When you have an industry like movie theaters that is already experiencing a downturn in attendance, the last thing you need is a worldwide pandemic that makes people fearful to go into the public.
While the closing of AMC Classic 6 theaters in the University Square removes six of 18 screens from Mankato, options still exist for local moviegoing.
Cinemark’s Movies 8 in the River Hills Mall continues a full slate of first-run movie offerings, with Spotlight Theatres in the Mankato Mall adding four screens showing recent releases.
Minnesota State University had phased out its Mavflix program due to the pandemic. While the fall 2023 semester offered AMC movie night at the theaters adjacent to campus — offering such films as “Taylor Swift the Eras Tour” and “Barbie” — that is no longer an option.
“We hosted a couple student nights there, where we subsidized the movie cost to students,” said Bill Tourville, assistant director, Campus Programs. “Also, our in-person films program on campus has essentially stopped as well. Students just are not going to regular showings in Ostrander.
“We host movie-themed nights, trivia, special shows, film festivals still, but the weekly showings have gone away with the increase in streaming.”
When the Mankato AMC Theaters closed recently, locals who participated in discount programs were informed their new home theater, so to speak, would be AMC Eden Prairie Mall 18. The theaters are at 8251 Flying Cloud Drive. In addition to more screens, that location offers greatly enhanced accessories, said Cassie Nichols of AMC.
All theaters have upgraded recliners (the IMAX auditorium features rockers), and the concession stands offers a variety of selections, with favorites being pretzel bits, chicken tenders, mac bites and flatbread pizzas, Nichols said. Discounts include Tuesdays for all AMC Stubs members (no cost to join), as well as student, military, senior discounts and discount matinees daily.
Rich cinema history
Like most towns in the start of the 20th century, Mankato’s movie theaters were in downtown.
The Lyric Theatre opened in November 1921 on South Front Street, conveniently located diagonally across from the Saulpaugh Hotel. Described as “a new moving picture house just equipped with the latest conveniences for the showing of film productions,” an Oct. 31, 1921, Free Press story noted “expense has not been spared by the American Amusement company.”
The Time Theater opened Aug. 11, 1935, described as “a low-priced entertainment presented in modern atmosphere and surroundings.” Again operated by American Amusement, painters, decorators and seat installation men were completing extensive decorative work before a “gala opening.”
In North Mankato, the $60,000 Urban Theater was set to open in October 1936. It was said to offer “the very latest developments in motion picture and sound projection and elaborately equipped to provide the utmost in comfort and entertainment for its patrons.” And air conditioning.
Also in downtown Mankato, on South Front and Walnut streets, were the Grand, State and Town theaters. They stood guard over a content change in movies, with the Grand hosting the first X-rated movie, “The Exorcist,” in its hallowed halls.
These theaters supplied Saturday afternoon Western entertainment to generations of youngsters, and Saturday night date rendezvous for generations of teens and couples. Many of these theaters, which at several hundred seats would be considered monstrous today, were designed by Liebenberg and Kaplan, Architects (1919-1969).
They designed more than 200 motion picture theaters in the Upper Midwest, many featuring an art deco style. Their papers are now a part of the University of Minnesota’s Northwest Architectural Archives.
The 1970s, with development of the Minnesota State University neighborhood and Mankato Mall downtown, the large single movie theaters were replaced by multi-plex theaters. A Mankato native, Steve Menne, was hired to oversee the openings by Carisch Theatres.
“We operated the State and Town for a while,” Menne said from Arizona. “I started there right out of high school. I started there as an assistant manager, and that would have been in August of 1974.”
It was a memorable time, he said, because his first week was the last week of a nearly yearlong run of the classic, “American Graffiti.” Back then, studios only produced about 85 features a year, he estimated, so long runs like that weren’t uncommon. Also common were sold-out shows.
“Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, that’s when we had sell-outs. And you’d have to go into auditoriums and ask people to slide over to one side so you could fill up every single seat,” he said. The University Square theater, then called Cine 2, had 445 seats on each side.
When Cine 2 opened, University Square was, literally, a shell. Menne remembers having to go into a utility room to turn on the parking lot lights and walking past building walls that enclosed nothing. Stadium Road went past, but ended in a “T” intersection at Monks Avenue.
In 1978, Menne oversaw the downtown opening of Mall 4 Theaters, what is now Spotlight Theaters. It opened the day before the mall itself. Carisch also operated Taco Tina’s on the second floor, and the snack bar at the mall’s main intersection, at the bottom of the escalator.
Carisch also opened and operated Twin Star Drive-In off of Third Avenue two weeks after Mall 4. Menne remembers that one summer opened with the Kato Drive-In, west of Mankato on the south side of Highway 14, still operating. By the end of summer it was replaced by Twin Star.
Three times a year the drive-ins hosted dusk-to-dawn marathons: Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, and Fourth of July. It was a great time to enjoy the concessions not sold at the indoor theaters — cotton candy, hot dogs, ice cream and nacho chips.
Concessions drove revenue back then, too, Menne said, but it could also drive hiring. When interviewing prospective workers, they would be run through a 15-problem math test; if you didn’t get all questions right, you weren’t hired because bad math cost him money, he said.
“Well, first of all there were no cash registers,” he laughed. “There was nothing electronic, there was no credit cards. Everything was cash.”
Student employees were loyal and they were close — he remembers several married couples who met while working at the theaters. And while they may have avoided Friday night shifts in their earlier years, as college loomed and the need for money became more immediate, they were more willing to work all shifts.
It was not uncommon for people to sneak friends into the drive-in inside their car trunks, though some “lot guards” could spot potential cheaters and often enjoyed camping outside their vehicles. Off-duty police eventually were hired as hijinks turned more destructive.
The downturn in movie attendance is just the latest to hit the theater business, Menne said. So far, however, the industry has been able to adjust and survive. He remembers the good times and hopes young people will always have the entertainment outlet and opportunity for employment.
“It was a very fun job,” he said. “And I noticed a lot of high school kids, that was their first job. And like I said, I just remember working with a lot of good people.”