19 recedes, the Showboat has safety mandates in place recommended by CinemaSafe, a program established by the Nation Association of Theatres Owners. Movie-goers must wear masks in the lobby and the auditoriums, except when eating or drinking and are encouraged to remain at least six feet away from other audience members who are not part of their group.

Every other row of seats is already cordoned off, and when movie-goers purchase tickets, seats are assigned to ensure social distancing of at least six feet between parties within the auditorium. 

All Showboat personnel wear masks, wash hands frequently and use hand sanitizer. Each auditorium is thoroughly cleaned and disinfected between showings, including seats, armrests and cup holders, as are restrooms, door handles and lobby seating. Plexiglass barriers separate ticket takers and concession staff from customers. 

Since seating has been reduced to about 30 percent of capacity, there’s little risk of encountering a crowd. “We’re doing everything we can to make it a safe environment,” said Gary. 

He recommends that those who are especially vulnerable or concerned about COVID attend during the week and consider a matinee. Show times are 4 and 7 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 1, 4 and 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

“Theoretically, going to a movie in Montana is one of safest out-of-home experiences you can have,” said Becky.

And so far, the movie-goers who have ventured into the new theater are enthused about their experience. “The feedback is ‘we don’t have to go to Kalispell and Missoula any more; we’re in the big city now.’”

Learn more about the Showboat at polsontheatres.com. 

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