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Two Big Shows Compete Friday Night In Burns

In Burns, Oregon, this Friday night there’ll likely be two big shows in town. The armed group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge plan to hold a community meeting. But 7 p.m. is also when the new Star Wars movie debuts.

The Desert Historic Theatre in Burns is the only cinema for more than 100 miles -- and residents have been waiting anxiously for weeks to see “The Force Awakens.” The massive man that owns the 1940s-era theater goes by the handle, Tiny.

Tiny Pedersen expects a near sold-out show for his Star Wars premier Friday, and good crowds for Saturday and Sunday. First though, he’s running through all the older Star Wars movies this week -- tickets are free.

Operating a small theater in small town

Tiny bought this 1947 theater about 13 years ago. He doesn’t make a lot of money on the deal. Sometimes only a few people come out, a good day is 30. A lot of months, he’s lucky to break even. Just to heat the building up for a few hours each day costs about $1,000 a month in diesel this time of year.

To keep expenses down, Tiny’s daughter volunteers and young boys from town help out. Tiny has changed tires at Les Schwab for more than 30 years and his wife works in town.

“If you make a little money, that’s a good day,” Tiny said. “Most days you don’t in Harney County. You know the problem is that it’s spread out so far and there are only so many people to draw from.”

The theater can get new releases about a month-and-a-half after they’ve debuted in the city. Tiny said kids he knows by name drive in as much as a 100 miles to come to the show. So when the movie industry wouldn’t supply film anymore -- much of the county came together to raise money for Tiny’s new digital machine.

“It was about $100,000 -- yeah it wasn’t cheap,” Tiny said. “It was a major expense to get this thing done.”

Up some stairs barely wide enough for Tiny’s shoulders, the new projector blinks, hums and whizzes. It’s an odd island of high-tech in a sea of ground-in patina.

“That’s part of the reason why most of these smaller theaters have gone -- are unable to show a movie,” Tiny said. “Because they’ve converted to this. Film is no more available, I’ve still got the old camera in the back, but it’s an albatross around my neck.”

‘It kind of feels like you’re VIP'

Tiny isn’t really a movie buff. But he wants kids to have a fun, safe place here.

“You just enjoy with the kids, you talk to ‘em and you know most of them by name and ask them how they’re doing in school, how they are doing in their sport if be basketball or in wrestling or whatever,” Tiny said. “You just know those kids.”

Ten-year-old Tanner Harrison was helping out like regular at the theater before the show. “I think it’s cool putting, like doing the movies and seeing from upstairs,” he said. “I think that’s cool. It kind of feels like you’re VIP or something.”

He said there is no way he’s missing the Star Wars on Friday for some Malheur occupation meeting.

“I think going, like seeing Han Solo, I think that’s going to be pretty cool,” Tanner said.

And as for Star Wars vs. the Malheur occupiers’ meeting: Tiny said he won’t get skunked. Burns residents could use some escape, space cowboys and laughter to saber through the guns and grump.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.