Theater owner says he’s unfairly caught in the middle of political spat


By Jennifer Eisenbart

Staff writer

Want to rent the Plaza Theater in Burlington?

That’s fine, regardless of your political leanings, as long as you agree to pay the rental fee.

Plaza Theater owner Shad Branen said Monday that “any group is welcome to rent it any day,” and he has no desire to show support for any particular group.

His decision to rent the theater to the Burlington Progressives for a Wednesday showing of “The Koch Brothers – Exposed” drew the ire of local conservatives, as the WeVote Burlington group began drawing up plans to protest the showing.

On the group’s Facebook page – a private page that is available only by asking to be allowed to join – some members called for a boycott of the local theater.

“Seems a well-publicized boycott is in order,” wrote one person on the site. “This theater cannot survive if it chooses sides. There just aren’t enough liberals in this area.”

Another person posted two comments. The first: “It looks like Plaza owners are in the tank with progressives.” Then later, “I don’t believe in boycotts, but I do believe in phone calls to the owners and to the local paper. Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t there a connection between the two? Does the name Brannen (sp?) sound familiar? Who owns what? I try to support local business, but the hair on my back stands up when they ‘cross the line’ and use their business to promote political agendas. Nothing wrong with a walk there to make a statement! Wednesday sounds like a good time.”

WeVote page moderator Bonnie Ketterhagen later wrote, “Last Dec., we protested their ‘Occupy the Plaza’ night (against Walker – with petitions). We had plants in the movie, theater and halls. We even recorded them. I recorded talking with Branen. He says it costs $200 to rent it. It is business. While protesting, we counted 25 entering the movie. Some did turn away because of us … My question remains … who is with me?”

Branen, who’s family sold the Standard Press more than a decade ago and has no affiliation with the newspaper, said Monday that the theater is not reflecting anyone’s political views.

“No, definitely not,” Branen said. “I try not to allow my feelings to enter into any business decision.

“They are expressing their political beliefs,” Branen added. “I don’t have any issues (with either side).”

Branen pointed out that the theater has played host to a number of events over the past several months. He also said the “Occupy the Plaza” event brought some protesters in to ask questions, which he answered – and had hoped had clarified any accusations of partisanship.

“If it looks like we’re taking a stance … that’s certainly not the case,” he said. “We’re renting the facility.”

He added that he would like to see both sides of any argument respect each other.

“I would hope anybody would respect the other side from their beliefs,” Branen said. “That’s what this country is about, the last time I checked.”

Ketterhagen said Tuesday that something had been planned, but whether or not she’d have enough people, she wasn’t sure.

“I have the right to stand on a sidewalk,” she said.

Jordan Debbink later emailed the Standard Press with his comments, apparently cut and pasted from the Facebook page. Debbink commented against the boycott, but also made a political stance.

“Let’s take a breath,” Debbink said in his first post. “I also talked to the owner the Night of our first Counter Protest of these Occupied the Plaza people. The owner is just trying to stay in business, and one way he can do that is by renting rooms. He told me that he would charge the same amount to a conservative group, he isn’t taking sides, he is trying to run a business. We were not there that night to protest the plaza but to protest the occupiers and the progressives. Lets make sure we have the message straight.

He later added: “the point of these rallies is not to sway the liberals, it is to clean up our backyard, to show that we are not afraid to stand out in the open and say “Hey enough is enough, we won’t let you rule this city.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: In an attempt to better reflect the evolving opinions surrounding this issue since Tuesday’s original deadline, this story was updated late Thursday afternoon to include the full text of some of the comments quoted and to provide additional comments that appeared on the WeVote Facebook page after the story had gone to press.