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The Illustrious History Of The Fargo Theatre: Part 2

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The colorful history of the Fargo Theatre is a reflection of the people who have gone in and out of it. It’s understandably inevitable that once you explore the history of one part of the theatre, you’ll be reminded that you forgot to include a certain person or story associated with the theatre, all, in the hearts and minds of the public, seen as inextricably tied to the fabric of the theatre’s importance. That’s undoubtedly beautiful. For the theatre means so much to so many people that to forget a simple detail would be to minimize the memory of the joy contained within those walls.

Continuing from Part 1, we explore the major periods of the theatre and what it has gone through over the past two decades.

Growing Pains of the ‘90s

Through the late ‘80s and ‘90s Fargo experienced what the rest of Middle America experienced: The suburbanization of modern life. Cul de sacs, strip malls, and megaplexes became the norm. (If you drive around any portion of Fargo now, you’ll be greeted with more of the same.) In turn, downtown Fargo experienced a period of degradation. What was once revered as the epicenter of entertainment and commerce, fell to the wayside — the masses preferred to stay near their favorite chain stores and restaurants.

In 1997, Margie Bailly — a former Development Director for the Village Family Service Center — became the Executive Director of the Fargo theatre, overseeing the main theatre restoration project which took more than three years to fully fund and develop. At that time, curiosity about engaging in urban development increased.

In an interview with PBS, Bailly shared her experience.

“It was hard to know what was going to happen because it [the theatre] was part of a decaying downtown, quite frankly,” she says. “So, as would go downtown, so would go the theatre but we weren’t going to let that happen.”

In 1997, the Coen Brothers, critically revered filmmakers, released the film “Fargo” which was a massive critical and commercial success, earning the film two Oscar wins for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. The film — a gritty dark comedy about a car salesmen that plots to kidnap his own wife in order to collect the ransom money for himself— poked fun at our regional accents and endearing perceived naïveté. What the film did for the city was bring new eyes to our sleepy town and give urban developers and artists the license to renovate and expand downtown Fargo as a cultural point of interest.

A woodchip statue of Marge from the film Fargo
A woodchip statue of Marge from the film Fargo

In 2000, the plans were set to capitalize on the newfound fame by developing the Fargo Film Festival.

Developing a Film Festival

Ted Larson, a former Minnesota State University of Moorhead (MSUM) film studies professor, also became known as Fargo’s biggest film buff and historian. Larson’s legacy casts a long shadow. He created many memorable moments including Silent Movie Night and developed the Fargo Film Festival.

In 2000, the Library of Congress Film Preservation showcased their films in theatres across the country. Larson held a key role in the process of bringing the project to the Fargo Theatre. Acclaimed actress Janet Leigh, known for her iconic role as the woman in Psycho, traveled to the Fargo Theatre for the week long event.

Janet Leigh in her iconic role in Psycho
Janet Leigh in her iconic role in Psycho

The success of the event inspired Bailly, Larson and a host of other cinephiles and theatre faithfuls including the current Director of the Film Minor Program at Concordia college, Greg Carlson, who still deeply admires Ted Larson, his teacher and mentor.

In the fall of 2000, the team started to develop a film festival when, suddenly and tragically, Ted Larson died, sending a shockwave through the community.

During that same fall and before Larson’s death, Carlson worked with his mentor to teach production courses and supervising labs.

“It was a really shocking and chaotic in the history of the film program,” Carlson recalls. “I was really kind of discombobulated. Ted had been in my life for many, many years and I worked closely with him and I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do.”

After Larson’s funeral service — which was held at the Fargo Theatre — Bailly and many others decided to finish their project in Larson’s honor.

“Fortunately, Rusty Casselton, who was also one of Ted’s students, and someone who would call Ted their mentor… told me that ‘no one is going to send you an engraved invitation to the film festival,” Carlson says. “You just need to step up and do things,”

In March of 2001, The Fargo Film Festival debuted. Strategically scheduled between the Cannes and Sundance Film Festival, the event attracted 30 entries of juried films.

The film festival’s organizers comprised its jury with volunteers. (A practice that continues today.) Its playful logo refers to the infamous woodchipper scene from the film “Fargo.”

Now the Film Festival has grown in popularity and reverence. The festival continues to showcase films nominated for Academy awards and attracts celebrities to accept the Ted M. Larson Award for outstanding contributions to the following areas close to Ted’s heart: film education, film production, film culture, and film criticism and history.

Creating the Two Minute Movie Contest

In 2001, Seeking to do his own counter-programing to the festival, Carlson started a short film exhibition at the now defunct Moose Lodge. John Lamb of the Forum referred to it as “UFFDA Style” which stood for “Underground Film Fest Dakota Style”. The idea was simple: Basically any movie, in any quality, could and would be shown if handed in at the right time.

“We had a policy that you could basically walk in with a VHS and you could play your movie. We had a timer so if it went over two minutes, that was it. We would move on,” Carlson says.

Bailly caught wind of the festival happening and summoned Carlson into her office.

“She basically said ‘I can’t have this competing with the Fargo Film Festival’ and I told her that we weren’t competing because we made sure it was happening after everything was done,” Carlson says.

Bailly then expressed her desire to include the two minute films in the official Fargo Film Film Festival.

“So, we’ve been operating like that ever since with the 2 minute movie contest,” he says.
The 2 Minute Movie Contest is now one of longest running short film competitions and massively popular with filmmakers of every experience level.

“It’s sort of an egalitarian, hodgepodge of movies where next to amazing high quality animation by an Oscar nominee a cell phone movie shot by a 10-year-old-kid [can be shown],” Carlson says. “I like that idea. Early on we used to say ‘Hey, if you don’t like the movie, just wait around two minutes and there will be another one’.”

Adjusting to the Digital Era

Shortly after the inaugural festival,downtown Fargo went into a period of revitalization (one still playing out in front of us) with the restoration of the Hotel Donaldson.

“Say it with me three times: Thank you Karen Stoker, thank you Karen Stoker, thank you Karen Stoker,” Carlson says. “The revitalization of downtown that occurred as a direct result of of hard work from Karen Stoker and her Hodo project and then, of course, all the other business that have followed in suit...all impacted the Fargo Theatre and Film Festival positively.”

The expansion and revitalization of downtown Fargo led to the adding of a second screen on the backside of the theatre in what was once a parking lot. This expansion help further expand the scope of the festival and the type of independent features and shorts that could be shown.

Still, while exciting things were happening for the theatre and the area, the theatre struggled to make ends meet from 2009-2012, often running a deficit running between $80,000-150,000 any given year. To make things worse, film distribution was changing with the times. In 2012, Hollywood all but ceased to distribute actual celluloid which it had for almost 100 years. A new digital era arrived, leading to a new existential threat for the theatre.

Emily Beck, the current Executive Director of the theatre, experienced this drastic change after she accepted the role in 2011.

Executive Director Emily Beck in front of the famous marquee
Executive Director Emily Beck in front of the famous marquee

In an interview at the time with the Forum she said: "This mandate has come down from the industry, and they've definitely drawn a line in the sand," Beck says.

This led to a capital campaign to convert the theatre from film to digital projection. The momentous cost of the project, $200,000, forced many small theatres throughout the country including the budget theatre in Moorhead called The Safari to close.

But The Fargo Theatre completed the necessary updates and is still able to compete with other theatres in the area including the megalithic Marcus theatre chains Fortunately, The Fargo Theatre and its inclination to dazzle and entertain, will always have a form of showmanship that you can’t attain from corporatized multiplexes.

“We hear a lot of stories from people stopping by and they either worked here when they were young or we’ll get couples celebrating their 40th or 50th anniversary and they’ll tell us that this was the place where they had their first date,” Beck says. “Grandparents now bring their kids to the Kids Series so it becomes a generational thing which I love. I think the history makes the place unique but I also think our programing makes us special.”

The Fargo Theatre, for all of its celebrated importance, will always be remembered by its patrons for being a place where you could see dreams unfurl before you. And that’s the point, in the end. No matter what you think, no matter what you do, what’s most important is who is sitting next to you.

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