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The Last Picture Show

By Staff | Apr 28, 2013

It’s been a fixture on Blue Earth’s main street for over 80 years.

It has been a movie theater twice a newspaper production facility and an office building.

It has been called the Avalon Theater and then the Avalon Center.

Soon, it will be a pile of rubble and then an empty lot.

It was back in 1930 that the Avalon Theater was built and opened its doors to the movie-going public.

By 1940, it was so successful that the building was added on to. Seating capacity was increased to a whopping 600 persons.

“I think it was very successful until the latter 1960s,” says Blue Earth attorney Mike Johnson. “Then it was shut down and stayed closed for a few years.”

That is when Johnson and People’s Savings and Loan president Phil Miles, along with their wives, entered the picture.

“We were interested in getting it back open,” Johnson says. “Even though we had young kids at home and our full-time jobs.”

So, they bought it and did some remodeling, mainly limited to new carpet and paint. Miles was the silent partner, while Johnson managed the business.

In 1975, they reopened the Avalon Theater and showed the movie “Gone With the Wind.”

Admission to that first night’s showing was free, and the place was filled to capacity.

“We had a lot people come to the movies at the Avalon,” Johnson recalls. “But not nearly enough.”

He says they would have 30 to 40 on many weekend nights, sometimes as many as 100 on the first night of a popular movie’s run.

“The real problem was that the royalties to show a film were so high,” Johnson says. “Often it was a percent of the ticket sales. I remember the summer we showed “Jaws,” and we had good crowds. But the distributor took 90 percent of the receipts.”

So, despite a good run, the Avalon owners made no money on the highly popular movie.

“We were supposed to make money on the concessions, I guess,” Johnson says. “But we were selling popcorn for a quarter, and that just won’t do much.”

Heating costs were the other profit killer, he says.

“Often times our fuel costs topped $1,000 a month in the winter,” Johnson says. “And that is even when we just turned the heat up at 5 p.m. on movie nights and turned it back down after the show.”

After two years, the partners decided they didn’t want to lose any more money and ceased operating the theater.

“Blue Earth businessman Jack Montzka asked if he could run the theater,” Johnson says. “He leased it from us for about nine months, but it didn’t work out for him, either.”

In 1979, Miles had moved on to Mankato. Dave Bartels, a major local contractor, bought out his half interest in the Avalon Center.

“Dave had developed a contract with Darwin Oordt and Shopper Enterprises they were looking for more office space,” Johnson says.

The new partnership of Johnson and Bartels totally remodeled the Avalon building for the newspaper and advertising shopper company.

“We put in a false floor above the sloping theater floor, built nice offices inside and made it to their specs,” Johnson says. “They signed a 10-year lease with us, so we knew they were going to rent it for a while.”

After the 10 years were up, Shopper Enterprises built their own building next door to the Avalon, where the Faribault County Register is still located.

Bartels sold out his interest in the Avalon Center and Johnson became the sole owner turning it into individual office spaces. He had various tenants, as many as 12 at a time.

“Eventually I decided to get out of the rental business, and Olson Realty helped me sell it,” Johnson says.

Due to health issues, the new owner was unable to maintain the building. He used the garage area in the rear of the building to work on old cars.

A local group tried to resurrect the idea of having an operating movie theater in the building for a third try at the enterprise in 2007. But the idea never became reality.

After a few more years, a bank ended up owning it, then it was sold again, eventually ending up in the hands of the county for non-payment of taxes.

It was sold by the county at auction a few years ago, with plans to turn it into a center for Head Start kids.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and the building began to deteriorate rapidly.

“It is too bad,” Johnson says about the Avalon Center being demolished something that is scheduled to happen this week. “But, that is what happens, especially once the roof gets in bad shape. Once the roof is gone, the elements do a lot of damage in a hurry.”

In the case of the Avalon building, the city ended up taking over the property and now is paying to have it torn down, turning it into an empty lot.

“It became a safety issue,” says Blue Earth city administrator Kathy Bailey. “The cost to fix it up was too great, so the other option was to tear it down.”