The last picture show
People around Beach, N.D., are bracing for what could be the last picture show at the Bijou Theater, a fixture in the town of 1,000 near the Montana line.
The Bijou's owner, Margaret Walz, plans to close the theater after showing the animated feature "Cars," a movie run that begins today and ends Sunday.
The 74-year-old widow is ailing from arthritis and can no longer manage the theater, which has been in her family since the 1930s.
She's been trying to sell the Bijou and adjoining office space, but hasn't found a buyer -- and so far there's no sign of a happy Hollywood ending.
"I've tried to keep it going," Walz says. "I have spent many hours praying and worrying over it. I feel I failed my dad and my husband."
Her father and uncle started the Bijou in the 1930s. Ultimately her father became the sole owner, and moved the theater to its present downtown location on First Street in 1946.
For half a century, Walz and her husband Roy owned and operated the theater. For years they worked together, Roy in the projection booth, Margaret behind the ticket counter. Their boys also lent a hand.
"If you like people and visiting with people, it's a good business -- and it's all cash," she says. "We enjoyed it the years we had it."
After Roy died a few years ago, Margaret became the Bijou's sole proprietor. Because of declining health, she has no alternative but to close if she can't find a buyer.
She's asking $45,000 for the building, which includes four offices. Word has gotten around, and several people have expressed interest, but nobody has made an offer.
"It will be felt if it's closed," says Deb Walworth, executive director of Prairie West Development Foundation, an economic development arm of local governments in the area. "We still feel that it's a vital business. It's been very well maintained."
A few years ago, Roy Walz installed a new projector and Surround Sound. Otherwise, the Bijou has remained remarkably unchanged over the years.
"You walk in and you step back in time," Walworth says. "It's just very authentic. This has that old history and it's very welcoming."
Walworth has fond memories of attending the Bijou while growing up, and saw many Disney classics there.
Besides its role as an entertainment center, the Bijou also has served as a community meeting place and venue for motivational speakers. The Walzes made the space available at no charge, but sometimes earned extra money by selling concessions.
Although she has no takers, Walz is in no hurry to sell any fixtures or memorabilia from the theater, because she's still holding out hope that a new owner will emerge.
A buyer probably would want to have another business, Walz says. Her husband had a crop-and-hail insurance firm.
The Bijou seats 250 people, but attendance has gradually dwindled over the years. The town's population has fallen over the years, dropping for instance, to an estimated 1,000 last year from 1,116 in 2000.
Still, Walworth says, Beach, the Golden Valley County seat, has new businesses opening, including a fitness center and coffee-and-quilting shop.
Cable television and movie rentals also compete with the local picture show -- as do theaters in Dickinson, an hour's drive on Interstate 94.
"We always went to the hometown theater," says Walworth, who grew up during the 1970s. "Kids these days don't think anything of getting in the car and driving."
She plans to see "Cars" with two of her children. "We're going to make it a family event."
Susan Stedman, who has worked behind the concession counter at the Bijou for more than 25 years, has witnessed a gradual erosion in turnout.
Lately, she's been seeing a lot of new faces at the theater in recent weeks, since word of the theater's planned closing has gotten around. Lots of people are going to a movie to say goodbye to the Bijou.
"People do want it to stay open," she says. "They don't want it to close, yet they're not willing to patronize it, either."
Walz has no plans for any ceremonies to mark the Bijou's closing. But she thinks "Cars" will be a fitting final showing. "I thought it was going to be a good, cute show to go out with."
(Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522)