Gray Duck Theater closes, new owners poised to take over space
Gray Duck owner Andy Smith, unable to recover financially from COVID, steps aside for Treedome couple Maggie Panetta and Nathaniel Nelson.
ROCHESTER — The screen has temporarily gone dark at Gray Duck Theater. The independent movie theater and coffee shop officially closed Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023.
New owners Nathaniel Nelson and Maggie Panetta say they don’t intend to let it stay dark for long.
“We plan to start having events and screenings in March,” Nelson said.
The couple are taking over the business from Andy Smith who was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in November 2022 .
Nelson and Panetta say they plan to reopen the theater as Pop’s Art Theater.
Smith opened Gray Duck Theater in May 2019.
By 2020, the business was beginning to build momentum. The theater was the first in Rochester to screen the Oscar-winning South Korean film “Parasite.” Rescreening of the film, Oscar shorts and a live Academy Awards party seemed to herald the beginning of a prosperous year.
“We were super excited and optimistic and felt we really had gotten somewhere before March,” said Gray Duck owner Andy Smith. The Oscar party felt like the “Super Bowl screening of movies” he said.
However, in March, the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to close the theater.
During the pandemic, the building owners were helpful and allowed him to pay whatever he could in rent. However, the landlords had invested heavily in turning the space into a theater.
“At a certain point, they have to pay their bills,” Smith said.
Smith took out loans to try to keep the theater afloat. Eventually, the debt service was outpacing revenue, he said.
“It wasn’t practical to continue on,” Smith said. ”We feel that hole wasn’t something we could climb out of.”
A plan to create a nonprofit business model wasn’t enough to avoid paying on debt that required more monthly payments than revenue, Smith added.
However, Smith said he's confident Rochester can and will support an independent small movie theater.
Nelson and Panetta will establish their own business and take over leasing the space. They said they plan to make some cosmetic changes in addition to creating a new brand. Nelson said he plans to screen films there at least five days a week.
Nelson and Panetta, co-owners of Treedome shop and production company, moved to Rochester from Winona to open their retail store in downtown Rochester.
Nelson said theaters took a major hit from the pandemic — more so than live performance venues and restaurants.
“Other businesses were able to do some things outside,” he said. “Theaters really got the raw end of the stick.”
The two said it was a natural step to take over the theater. Nelson, a videographer and filmmaker, was the first person to graduate with a film major from Winona State University.
“We’re probably more prepared to run a movie theater than we were to run a retail space,” Panetta said.
Nelson said he plans to have new releases every week and screenings at least five days per week. They are planning to do some minor cosmetic changes and a refresh of the space before reopening the theater.
The new branding is a nod to his father, who died suddenly in April 2022.
Nelson plans to hold an opening event sometime during the weekend of the Oscars which will be held March 12, 2023.