Moviehouse keeps $2 films, adds new outreach for church

The plaza’s lobby was repainted, given new walls and ceiling tiles, and a collage featuring stills from a wide swath of famous movies was put up. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Charley Swanson, left, and Mike Dougherty, pose in front of the Plaza Theater, or what used to be called Plaza Maplewood. The two are part of the theater’s new management team, and are employed by Woodland Hills Church. (submitted photo)

Woodland Hill renovated much of the Plaza, including the entrance, and made a new logo. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Employees of the Lift work concessions of the Plaza Theater. The theater is staffed by workers from the Lift through a program designed to give people job training. Many of the Lift’s staff are East Siders. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Volunteers from Woodland Hills Church worked to install new seats at the theater. (submitted photo)

With new ownership and plans for a new digital projector, the Plaza Maplewood is back up and running, under the hands of a church.

Following investment and fundraising from the new management, Woodland Hills Church, the place has new carpet, new walls, new ceiling tiles, new seats, and new staff.

The arcade machines are gone and things look fresh, new, and almost pristine.

But some of the character may have held up -- the vintage vibe remains, the layout is still the same, and the popcorn is still made by an old-time popcorn maker and topped with real butter.

The ticket prices have also stayed at $2, with $1 Tuesdays, and the movie selection is reminiscent of the offerings under the former management, with showings ranging from kids movies to R-rated flicks.

Woodland Hills, which has owned the Plaza building for 13 years, took over management of the theater in November 2013, pulling the plug on the previous operator, Nathan Block, with hopes of refurbishing it and using the facility to house church events in addition to continuing to run it as a discount movieplex.

The theater is located near the intersection of White Bear and Larpenter avenues.

Woodland Hills reopened the place at the end of November and have just gotten into the full swing of things.

Volunteer power

Sprucing the place up was no easy task, said Charlie Swanson, spokesperson for Woodland Hills Church.

Around 200 volunteers helped out, scraping gum from the floor, painting the floors and ceilings, and meticulously pulling out each bolt that was cemented into the floor from the old seats.

People also pitched in monetarily -- the congregation held a fundraising drive, which far exceeded expectations, Swanson said. The church raised over $88,000, which helped pay for the renovation, as well as the soon-to-come digital projectors.

Conversion to digital projectors was one hurdle that Nathan Block had faced with the theater. The age of 35mm film reels is coming to an end, and so movie theaters will soon need digital projectors in order to be able to show new films and stay in business.

The volunteers and the congregation “made all the difference” in renovating the place, Swanson said.

Swanson mused that the ready supply of volunteers from the church made the project feasible, and made for an easier time than another tenant would have had if they’d tried to remodel.

“We were really fortunate to be in that position,” he said. “The congregation really responded.”

Manager made for the job

The theater’s new manager, Mike Dougherty, has a long history with the place.

He used to work at the building where Woodland Hills Church now sits, next door to the Plaza, back when it was a Zayre Shopper’s City. His uncle was a manager there and hired Dougherty to pick up trash in the parking lot.

He recalled looking at the Plaza Maplewood theater and thinking “wouldn’t it be cool to run that some day...”

Now, his time as come, and he seems enthused to be working in a field that he loves.

Dougherty, who used to manage a pharmacy, said the move into the role has been a good change of pace. It’s been pleasant to be in a business where customers are consistently cheerful, he said.

“Everybody’s in a great mood when they come to a movie.”

Dougherty used to organize movie nights for singles at the church and was spotted as a natural fit for the new manager position. He was eager to learn how to run the old film projectors at the place, he said.


Swanson has also stepped in to share those projection duties with him.

“It’s been fun to learn 35mm systems,” he said. But digital will be easier to run, and more of the staff will be able to operate the place, he said. Plus, prints are really starting to dry up.

“They just aren’t making that many 35mm prints,” he said. “We’re really getting squeezed.”

Often, he said, distributors make as few as 10 film reel copies of a film, to be vied for by theaters across the country.

So the addition of a digital projector will be a welcome addition at the end of January, he said.

And they’ll come with a volunteer discount as well -- a member of the congregation happens to be a professional installer of digital projectors and other high-end media hardware. He offered to install projectors for free.

“We were shocked when he came forward,” Swanson said.

Nonetheless, converting to digital is also a mixed bag -- the digital projectors may lack the charm of film reels.

“There’s just something cool and nostalgic about 35mm film,” Dougherty said.

Holiday luck

It’s been a learning process for the church, though they’ve more or less got a handle on it, Swanson said.

“Even stuff like cleaning between shows, we had no idea how much time to give ourselves for that, because it was brand new.”

It was also a slow start numbers-wise - the congregation started with a soft opening, without much advertising, so it could get a feel for how to run the place.

But just in the nick of time, the theater was able to be poised for the holidays, which manager Mike Dougherty said “turned out very well.”

They got both screens up and running less than a week before Christmas.

“We were able to get five new movies right before the holidays,” Dougherty said. “We’re very happy with it.”

And Dougherty took pride in having people turn up to check out the updated digs.

Job skills

Woodland Hills has teamed up with a non-profit, faith-based job skills company called the Lift to staff the Plaza.

The two organizations have a long history of working together.

East Sider Javon Clark, 21, who’s worked for the Lift doing childcare, was plugged into a job at the theater to learn new job skills like cash handling and customer service.

“So far, it’s cool,” he said. “It’s completely different (than my other job).”

Deynn Hampton, program manager at the Lift, worked with the church to get the jobs-skills program up and running.

Hampton remembers coming to the theater as a single mother with her children.

“This was pretty much the only way I could afford to take my kids to a movie,” she said, so she’s glad to be a part of the place now.

The Lift is only one way that the church is looking at using the theater for other programming. The church is still figuring out other potential uses, but they’ve got some ideas in mind.

The congregation has carried on Nathan Block’s tradition of holding school fundraisers at the place -- it had North St. Paul’s Webster Elementary School students out to the theater in December for a fundraiser.

“It was great having a bunch of new families in here,” Swanson said.

Beyond school fundraisers, the congregation is considering holding classes in the theater on Sunday mornings, while church services are being held across the parking lot.

The congregation is also talking about working with a prison ministry to bring in former prisoners for worship and fellowship.

“They’re guys that aren’t super comfortable about going into normal churches,” Swanson said, “but they’d come to a theater and take part in a service, just because it’s less intimidating.”

They’ve also begun talking about working with Union Gospel Mission to provide a venue for its clients, he said.

Old manager weighs in

Brent Erwin, the former manager of the theater under Nathan Block, said he has come to terms with the change in management.

“I certainly thought it was malicious at some point,” he said. “It was just a building owner wanting to utilize a property the best they could, and more power to ‘em in that regard.”

However, in an interview last week he said the place looks nice. “They did a good job in there. They certainly have something to show for the effort.”

And indeed, he said the format seems to have stayed the same, with some R-rated movies, some kids movies, and some in between.

“It definitely seems that their mission is to keep the theater alive and keep it a staple of the community,” he said.

Nonetheless, he did wonder about the decision to put in new seats. While they may look better, he considered them perhaps less comfortable.

But he lauded the Woodland Hills congregation on the majority of the renovation work, saying, “They really are taking pride in the facility.”

As for the former proprietor, Nathan Block, he didn’t return a message from the East Side Review by press time.

Erwin imagines he’s still sore about it.

“I really don’t ever see him ever stepping foot back in there again,” he said.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at, or follow on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

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