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Will the lights go down in Beausejour?

Theatre at risk of closing thanks to move to digital

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BEAUSEJOUR -- Growing up in England, Mick Baxter used to sneak into movie theatres by walking in backwards.

If the custodian looked up, he switched to walking forward as if walking out. When the custodian looked away, he walked backwards all the way into those dark, magical movie theatres.

It's an unlikely admission from one of the last independent movie theatre owners in Manitoba. The Lyric Theatre in Beausejour, which Baxter has owned for 30 years, is at risk of closing when the movie industry switches to digital in 2013.

But then Baxter's life reads like a movie. By age 14, he was working on a whaling ship.

Baxter was born in Sunderland, England. His father, Harry, was a British commando in the Second World War who helped sabotage the hydro station in Rjukan, Norway, so the Nazis couldn't use the heavy water byproduct to make a nuclear weapon. His father was later killed in Normandy.

 

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To show its gratitude, Norway hosted many families of fallen soldiers at its royal palace after the war.

Mick and his siblings stayed in Norway for about a month with the family of Anton Maier. Several years later, in about 1952, Anton Maier asked his son, Fred Anton, what he wanted for his birthday and he replied he wanted to see Mick again. The family not only took Mick back to Norway to visit but Maier, a whaler, offered Mick a job on his ship. Even though he was barely a teenager, Mick jumped at the chance. He spent the next 10 years as a whaler in the Antarctic Circle. Baxter still looks the part of an old whaler: ruddy-faced, with a tight black T-shirt and black suspenders.

"Oh, what a life! What a life!" he said of being a gunner on a whale ship.

Mick returned to England and enrolled in medical school until the professor of anatomy took him aside one day. "Don't you think you should be doing something else?" he asked.

Baxter also worked a stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company snagging bit parts: a guitar strummer in Twelfth Night and a part in Hamlet with one speaking line: "My Lord, Hamlet."

He returned to school and obtained a bachelor's degree in pedagogy. Upon graduation, Canada was desperate for teachers, and Baxter wound up in the northern Manitoba town of Gillam.

At the time, native kids were still strapped for speaking Cree in school, Baxter said. He sided with the Cree, and his practise of visiting a Cree friend's house with a six-pack of beer on Friday nights proved too controversial and led to his dismissal.

The Manitoba Teachers Society fought his case, but by then he'd moved to Winnipeg. He taught at Gordon Bell High School and Kirkfield Park School for special-needs kids and a Hutterite Colony his last five years. He also worked at the Vaughan Street detention centre at the same time as future premier Gary Doer.

Adventures continued to find Baxter. He accidentally landed a part in the Hollywood movie, The Good Life (2007), shot in Winnipeg. After completing his four days of shooting -- "They feed you unbelievably, whatever you want"-- the crew gave him a standing ovation. "I got a speeding ticket on the way home but I didn't care. I was so happy," he said.

He obtained his pilot's licence, taught aviation courses and bought 30 acres near Garson so he could raise horses. He played polo in Birds Hill Provincial Park for 10 years with his three sons. In 1984, he completed the Manitoba Marathon.

He's a colourful theatre owner. He drives around town in a 1959 International pickup truck with movie props in the back he builds himself to promote films. For the movie Up, he installed a cardboard house with balloons attached.

When we finally got around to talking about the fate of his movie theatre, the reason for my visit, Baxter said he couldn't justify the $80,000 cost of a digital projector.

However, he doesn't think the movie industry will get totally out of film prints. He's going to call its bluff. He doesn't believe the industry will leave behind money it could make from all the independent movie theatres owners that may close. As many as 10,000 screens in North America will not be able to convert, predicts the National Association of Theatre Owners.

The biggest problem for the industry, said Baxter, 74, is too many movies are junk, and digital won't change that.

Favourite movies? Shane, Winchester '73 and High Noon. "I'm old enough to remember when TV came out. Movie theatres were supposed to be finished," he said. "That's why I'm optimistic."

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2012 A15

History

Updated on Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 9:36 AM CDT: adds video

10:26 AM: removes video

11:17 AM: adds correct video

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