CAVALIER, N.D. — Kirby Brandhagen has worked at the Cavalier Cinema since seeing a movie there cost 10 cents, when lines to buy a ticket would stretch around the block on opening night.
The lines out the door were gone long before COVID-19 dealt a potentially fatal blow to small theaters around the country. Most film studios have opted to delay releasing their blockbuster movies until the fall and beyond. In recent months, Brandhagen has shown older crowd favorites instead of new releases on the weekends.
Last weekend, across three showings of "Animal House," he estimates Cavalier Cinema saw a total of 10 movie-goers.
But he doesn't have plans to go anywhere yet.
"I say my prayers, and I pretty much can sleep," he said. "I'm too old a dog. I've been through the flood in Grand Forks in '97, and I've just had a lot of things in my life that didn't exactly go as planned. So, this is one more. You roll with the punches."
Brandhagen's parents ran theaters almost from the advent of the movie business. They bought the theater in downtown Cavalier in 1947 and founded the Cavalier Cinema in its present location in 1949. Brandhagen started working in the theater when he was about 7, placing showbills on windshields. By the time he was 16, he was running the family's drive-in theater in Hatton, N.D.
The business was lucrative, until it wasn't, according to Brandhagen, who remembers the small theater being burdened by finances and struggling to keep up with larger theaters as early as the 1970s.
Reaching for memories, he described his life as a river and said his time had all flowed together. A few turning points stood out.
He remembers when the missiles came to the Cavalier Air Force Station in 1972 and brought jobs with them, packing Cavalier's hotels, schools and theater seats. It was a rowdier crowd back then, especially compared to more modern movie-goers, and he recalled not being able to reupholster the theater seats as fast as vandals could tear them open.
He also remembers giving his father CPR one day in 1978, the day his father sold their Valley City, N.D., drive-in theater then died of a heart attack. After that, Brandhagen's mother ran the family business for several years before Brandhagen eventually took over the theater in 1999.
At some point more recently, he realized that, more and more, he often could drive all the way around Cavalier's 6-mile block and not see a single other person.
Brandhagen said he has worked other jobs all his life — "if that tells you anything about the theater business" — and now can usually be found at his regular job at the He-Mart next door to the theater. Over the years, he said he's worked for the Cavalier Air Force Station, Icelandic State Park and in Grand Forks at the Columbia Mall and Home of Economy, among others.
He was never far from the Cavalier Cinema, though.
"Let's just say there probably were very few weekends I never set foot in this building," he said.
Since the shutdown due to COVID-19, Brandhagen has converted the old concessions room to storage and put yellow tape up to section off some chairs in the theater. He's taken on a number of improvement projects around the building, as well. Most recently, he's torn the carpet in the theater up to reveal more than 70 years of paint. He plans to replace the carpet, but said it's become a bigger job than he anticipated.
On the weekends, he's begun selling tickets and concessions at the front of the theater, because he says it makes it easier for him to run the place by himself. He has a handful of volunteers, and he said he's given some consideration about who he thinks might take over the theater one day once he's finished working, but for now, he said he doesn't mind running a one-man show.
"I hate ever saying I'm going to do anything, because it seems like Murphy shows up," he said. "But, yeah, if I stay healthy and things keep going — and the state might issue a close down again, too — but barring any unforeseen circumstances, we plan to have weekend movies."