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One of nation's last surviving silent theaters struggles to hold on after building damage

Dale and Gail Zieger bought the nearly century-old theater on the main drag in Hart years ago, and are using it to keep the early days of cinema alive.

HART, Mich. — Everyone knows you have to be quiet at the movies, but most people today weren't around when the movies themselves were silent, too. 

A couple in West Michigan brings back the spirit of 1920s cinema every weekend at their silent movie theater, but some damage to the building puts that in danger of coming to an end.

Dale and Gail Zieger bought the nearly century-old theater on the main drag in Hart seven years ago.

"It was never a performance theater," says Dale. "It was a neighborhood movie house."

When it opened in 1927, it was the Hart Theater, and silent movies were all the rage. Today, it's Dale and Gail's Music and Art Gallery, and it's keeping early cinema alive.

"As far as we know, there's nobody else in the state, or not too many in the country," says Gail.

In traditional fashion, the films are accompanied by a live musical performance.

The couple's dog, Loki, sits under the piano, their parrot, Butch, on his perch on stage. Dale himself improvises tunes as the movie plays.

"They just sit there with their mouths open," he says of the audience.

Those crowds, only recently back after theaters closed during the pandemic, filled with people of all ages, including one visitor that was more than 100-years-old.

But it's the younger generation that are eager to learn more about a bygone era in film.

"It's kind of an amazing education to what we had, and then we appreciate what we do now today with it," says Dale.

That education, however, is at risk.

"We had that big storm, about a month ago," says Gail.

The roof took some major damage, leaking into the apartments above the theater and threatening to leak into the auditorium itself.

Dale and Gail are afraid their time machine of a theater may not make it to the future.

"We weren't prepared for the $40,000, $50,000 expense of a new roof on this building," says Dale. "And we're working through some new channels hoping that we can get it done. But it is very, very tough."

Despite the challenge ahead, they plan to entertain their beloved community until the music stops for good.

"I put my heart in Hart," says Gail. "And I put my heart in this home."

The Zieger's aren't without help, though. They say community members have already reached out offering help to get the roof damage taken care of, and they believe they will be able to make it through.


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