GOING DIGITAL
Movie buffs rally to save theater
Comet Theater needed $80,000 to upgrade equipment
Tom Klein
T. Klein
Carol Carlson, co-owner of the Comet Theater in Cook, gives a thumbs up this week upon hearing their fundraisiung effort was successful.

COOK – When it comes to the movies, everybody loves a happy ending.

The Comet Theater, in business since 1939, got its own happy ending this week when an online fundraising campaign surpassed expectations and will keep the curtain from descending on the venerable movie house.

The Comet’s goal was to raise $80,000 to upgrade its equipment to meet the demands of a new digital age in film. As of this week, 381 people had pledged $81,866 for the project.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Carol Carlson, who bought the Comet with John Metsa in 2000. “I am elated at the commitment and enthusiasm that people showed in our desire to take the Comet Theater digital.”

According to Carlson, the new equipment should be arriving within a month. “It should be here by the second of June at the latest,” she said.

To make room for the new equipment, which includes an upgraded digital sound system as well as a new projector, she will have to disassemble the old equipment and haul it away. In addition, Carlson will have to upgrade the Comet venting and electrical system.

Professionals will install the new equipment and provide training on how to use it. Carlson expects that process to take about three days.

Necessary change

The shift to digital was necessary if the Comet were to remain viable as a movie theater. But Carlson said the investment in upgraded equipment would require too large a loan for a marginal business.

That’s when she turned to Kickstarter, an Internet-based funding program designed to help the creative community of filmmakers, musicians, artists and designers.

Carlson said she chose Kickstarter because of its good reputation and its all-or-nothing approach to funding.

She said she was hesitant to ask Cook residents to help her business make the digital transition, noting that residents already donate generously to many local causes and she didn’t want to compete with those causes for their support.

As she researched Kickstarter, she decided it was the best way to raise funds. By seeking donations online, she said, she was able to reach tourists and other summer residents who make up a big share of the theater’s audience. In addition, she offered contributors something in return, such as free theater tickets or T-shirts depending on the size of their donations.

With under a month to go, Carlson had reached the halfway point of her goal, but was concerned donations would fall short of the $80,000 goal. An anonymous benefactor offered to match the donations on Kickstarter to reach the $80,000 goal, but Carlson said she didn’t to have to rely on that generous offer.

Donations started to pour in as the deadline approached and Carlson reached the goal 17 hours ahead of the deadline.

Since then, she said, she’s been on the phone a lot with well-wishers, technicians and electricians. “I am in the process of writing everyone who joined in in the last 48 hours, but until then I just had to say thank you again,” she said.

Many of those pledging donations also left messages of support and told how the Comet meant so much to them.

“As a child, I think I spent every Friday and Saturday night at the Comet,” wrote Stefanie Porer. “It is certainly a big part of my childhood memories.”

Dan Danyluk wrote that his donation was the least he could do “to make up for all of the times in my teens that I snuck in the exits and watched for free.”

John Hanson, director of the film “Wildrose,” recalled when he appeared at the Comet for a 1984 showing of his film, which was set on the Iron Range.

“I remember an enthusiastic reception from a full house and several of our cast and crew from the Cook area made personal appearance,” wrote Hanson. “Those of us who make independent films need theaters like yours to provide small-town and rural audiences a place to gather for a communal cinematic experience. Good luck and keep the magic alive!”

Some who pledged funds had never been to the Comet, but valued preserving a part of small-town history.

“I live in Colorado and most likely will never see the Comet Theater,” wrote E.S. Knightchide. “This is your hometown theater? Do you really want to see what happens when a town’s theater goes dark?”

Carlson said those heartfelt messages of support were gratifying and she’s looking forward to bringing the Comet’s patrons an enhanced movie experience with the new technology.

In addition, the switch to digital films will make a wider library of films available more rapidly. For instance, Carlson had to wait two and a half months to obtain a film print of “Lincoln.”

It will also eliminate the need to splice spools of film on a gigantic reel and save on postage costs for receiving and sending films. A typical film, which would arrive on several reels, weighed between 50 and 60 pounds and had to be lugged up a flight of stairs to the Comet’s tiny projection room. Future films will arrive on a disc about the size of a DVD, according to Carlson.

Patrons will also benefit from the improved sound system. The theater will feature surround sound emanating from several speakers instead of a single large speaker near the screen.

But the comforting, cozy atmosphere of the tiny home theater will continue. That — plus what many say is the best popcorn at any theater — is what makes the Comet special, said Carlson, and that won’t change.

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