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Chief Theatre (Paul Bunyan Playhouse), Bemidji

Beltrami County Historical Society
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Exterior of the Chief Theatre

Exterior of the Chief Theatre in Bemidji. Photograph by Keith Ewing, July 1, 2017. CC BY-NC 2.0.

The Chief Theatre, the primary movie theater in downtown Bemidji, opened in 1937 and operated until 1991. In 1992, it became the home of the Paul Bunyan Playhouse as well as the venue of Bemidji Communty Theatre.

The Chief Theatre opened its doors on Thursday, June 24, 1937, at 314 Beltrami Avenue—the heart of downtown Bemidji’s business district. The architectural firm Liebenberg and Kaplan designed the building and guided construction beginning in the early spring. After about four months of work, the theatre was ready for its formal opening: a screening of the 1937 hit Turn Off the Moon. Over 2,000 people attended the matinee and evening performances on opening day.

The 800-seat theater was owned and operated by the Berger Amusement Company and was named the “Chief” by Ben Berger. It featured a faux-Aztec modernist design with a Native American figure on each side of the stage as well as “Indian” designs on the walls. The pieces were individually made in New York to decorate the entrance to the theater’s lobby. In keeping with the Art Deco style, rounded walls and columns led to a downstairs lounge with mirrored walls. A thirty-five-foot canopy made of leaded iron extended over the street.

The Baehr brothers, A. W. and E. J., purchased the theater from the Berger Amusement Company in January 1944 (John Bender took over as manager and continued in that role until his retirement in October of 1972). Throughout that year, both the Bemidji and Chief Theatres offered free admission to servicemen in uniform. Tickets were ten cents for children and thirty-five cents for adults. During intermissions and before movies started, patrons were urged to buy War Bonds or to donate to charities like the March of Dimes.

The annual Christmas movie was a major event. Children waited in line to get into the theater. A performer dressed as Santa Claus then handed out bags of peanuts and candy donated by local benevolent organizations, such as the Bemidji chapter of the Elks Lodge.

The theater was preserved in its original state until 1960, when Cinemascope was introduced. In 1972 the Baehr brothers sold the theater to Norman Olson, who in turn sold it to Bud and Gloria Woodard in July of 1976.

Bud Woodard had spent most of his lifetime in the theater business. He began working in the profession as a youth and continued until his retirement. He and Gloria renovated the building but preserved its unique design, placing special value on the designs on each side of the stage. The theater’s final screening was the John Candy film Only the Lonely.

The theater closed on a Thursday evening: June 13, 1991. The next evening, a newly remodeled and expanded theater—the Amigo Five, just northwest of the city—opened and continued showing Only the Lonely for another week.

The theater was sold to the Paul Bunyan Playhouse on January 2, 1992. The Playhouse, the oldest professional summer stock company in Minnesota, began in 1950 on the grounds of Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge. After buying the Chief Theatre, it remodeled the building to accommodate its needs and decreased seating capacity from 800 to 315. The company opened its summer season at the theater in June with the play Summer Romance.

A Chief Theater fundraiser held in March 2016 featured screenings of the films Roman Holiday and Gone with the Wind. Their success inspired the theater’s board members to host more movie nights. Through a grant from the George W. Neilson Foundation, they bought new projection equipment, a screen, lighting, and sound equipment, which was installed in August 2016.

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  • Related Resources

Best Things Minnesota. The Historic Chief Theater.

Hoyum, Wanda. “The Historic Chief Theatre.” Bemidji Pioneer.

McKeig, Cecelia Wattles. Bemidji. [N.p.]: Self-published, 2010.

“Santa is Coming to Town.” Bemidji Pioneer, December 12, 1974.

Stivers, Maggi. “Show Time: Paul Bunyan Playhouse Holds Movie Nights at Chief Theater.” Bemidji Pioneer, December 11, 2016.

Woodard, Gloria (former owner of the Chief Theatre). Conversation with the author, July 2017.

Related Images

Exterior of the Chief Theatre
Exterior of the Chief Theatre
Chief Theatre under construction
Chief Theatre under construction
Exterior of the Chief Theatre in Bemidji, 1975.
Exterior of the Chief Theatre in Bemidji, 1975.

Turning Point

John Bender takes over the management of the Chief Theatre in January 1944.



The Chief Theatre opens on June 24.


In January, A. W. and E. J. Baehr purchase the Chief Theatre from the Berger Amusement Company. John Bender takes over management.


The theater undergoes major remodeling to accommodate Cinemascope.


Norman Olson purchases the theater.


Olson sells the theater to Bud and Gloria Woodard in July.


The theater has its last showing and is closed on June 13.


The Woodards sell the theater to the Paul Bunyan Playhouse on January 2.


The Paul Bunyan Playhouse holds its first movie night in March.


The Paul Bunyan Playhouse installs a new screen and projection equipment in August.