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January 21, 2009

Obama brings us together

Many folks gathered at movie theaters to see the Inauguration, one more sign of how important these institutions are to many communities

Barack Obama has surfaced some long-buried communal instincts in the American people. Millions of folks were not content to merely watch his campaign in the isolation of their living rooms??“they wanted to talk about Obama face-to-face with friends, neighbors, family, even complete strangers. I remember a rousing discussion last January in the back of a bus rumbling down Selby Avenue in St. Paul with three young men I had never met before.

This communal spirit carried over to the inauguration, as people packed moviehouses across the country to watch Obama take the oath of office on the big screen with their neighbors. I joined 700 people??“including On the Commons colleagues Harriet Barlow, Julie Ristau and Rachel Breen??“at Minneapolis’ Riverview Theater. Together the whole crowd cheered, laughed, wiped away tears, and wildly waved as Bush’s helicopter lifted off from the capitol, everyone singing “Na-Na-Na-Na, Na-Na-Na-Na, Hey-Hey, Good-bye.”

Seven hundred more people were turned away from the doors, according to the theater’s owner. Two other theaters within several miles of the Riverview also were full of celebrating citizens. Most of the schools in town made a special event of inauguration day with all the kids watching Obama’s swearing-in together.

On the Commons fellow David Bollier said his local theater in Amherst, Massachusetts, filled up before he could get a seat. Even in a traditionally Republican region of upstate New York, the Indian Lake Theater in the small town of the same name hosted children from the local school for this historic event.

This speaks to the powerful presence of our new president to bring people together.

But it also illustrates the importance of theaters in offering a place where we can be brought together. Local moviehouses and community stages are more than entertainment venues??“they are part of the commons, a place that belongs to everybody, even if they are owned by somebody else.

The Riverview in Minneapolis is a beloved institution that pulls in regular crowds??“not just for its creative programming of second-run movie but also for its role as a neighborhood gathering spot. Ditto for the Parkway Theater, in the same part of Minneapolis, which also features great second-run movies and classic films along with live shows. Last summer when the Republicans invaded town, I thankfully escaped to a progressive comedy-and-music revue at the Parkway featuring singers Billy Bragg and Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine) and comedian Lizz Winstead (co-creator of “The Daily Show”).

Of course, community theaters face an uncertain future in the era of high-definition television, netflix, and shrinking household budgets. Like so many other important elements of commons-based culture, we must use them or we will lose them.

The Indian Lake Theater in upstate New York offers inspiration for how community theaters can thrive even in hard times. It was dark for two years until being reopened as a non-profit project thanks to a community campaign led by Harriet Barlow of On the Commons and Ben Strader of Blue Mountain Center.

The Indian Lake Theater, Blue Mountain Center and On The Commons are exploring the possibilities of creating a national network of community theaters. To learn more and share your ideas, contact Harriet Barlow at hbarlow@onthecommons.org.