When "The Lorax" played the old Auburn State Theater early this month, nearly 1,000 students from three area school districts saw the movie during its two-week run.

Kevin Reiman, superintendent of Auburn Public Schools District 29, said he was pleased to see so many smiling faces, especially on preschoolers who had never been to a movie theater.

On March 2 -- Dr. Seuss' birthday -- Reiman helped theater Manager Carla Mason with seating and concessions.

He has a vested interest: the 84-year-old theater belongs to the school district and its taxpayers.

Thanks to Kats Enterprises, Auburn Public Schools may be the only school district in Nebraska with its own Art Deco-style movie theater.

"Overall, it's been a learning experience," Reiman said.

Kats -- Drs. Jeff Meade, Shannon Stemm, Bill Bucy and his wife, Kathy, and Gary Ensz and his wife, Kathy -- gave the theater to the school district in January 2011, and threw in two apartments, a delicatessen and an insurance agency in the same big building to provide a source of income beyond ticket sales.

Gary Ensz said they made the donation for two main reasons: Small-town theaters weren't economically viable anymore, and his wife was burned out after managing the 230-seat theater for 24 years.

"We also knew that coming up, we were going to have to change the way we showed movies -- from 35mm to digital. That was an expense that we could not afford realistically."

Ensz said the school district was an ideal choice to take over and keep the theater open because it is nonprofit, doesn't pay taxes and can apply for grants.

The district didn't wait around for the theater's digital demise. In the past three months, it raised money to buy a $65,000 digital projector, replace 25-year-old seats and add 10 more.

"It's not a matter of choice," Mason said. "We have to make the conversion or we would have been forced to close it at some time in the next year."

In September, the district spent about $3,100 to upgrade the theater's sound system to digital, she said. 

The goal was $100,000 to cover the projector and new seats. As of this week, the district had raised about $80,000.

"The community has been very supportive," Reiman said. "Never in my life did I think we would be at $80,000 at this point."

The city of Auburn donated $63,000 from its keno fund, and the Auburn Optimist Club gave $1,000 and challenged other civic groups to give more. The Auburn Rotary Club accepted the challenge and donated $1,001. The Auburn Development Council pitched in $7,500, the Auburn Chamber of Commerce gave $1,000 and a local Girl Scouts troop has pledged $1,000.

"The community support has been fantastic," Mason said, noting that the school district received a few $500 donations. The Enszes gave $1,000.

Reiman said it was important for the school district to make the theater self-supporting.

"There are no tax dollars (being used) at this point. They are not flowing in or out. It's self-sustaining."

The theater shows first-run movies on a single screen seven evenings a week and a matinée on Sundays. Right now, it's showing the smash hit, "The Hunger Games."

The shows are well attended. The closest movie theater is in Nebraska City, about 20 miles away. People drive from as far as Pawnee City and Tecumseh to see a show.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about the school district's ownership of a theater.

Reiman said he's heard comments from some patrons that the school district should have focused on renovating its outdated performing arts facility first. He said the district has not lost sight of that.

Meanwhile, district officials plan to offer more educational opportunities at the movie theater, which was a key reason for getting into the business.

"We haven't got the educational part of it that we hoped," Reiman said, adding that he'd like to see high school business students spend time at the theater learning about marketing and advanced accounting.

Mason said it's already being used by neighboring school districts. She's hosted special showings of "The Lorax" for students from Johnson County Central Public Schools and Humboldt-Table Rock-Steinauer School District.

Ensz said using the theater for educational purposes was written into the agreement with the school district, and he hopes it can be used for community events such as digital streaming of the Metropolitan Opera and sports.

"It just opens up a lot of things, both educational and cultural things, that you can bring to town," Ensz said.

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.


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