An uncertain recovery: Center Theatre reopens on limited basis as industry turmoil continues

Center Theater Manager Mike Steinmeyer (pictured) stands by the new plastic dividers over the concession stand as the theater has reopened on a trial basis while also offering curbside snacks. (Robert Maharry/The Grundy Register photo)
Robert Maharry
The Grundy Register

GRUNDY CENTER- The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected almost every type of business in one way or another, but few have felt the brunt of the damage quite like movie theaters. Most have been fully closed since March, and only about 20 percent of the nation’s cinemas have partially reopened as questions of social distancing and avoiding contact remain in the spotlight.


Mike Steinmeyer, the manager at the Center Theatre in Grundy Center, has done his best to get creative during the pandemic, offering curbside concessions and reopening on a trial basis with screenings of ‘80s classics like “The Goonies” (a film that Steinmeyer recalls seeing at the Center Theatre as a youngster) and “The Karate Kid” over the last few weekends. Still, as he freely admits, they’re no substitute for the new movies that typically draw the biggest crowds, and with the continued delay of blockbuster releases like Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” and the live-action “Mulan” remake, the future of theaters around the country is still murky.


“In the beginning, it felt like everyone was kind of in the same boat, and then places have been able to reopen,” Steinmeyer said. “We’ve tried to sell curbside and stuff, but the reason people are coming are for new movies… It’s a national problem because if everything’s open and great in Iowa, and it’s not (that way) everywhere else in the country, we just aren’t going to get new movies anytime soon.”


Steinmeyer attributes the issues theaters are facing in the post-COVID reality to a combination of the fact that they are confined spaces where social distancing seriously limits available capacity and the shutdown of production in places like Hollywood and Atlanta since the virus hit America in March. In Grundy Center, although other public events like the races at the county fair have drawn massive crowds, the theater has yet to see the same influx.


“It’s either that people don’t have a desire to see the older movies back on the big screen, and/or they don’t feel comfortable coming back into this setting,” Steinmeyer said.


Next week, Steinmeyer plans to screen “I Still Believe,” a Christian film from earlier this year that last showed before the pandemic shut the theater down, before likely returning to a hiatus until new movies are released in the U.S. Currently, “The New Mutants” is slated for August 28, while “Tenet” is set to release internationally before coming to America on September 4.


Uncertainty about the future has been a constant throughout the history of movie theaters, as major changes like the rise of Netflix and other streamers have upended the movie going experience in recent years. But the pandemic—and the current lack of containment around it, with no vaccine yet developed—could have the most profound impact of all.


It’s a tough time to be in the business, and Steinmeyer, who also works in the county assessor’s office, is well aware of it. But as a Grundy Center native who’s managed the theater for over 20 years, he still sees plenty of reason for optimism looking forward.


“We’re one of the longest running businesses in the downtown area, so I guess what keeps me going is the positive things that we hear and the people that do come by curbside and say positive things,” he said. “They miss the theater and want to come back… It’s been a good place that we want to keep (as) part of the community.”


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