Teens Convince City to Build Movie Theater

Incredible Kids, People
on February 12, 2006

At an age when most girls use their free time to go to the movies, seven young women in Petaluma, Calif. (pop. 54,548), worked tirelessly to bring the movies to their community.

The teens convinced their city council to build a $9 million multiplex on Petaluma Boulevard in the heart of downtown. But first they had to spend almost four years attending local government meetings, lobbying theater owners and promoting their town as a good place to do business. Dubbed "The Superb Seven" by their parents, the girls—Noëlle Bisson, 17; Elizabeth Comstock, 16; Ashley Ditmer, 16; Liza Hall, 16; Sarah Marcia, 16; Taylor Norman, 17, and Madison Webb, 16—were the guests of honor when the 12-screen Boulevard Cinemas opened last May.

"We wanted to go to the movies, even if our parents didn’t want to drive us," says Hall, a junior at Petaluma High School. "Our Girl Scout meetings turned into brainstorming sessions. We started talking to people to find out what it would entail [to bring a theater downtown.]"

The need was evident. "Petaluma was the biggest town west of the Mississippi without a movie house," Mayor David Glass says. "The girls came to every planning commission and city council meeting and spoke to the issues. It wouldn’t have happened without them."

Glass says some interested parties wanted the theater built north of downtown, and he credits the girls for "having the good sense to want it downtown so kids could walk to it." Since opening last spring, the entertainment spot has infused millions of dollars into the town’s economy and drawn new business downtown.

The success didn’t happen overnight. Following a Business for Dummies book, the girls developed a master plan for attracting a theater and honed their message as they went. "We were only 11 or 12 when we started, but we came up with most of the plan ourselves," Comstock says.

The girls’ parents pitched in, driving them to meetings and serving refreshments. The parents and other adults became impressed by the teens’ professionalism and grasp of the issues. "I think kids anywhere could be this successful if only one adult would believe in them," says Patty Norman, Taylor’s mom.

The Superb Seven divided duties equally and kept each other focused. For presentations before the city council, "we’d all show up at every meeting in business attire, present our business plan and speak without stuttering," Marcia says. "People realized we were serious and would do anything to [bring the theater downtown.]"

The turning point came in a meeting with Gordon Radley, then president of the California-based moviemaking production powerhouse Lucasfilm Ltd. "I’ve had presentations by Fortune 100 companies that weren’t as professional as those young women," Radley recalls. He became the girls’ mentor, introducing them to area theater owners and others who helped fine-tune their business pitch. He also provided a copy of American Graffiti, a 1973 film classic that was partly filmed in Petaluma. At a rally they organized to support their cause, the girls projected the movie on the blank back wall of a restaurant—the spot now occupied by Petaluma’s new multiplex. "We were nervous before the Lucasfilm meeting," Webb says. "When we realized we’d impressed them, it gave us a lot of confidence."

Their dogged persistence finally paid off. "We were younger then, and probably a bit naive," Comstock acknowledges. "We kept going to every meeting and speaking out."

City leaders eventually realized the wisdom of—and widespread support for—a downtown theater. Today, seven plaques honor the girls on the sidewalk outside the multiplex, and six of the seven girls have part-time jobs at the theater.

"I think [the plaques] are really cool," Marcia says. "We can show them to our kids when we’re older. It reminds us that everyone can make a contribution to your community, even if you’re only 13 or 14."