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THOMPSON FALLS - Now playing at the Rex Theater: a first-run movie!

It doesn't much matter what movie. As it happens, for the gala New Year's grand reopening of the Rex on Thursday night, the animated Disney kids' flick "Brother Bear," first released in October, was scheduled to show on the big screen. (Some review excerpts: "Bearable" - San Francisco Chronicle; "Hibernation-inducing" - N.Y. Post.)

But local folks are likely to throng to the Rex Theater to see any movie, since the Rex has been closed since 1997 and no other movie theater exists in Thompson Falls.

The new Rex retains some of its history - the old seats, for example, and ornate ceiling grids in the lobby are reminders of its splendid past. But the theater is completely renovated, with as many as four coats of paint on some of the walls. (It took that many to cover the tobacco smoke-stained walls in the lobby, where lighting up used to be permitted and a glass window allowed smokers to watch the movie as they puffed.)

It now sports a hefty 2,400-watt sound system (up from 40 watts) to induce that surround-sound experience some folks cherish. Purple carpet graces the aisles, and re-upholstered seats cushion the old bolt-down theater chairs.

"When are you going to open? Everybody in town is excited," one old gent asked of Doug Grimm, the man who reinvented the Rex, as Grimm was preparing the interior for carpeting on a recent Saturday night. Some 60 people dropped by that evening alone to see how the Rex renovation was coming along, and to ask Grimm if it really would be open as promised on New Year's Day. An opening date previously announced in September came to naught because the renovations weren't nearly done.

Grimm promised his visitors the theater would open for a special showing on New Year's Day and continue operating Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, with some special children's matinees, for the foreseeable future.

"The town is really excited about it. I think it's going to be packed here for the first few showings," said Grimm, a towing-service operator and former auto mechanic.

Grimm, a Thompson Falls native, and his wife Karen bought the old, dilapidated Rex two years ago with an eye to building a nice little business on a shoestring. Grimm won't say just how much he has invested so far, but it is substantial.

"I've been pouring money in here for two years," he said.

The original Rex, built some 65 years ago, had seating for 310, but some of the seats were little more than hard-backed benches. Grimm took out the benches, laboriously disassembled, re-upholstered and reassembled the remaining seats, and now has a more modest but more comfortable seating area. The theater will now hold 216, including seating for the handicapped.

Grimm knows he's going against a trend.

Vintage single-screen classic theaters have been closing across America faster than B movies go straight to video, unable to compete with the technological onslaught of multiplexes, television, video stores, video games and shopping malls.

The National Registry of Historic Places even named historic American movie theaters as an endangered architectural species a few years back.

But in small towns like Troy, and Superior, Plains and Ronan, the single-screen theater remains a viable and vibrant part of a rural community's culture.

"It's a social experience as much as anything anymore," Grimm said. In small communities, there are no multiplexes to compete with. Yes, there are TV shows, DVDs and videos.

But Grimm is hopeful.

"The 'new' has kind of worn off the home videos. People like to get out of the house, and the movies are set up for the big screen," he said.

For now Grimm is holding on to his day job as a tow-truck operator, and his wife will continue to substitute teach at the local school district.

"These movie theaters are hanging on in small towns. Nobody is getting rich, but they make a living," he said. He may close his towing business if the theater business goes well. Insurance for one two truck is $5,000 a year, he said.

But there are things in life more important than money in rural America. Keeping a historic, single-screen theater operating in a small town may be one of them.

"This is not to make a profit. This is a labor of love. The Rex was a landmark here and I hated to see it go," said Grimm, a Thompson Falls native.

Reporter John Stromnes can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or jstromnes@missoulian.com

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