Single-screen cinema keeps things poppin'

Owner Fred Rodabaugh says small theaters like his are part of the fabric of the community.
Owner Fred Rodabaugh says small theaters like his are part of the fabric of the community.

BLUFFTON, Ohio - Fred Rodabaugh apparently doesn't have much trouble keeping the town's only movie theatre in business.

The single-screen Shannon Theatre is so popular it doesn't even have a sign out front.

"Don't need one," said Mr. Rodabaugh, who's also Bluffton's mayor. "People are lined up outside the door."

Locals say the downtown theater is the best deal in town - seats for first-run movies are just $2 for children, $3 for adults. Concessions are inexpensive too, making it possible for a family of four to go to the movie, get four large drinks, and two large tubs of popcorn for $18.

"And the popcorn is great," said Joyce Hostetler, a frequent movie-goer who lives in Bluffton but used to drive here for movies when she lived in Findlay.

Mr. Rodabaugh, who bought the theater with his father, the late Dr. Franklin Rodabaugh, in 1975, humbly concedes his popcorn is good.

"You've got to find the right mix of oil and salt. The popcorn has something to do with it and the kettle heat," he said. "But the crucial thing is the time it's popped. For the most part, you'll never eat popcorn here that's been popped for more than 15 minutes."

Mr. Rodabaugh, 58, is a Bluffton native, a Bluffton University graduate and employee, the local theater owner for 30 years, and a longtime village official. He served on Village Council for more than 20 years, becoming mayor in 2002.

He said his father, a family practitioner, set an example for supporting the community. He bought and remodeled downtown buildings and rescued the Shannon when it was in danger of closing in the 1970s.

"He'd just see opportunities, and if he could break even or make a little, he was satisfied," Mr. Rodabaugh said. "He looked at it as if it was going to be good for the town, it would be good for him eventually."

Keeping the 310-seat Shannon open is important to Bluffton, a quiet college town of about 3,900 people that straddles the Hancock-Allen county line.

"I think it adds to the quality of life, which is important especially in a small town," Mr. Rodabaugh said.

Not only is the theater important but so are each of the businesses and institutions in town.

"The college is important. The hospital is important. The airport is important," Mr. Rodabaugh said. "To me, you have to have a little bit of everything to support each other and keep people in the community. If you lose a part of it, I don't know how you get it back."

The number of small towns in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan that still have an operating movie theatre is dwindling, but those that have them know their value.

In Williams County, Bryan has an old downtown movie house that's been divided into a three-screen theater.

"When we were ranked as one the 100 best small towns in America, that was one of the requirements. You had to have a movie theater," said Dan Yahraus, executive director of the Bryan Area Chamber of Commerce.

"Also, it's good because it keeps people in town," he said. "Instead of driving to Fort Wayne or Toledo to watch a movie, they stay in town and then they can eat out in town."

Ada, Kenton, Fremont, and North Baltimore, all in Ohio, and Morenci, Mich., still have a single movie theater in town.

Jim Kozak, communications director for the National Association of Theatre Owners, said the group only recently began tracking single-screen theaters, which are doing much better than drive-ins.

Since 2001, the number of single-screen theaters nationwide has dropped from 2,280 to 1,684. "That's still quite a few," Mr. Kozak said.

Nancy Benroth, assistant village administrator in Bluffton, said the kids in town love going to the Shannon, where two-thirds of the movies shown are rated G or PG. She likes it too.

"Otherwise you have to drive somewhere and it costs a fortune to get in," Ms. Benroth said.

Mr. Rodabaugh said the South Main Street theatre attracts an average of 2,000 people a week from a 20-mile radius. Patrons come from Putnam County, which has no movie theaters, as well as Findlay and Lima because people like the low prices, he said.

"Our business is built around trying to get them in here at least once a month," he said. "My business model is strictly volume-related."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

or 419-353-5972.