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Coming soon: A silver screen for Bethel, Alaska

Jill Burke

Just in time for sequels to the “Amazing Spider Man,” “Transformers” and “X-Men”, residents of Bethel, the small town in Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, can look forward to a movie date in their hometown. It's been so long since the community on the country's western coastline had a theater that a generation of children has grown up finding it hard to imagine Bethel ever had such a thing.

"They would hear the stories in disbelief," said Ana Hoffman, president of Bethel Native Corp., the Native-run entity that's backing the project. Hoffman remembers standing in line outside the old theater, a red-and-white striped shoe-box type building, with her sister and friends, waiting to get to the ticket booth and make their way inside.

The theater was Bethel’s main attraction in the 1970s and 1980s, but has been little more than a roadside landmark ever since. Hoffman suspects Bethel children may be envious their parents and grandparents got to spend a few hours in the darkness of a movie hall, swept away as tales of adventure unfolded before them.

"The movies were always pretty old. But it was the only show in town. And it was always well attended," recalls Myron Angstman, an attorney who moved to Alaska in 1977 who lives and works in Bethel. 

It was an era when TV was still young. And in the early 1980s, a movie about a modern-day local hero shone from the theater's screen to a full house. Other movie titles are more difficult to pull from memory, but "Spirit of the Wind," which chronicled the life of sled-dog racing champion George Attla, Jr., was a star attraction Hoffman and Angstman recall to this day.

Attla was so popular he once made a red-carpet appearance in Bethel to help a open a grocery store run by Alaska Commercial Company, Angstman said. 

Decades later, Bethel's star attractions are undergoing a revival. The community is larger now. There are more grocery stores. And a movie house is moving in. In two years, Bethel will be on the small list of small communities in Alaska off the road system to have a big screen. 

Two months ago, to a round of applause, Bethel Native Corporation announced a new investment to its shareholders -- a new, 60,000-square-foot facility housing a large grocery store, common area, and a two-screen movie theater. A company called Omni Enterprises would lease the retail space to anchor Swanson's grocery store, which competes with the AC chains that brought Attla to town so many years ago. And, Bethel Native Corporation would operate and run the movie theater, complete with stadium seats and concessions.

"We think it is going to be a good development," Hoffman said.

With so many ways for consumers to obtain entertainment programming -- rented DVDs, streaming videos, and satellite TV movie channels -- how can the company be sure people will choose an outing to the theater over the comfort of their own living room? Hoffman and Angstman believe the magic of going to the movies will prevail.

There's a powerful pull to going to the movies, both to seek out a little privacy one might not find at home and to snoop on who's out with whom. It's a social event as much as it is entertainment for the imagination. Across rural Alaska, much of which is not connected to the road system, post offices and bingo nights double as places to meet with friends and neighbors, to visit and share stories. Adding a movie theater adds another prized gathering spot. Owners hope that locating it next door to the grocery store will complement both ventures.

"People still enjoy going to the movies," Hoffman said. The theater and grocery complex, named Kipusvik, a Yupik word that means "a place to buy things," is scheduled to open in 2014 and plans to bring in second-run movies. 

Angstman predicts it won't matter that they're not offering grand premieres. "If they get good ones it will be a big hit," he said.

(Note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Bethel attorney Myron Angstman was born in Bethel, Alaska. He was not.)

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com