BURLEY — In spite of constant industry changes and a pandemic, five generations of the Harris family have shown the latest flicks on the big screen for a solid century.
They don’t plan to stop anytime soon.
The family celebrated 100 years of movies on Saturday at Century Stadium 5 with movies, a prize wheel and specials on soda, popcorn and giant slices of pizza.
The COVID-19 pandemic has crushed many movie theaters and some will go out of business, said Bob Harris, one of the owners of the Burley Theater and Century Stadium 5.
“We want to be one of those that survive,” Harris said.
Harris’s grandfather, Irvin Henry Harris, was a buyer for the railroad and formed a partnership with a man named Bowen, who built the Burley Theater as a production stage around 1914–1916. Harris took over the theater in 1920 during the silent film era.
The Burley Theater is twice as big as the Historic Wilson Theatre in Rupert, which the Harris family once owned.
Harris’s father, Irvin George Wilson, took over the business when his grandfather died.
At one time, the family owned more than 50 theaters in Utah, Oregon, Nevada and Idaho, including showhouses in Jerome and Buhl. In Burley, there was also the Orpheum Theatre, which later became the Harris Theater and burned twice, he said.
“When the freeway system came through it dried up many of the small towns and closed many of the theaters,” Harris said.
Harris worked at the theaters until he went away for college. He later moved back to the area with his family, and when his father died, he took over the business.
Over the years the business faced many challenges as silent films morphed to talkies, film made way for digital and drive-in theaters closed.
In the 1950s and 1960s, everyone was sure television would eclipse theaters, he said.
Century Stadium opened with one screen in 1977 and has continually grown and been updated.
About a dozen years ago, the company was the first in Idaho outside of Boise to convert to all digital equipment and a 3D movie “Avitar” was shown for 35 to 40 weeks.
“It was our longest running movie,” Harris said. “You have to keep up with the times and stay one step ahead. If you don’t have a nice place people won’t want to go there.”
Century Stadium 5 was converted to all stadium seating a few years back and one theater has all reclining chairs, he said.
People have always predicted that going to the movies would soon become an out-dated option, Harris said. But nothing eclipses the experience that a movie house can provide.
“There are no distractions at the theater and you can’t beat sitting there with other people watching a really scary show or a comedy,” he said.
Harris’s son, Mike Harris, will someday take over his father’s role at the company.
“As a kid it was pretty cool and I got to go to a lot of movies,” Mike Harris said.
Harris preferred working at the Century Stadium, while his sister Kimberly Talbot preferred to take in the history at the Burley Theater.
“I always really enjoyed it. I just like being around people,” he said.
Talbot’s boys, Logan and Ian Petersen, are both in high school and represent the family’s fifth generation of theater workers.
The Burley Theater has remained closed during the pandemic, Bob Harris said, mainly due to not being able to get movies to show there.
The company is currently relying on smaller companies and lesser-known films to keep the doors open at Century Stadium.
Mike Harris said the company will continue to do its best to “weather the storm” created by the virus.
“Celebrating 100 years in business is pretty cool,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people can say that.”
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