PHILIP, S.D. (KELO) — In the Gem Theatre’s long history, the past 15 months may have been the toughest stretch in 114 years of operation.
The latest hardship started in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt on new movies being released worldwide. Like many small businesses, the Gem Theatre found creative ways to pay the bills by selling concessions and holding onto local advertisers by putting ads on the Main Street storefront and popcorn bags.
One year after the start of the pandemic, a western South Dakota blizzard handed the Gem Theatre another blow. The light engine in the 9-year-old digital projector blew after an electric outage during a March 15th snowstorm.
“The electricity had gone out nine times. At some point, there must have been a power surge and our projector hasn’t worked since,” Gem Theatre manager Amy Moses told KELOLAND News. You can see photos of what the damaged projector looks like in the video below.
Moses’ parents bought the theatre in 2008 and it converted to a digital theatre in 2012 with a digital projector, new speakers, sound system, digital server and processor for a price-tag of $65,000. Moses said the theatre had just finished paying off the 2012 updates when the damage to the projector occurred.
After waiting to see if insurance would help cover part of the repair or replacement costs, Moses found out it would not cover electrical power outages or surges.
“The hours on our projector were really low for the age it was,” Moses said. “We’re only open four days a week and we only show one movie each of those days.”
Home to one screen and roughly 200 seats, a new projector for the theatre will cost nearly $44,000. Moses said she’s applied for three grants, with two grants contributing $14,000. The third grant was a “shuttered venue grant” but Moses said that process will take time.
‘It’s something not many small towns have’
Alongside the grant requests, the Gem Theatre is starting fundraising through a GoFundMe webpage, an upcoming Texas BBQ dinner free-will donation and now Gem Theatre T-shirts.
So far, Moses said the theatre has raised over $17,000 for ‘the only theatre around.’ Located in Philip, the county seat of Haakon County in western South Dakota, the Gem Theatre is the only local theatre for 80 miles in all directions (Faith to the north, Martin to the south, Rapid City to the west and Pierre to the east).
“It’s something not many small towns have,” Moses said. “We don’t have a lot of things for the young generation to do in our town. It’s a safe place.”
In addition to the community of Philip (a population of 850 from the 2019 census), Moses said people and groups from Kadoka and Wall utilize the Gem Theatre.
“They come from everywhere,” said Moses, who mentioned people have shared memories of first kisses at the Gem Theatre. “It’s not only Philip that benefits from the theatre.”
The Gem Theatre traces its history back to 1907 when the town of Philip was founded. It most-recently operated on a Friday through Monday schedule.
“Our theatre is not a money maker,” Moses said. “We all donate our time to do this.”
According to Moses, the Gem Theatre first showcased live theatre followed by silent movies and then “talkies” which were the first movies with sound.
“We were the only theatre between Rapid City and Watertown in 1929 that had talking movies,” Moses said. “That was a neat thing.”
The building has hosted a variety of community events from graduations, fashion shows, post-prom movies, church youth groups, birthday parties and an annual Santa Claus visit.
For people interested in contributing to the fundraising, Moses encouraged the GoFundMe website or contacting the Gem Theatre directly.