- Grove City, Pennsylvania


March 23, 2012

Wanted: Caretakers for theater with a mission

COCHRANTON — Grace Motzing remembers dreaming that people were popping open umbrellas to stay dry while watching movies inside the Iris Theatre.

The theater's roof was leaking. There were "buckets everywhere" to catch the water. And there was no money to pay for a new roof.

"I was so worried about it that I dreamt of it at night," Grace Motzing said.

The roof got fixed. Other bills somehow got paid and the little theater on West Adams Street in Cochranton remained open.

Now Grace and her husband, Jack, who have operated the movie house as a kind of community ministry for 41 years, pray that someone will continue to keep it open.

Jack Motzing is 83, Grace is 80. Jack Motzing still orders films for the theater and shows them four to six nights a week. Grace Motzing sells tickets and concessions at every show. The theater shows Christian and family films only and doesn't charge anyone who can't afford to pay the modest ticket price.

"We've been thinking that one of these days we'll have to close because of our age," Jack Motzing said.

"We're not going to be here in 20 years. We've been praying a lot about what's going to happen to the theater," Grace Motzing said.

A community group that's come forward to learn theater operations, help to operate it and raise money to maintain it could be the miracle the Motzings have been praying for. But they wonder if committees and fundraisers can provide the thousands of hours and thousands of dollars that it takes to keep the theater's marquis lit.

"It doesn't come easy," Jack Motzing said.

The Iris Theatre was built in 1947 by contractor W.L. Dunn, who named it for his wife and opened it on her birthday. But the theater never prospered and closed by the mid-1960s. It remained closed until Dunn agreed to allow the Motzings to operate it, rent-free, in 1971.

The Motzings weren't interested in making money from the theater. They saw it instead as an opportunity for ministry.

"I used to tell my Sunday school class that we weren't being aggressive enough in putting God back into our society and making this a better place," Jack Motzing said. "They'd say, 'We're only a small group of people; what are we supposed to do?' But it bugged me."

Jack Motzing had seen a Billy Graham film called the "Restless Ones" in Franklin a few years before and been thrilled by the "ton of people" who accepted Christ right there in the front of the theater afterward.

"I never forgot that," he said.

He talked about the movie again Ñ and the need to do something in the community again Ñ one evening while drinking coffee at the kitchen table after chores on their dairy farm. Grace, who was washing dishes, threw the dish rag at him.

"She said, 'Then you either do something or shut your mouth,"' Jack Motzing said.

He called the Billy Graham organization, rented a movie and arranged to show it at the Grange Hall, where he invited viewers to accept Christ after each showing.

But attendance for that and later films was sparse. The Motzings decided the movies would do better at a real theater and approached Dunn about renting the Iris.

They began showing family films to subsidize the less well-attended Christian movies and later bought the theater from Dunn's estate.

"It was never a moneymaking proposition. The theater never made a dime. But there were two years that it almost broke even," Jack Motzing said.

When ticket and concession sales didn't cover expenses, the couple chipped in some of the money that they earned from their farm, from Jack Motzing's job as a clerk with the Bessemer & Lake Erie Railroad and from Grace Motzing's career selling real estate. Profits from a Sunoco station that they owned for a time also helped support the Iris.

A Meadville contractor replaced the building's roof, donating most of the cost. Donations from local churches paid the rest.

An anonymous benefactor in 2009 donated $10,000 to start a matching fund for the theater. The fund raised $23,000 -- enough to pay off a large part of the theater's debt and cover the cost to hook it up to a new sewer line.

When the building's original air-conditioning unit broke down soon afterward, Grace Motzing paid the $6,000 replacement cost with a check from a recent real estate sale. She still works for Howard Hanna.

"Whenever we couldn't pay the bills, something miraculous happened," Grace Motzing said.

Like the night they were about $70 short and a steer broke through their fence and walked up the road to the Motzing farm.

A young man passing by on his way to a date insisted on putting the steer in their barn and did, over Grace Motzing's protests, so that it wouldn't be hit by a car.

When calls determined that no neighboring farm was missing an animal, especially not one that was "a little beat up, like it might have been abused," the Motzings agreed to sell the steer to a buyer who called out of the blue. The buyer reasoned that the steer had jumped off a cattle truck on Route 19, about three miles away, and wandered to their farm.

"It paid for a lot of staples at the theater," Jack Motzing said.

Members of the Cochranton Area Redevelopment Efforts (C.A.R.E.) Group, the community organization planning to keep the theater open, are confident that they can do just that, said David Przybylek, the organization's treasurer.

"We're learning the ropes from Jack and Grace, raising the money for theater improvements and putting together volunteers to help run the theater. And the response so far has been great," Przybylek said.

Looking back, the Motzings wonder how they did all of that and more for so long.

"We didn't have much money. It seemed like we lived paycheck to paycheck all our lives," Jack Motzing said. "But I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's been a wonderful journey for us."

The couple still receives letters from across the country thanking them for the Iris, and often for the introduction to Christ.

"Anytime we'd be down one day, we'd get a letter saying, 'Don't ever close that place,' and explaining what the Lord had done for them in their lives," Grace Motzing said. "And that's what really counts."

Editor's note: The C.A.R.E. Group has been trying to get non-profit status for the Irish Theatre. The Motzings are still looking for buyers to take it over. The Iris is the only cinema that operates in Cochranton.

Published March 3, 2012, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.

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