UNITY — A young couple operated a drive-in theatre at Unity from 1988-90 but their dream to bring movies on the big screen to the community, and surrounding area, in a family-run business, providing movie memories all year round became a reality in 1993.
Kevin and Debbie Akerlund started construction on 2nd Avenue Cinema in August of 1992 and opened the doors to the public in January of 1993. Three decades of movie magic have now been part of Unity since then.
The construction also included an attached bowling alley; however, the couple made the sad decision to close that part of the business in June of 2009, due to low user numbers, and focused their attention on the theatre side of the business.
The theatre is truly a family affair as the entire Akerlund family worked at the business as their five children grew up. The eldest daughter, Allie, currently manages the theatre when her parents are unavailable. The youngest daughter, Jayden, helps run the business’s Facebook page. All of the children and their families continue to contribute to the theatre when they can.
“The biggest takeaways from operating a family-run business? While our children were growing up, we were very fortunate to be able to stay close to home and have our children in our workplace,” Debbie, says,.
“Operating a family-run business is more of a lifestyle than a job.”
There have been hundreds of blockbuster movies shown at the theatre, however, Debbie recalls that the biggest movies they experienced were the 1997 release of Titanic and the 2001 release of Shrek, along with the Shrek sequels. Residents recall waiting in line to get a ticket or waiting for additional show times released when initial show times sold out.
Unity and area movie enthusiasts say they recall the excitement of learning this small-town theatre was showing a new release or summer blockbuster. Children’s movies and the newest Pixar or Disney animated movie have always drawn in crowds. The Akerlunds often gauge the demand and schedule matinees or additional show times to accommodate a movie’s popularity.
Movie buffs attest to benefits of small-town theatre
2nd Avenue Cinema has also been the host location for a number of other community events such as the Unity Community Resource Centre Ladies’ Night Out and the annual Chamber of Commerce Santa Day. Corporate children’s parties are another popular option as are private rentals for birthday parties and fundraisers.
The business sells coupon books each Christmas season with two winners drawn to win free movies for a year. They also run giveaways, draws for movie merchandise, and hold promotions throughout the year to keep customers engaged and as their way of thanking them for their support.
Another bonus, say movie buffs, is the business offering frequent moviegoer cards for customers to collect stamps and earn admission to see a movie for free.
Movie passes are a popular gift option for the hard-to-buy-for person on a gift list and have also been a popular option for thank-you gifts and prizes.
A significant update was undertaken in recent years, upgrading equipment from 35mm film to digital format. The surround sound system has also been upgraded to accompany the new digital format. The outside display sign is electronic and the flooring and concession equipment were upgraded.
Residents added their thoughts to 2nd Avenue Cinema’s 30th-anniversary milestone, saying, “We never had to worry about there being nothing to do in Unity because there was always a movie to go to.”
“It was fun watching the Akerlund kids growing up either sitting in their TV room with their blanket off the admission desk or serving behind the concession counter as they grew older, and then watching them bring their own growing families to pitch in helping the family business.”
One review on their business states, “2nd Avenue Cinema is one of many things we miss about living in Unity. Since we moved to the city, we've continued to indulge our love of going to movies but the long line-ups, ridiculously expensive snacks and crappy parking here in the city make us miss our small-town movie theatre.”
People often remarked on the Akerlund family ensuring their business was an affordable entertainment option in their community. This reporter will always recall bringing her tween nieces and nephews from a city centre to the show in Unity and them being astounded at how they were able to purchase admission and plentiful treats for less than the price of admission alone at their big city movie theatres.
“The film booking process has also changed over the years with differences in booking rules for independent theatres,” Debbie says.
The duo says this has not been without its challenges as larger chain theatres are the priority.
Pandemic recovery in entertainment business
Things were rolling along for this small-town business and then the pandemic hit. How does a business that caters to entertainment enthusiasts operate during a lockdown?
“Like many other small businesses, we struggled through the pandemic. Thankfully, we made it through the pandemic because of our many years in business,” Debbie says.
“We were able to draw on our other sources for financial support and while we were not able to be open to show movies, there were times when we could keep our concession open. We are still recovering from the pandemic and the impacts of world events like inflation and the state of the economy. Our recovery is dependent on the support of the community and surrounding area.”
Debbie says there have been many highlights in the past 30 years. “It is always nice to see customers who came to the theatre when they were little now bring their children and grandchildren to watch a movie. We also enjoy attending the annual movie conventions when we can, especially the convention held in Hollywood in 2016.”
2nd Avenue Cinema has been a steadfast employer for students over their three decades in business and many of those students noted their appreciation for their first job as well as learning important life skills in people interaction, responsibility, and management skills.
Unity’s theatre doesn’t just offer entertainment options for Unity residents as they draw good support from out-of-town visitors who do not have the benefit of a theatre complex in their town.
The theatre offers a 24/7 movie phone line as well as a Facebook page that announces the latest release and provides other news and updates. The electronic sign and exterior poster board keep passersby up to date on what is showing or what new release is coming.
“We always try to play the movies our customers would like to see as soon as we can so they can be enjoyed the way movies were meant to be seen — on the big screen.”
“For 2nd Avenue Cinema: having a movie theatre in town, showing first-run movies, is a tremendous asset to the community, and is even a recruitment/retention tool for other businesses seeking to attract and keep employees.” Unity Chamber of Commerce president Helena Long, says.
“Thank you, Kevin, and Debbie, for sticking it out through the pandemic and keeping this valuable business alive in our community.”
“Our businesses give us the opportunity to build our lives here and raise our families with all the amenities we need,” Mayor Sharon Del Frari adds.