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North Kansas City's Screenland Armour Heads Outside During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Adam Roberts, is the co-owner/operator of Screenland Armour and Screenland Tapcade.
Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
Adam Roberts is the co-owner/operator of Screenland Armour and Screenland Tapcade.

An indie movie theater in North Kansas City explores new possibilities to stay in business, including outdoor eating and drinking, and showing films outside.

onSmall businesses are doing what they can to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic, while also following state and local re-opening guidelines. But some fear that customers may not return.

Health officials suggest that there’s better ventilation — and less transmission of coronavirus — when people are outside.

So, what’s an independent movie theatre to do? Grab some popcorn and take it outside.

“I try to be as optimistic as possible,” said Adam Roberts, co-owner/operator of Screenland Armour, at 408 Armour in North Kansas City, with his business partner and brother-in-law Brent Miller.

“We're in the business of showing movies and, like having beer and pizza and popcorn and candy. You know, it's generally sunshine and rainbows here.”

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The Armour Theatre was built in 1928 as a silent movie house, and then talkies. It's changed names over the years, from the Paradise Theatre to the Northland Opry.

Developer Butch Rigby restored it and reopened it in 2008 as Screenland Armour. In 2012, Roberts and Miller, who'd been running the trivia night, took over.

Since 2015, Roberts and Miller have also run Screenland Tapcade at 1701 McGee St. in the Crossroads Arts District.

In 2018, Screenland Armour extended next door into a former flower shop, with help from a Kickstarter and loans. The $250,000 project expanded the lobby, added a pizza shop, and two more screens. Plus new projectors, sound systems, and seats.

When everything shut down in March to stop the spread of the coronavirus, lots of businesses pivoted or re-imagined their business model. Screenland Armour, known for its special events and craft beer, went into overdrive.

Curbside movie snacks, online screenings, a podcast, Facebook Live chats with other small businesses, and weekly trivia.

“So it's like, okay, well I have to do other things,” said Roberts. “As soon as that's done, I'm starting something else.”

A 12-hour fundraiser in early May raised about $16,000. And they started a Patreon. But Roberts said there are still a lot of costs to cover.

“We need roughly $30,000 to $36,000 a month just to break even,” said Roberts, “before we do the cost of goods or pay for movies or employees, that's just like loans, rent, utilities, insurance. That's bare minimums.”

And only a fraction of their regular revenue is coming in.

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Indoor screenings started up again on June 6, with lots of sanitizing and social distance. Every other row in each theater is closed. And not all seats are filled, about 50 in a 250-seat theater, and maybe a dozen in a 65-seat theater.

"Bottom line is like, if I can't come into my own place and see a movie and feel comfortable, I don't think somebody else should come in here and sit down and experience discomfort or a lack of safety," said Roberts. "So we had really tight measures."

He added, "We have an usher that takes you to your seat and helps you find a seat because we have everything pre-marked off."

But first-run releases aren’t expected until July or August. So, they started looking at other opportunities, like converting their back parking lot into a space for outdoor movies.

"There'll be fun, bigger budget things than we typically do," he said. "So we're trying to be a little bit more diverse in what we show, even if it is more popular."

For the first outdoor screening on June 26, couples, groups of friends and families lined up with lawn chairs for the 1986 classic, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

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“I’ve been renting movies,” said Donna Jacobson of Lee’s Summit, who ventured out to see her first movie during the coronavirus pandemic. She met a small group of friends, including Kellie Albers of Liberty.

“It’s a way to support a local business,” said Albers, “(to) come out and enjoy the awesome summer weather we’re having.”

Paige Lawson and her son, Wolfgang, were also waiting in line.

“We’re about five minutes north of here,” she said. “We’ve been here before and like the theater.” Her son added, “I’ve watched it before, I think it will be amazing.”

A staffer glanced down at a clipboard, as she checked people in, and drew an x in black sharpie on the back of people’s hands. Every other parking spot was also marked with an x, so visitors would not sit there, to promote social distancing.

Adam Roberts set up the equipment and took a look at the crowd, which on Friday would total about 75, close to 90 on Saturday, as they tweaked spacing and distance.

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Roberts worked closely with the city of North Kansas City, who approved the use of the parking lot. City officials also helped Screenland create an outdoor patio on Armour, the city’s first parklet, for eating and drinking outside.

North Kansas City Councilman Bryant DeLong and his family were situated in chairs in a parking spot, armed with popcorn and candy.

“It’s something I advocated for early on,” DeLong said, “help small businesses where we can because they’ve been struggling a lot lately.”

City officials, DeLong said, tapped CARES Act funds to add the barriers along Armour for the parklet. The Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City has also provided small business grants.

Joe Gauer co-founded RiverNorth, a league of about two-dozen local businesses in downtown North Kansas City. He says it’s a tough time for everyone, but they’re banding together.

“I mean, we're fighting for the soul of this town, the things that really make it unique in North Kansas City,” Gauer said.

Screenland’s Adam Roberts said they’ll continue to offer all the options: indoors, outdoors, and online.

"I'm hopeful. I love movies, that's why I'm doing this. That's why I make movies. Movies are my lifeline," he said. "And right now, probably more than ever, we need escapism."

Look for outdoor movies to continue in the parking lot behind Screenland Armour through Halloween.

They’ll have the popcorn ready. Just don’t forget to bring a chair.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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