On any given day, you might find Art Proctor sweeping floors in the Avalon Theatre, Tom Henderson blowing leaves off the sidewalk in front of the Murray Theatre or Greg Tanner splicing film in the Tower Theatre's projection booth.

While it wouldn't be out of the ordinary to see a theater employee perform such menial tasks, it seems strange to see the boss doing it.

Proctor, Henderson and Tanner manage the Avalon, Murray and Tower theaters, respectively, three of only a handful of independent movie houses still operating locally.

According to Henderson, who has operated the Murray Theatre for his family for the past five years, it simply isn't feasible for him to hire a lot of outside employees.

"To survive in this business, you do what you have to. And that includes doing a lot of the dirty work yourself," he said.

For all three theaters (as well as their fellow single-screen cinemas around the state), financial survival has been particularly hard this year, and not just because they're facing stiff competition from the major theater chains, which continue to build multi-screen theater complexes throughout the state.

The Tower struggles under financial burdens accrued from its earlier incarnations as the Blue Mouse and Cinema in Your Face. And the Murray and Avalon theaters are both "subruns" that primarily bring in movies after they've played in the major chain cinemas.

Consequently, over the past few years they have struggled to book movies that are appropriate for all ages but which would also bring in a crowd.

"It never used to be so hard to find product, but it seems like Hollywood doesn't have any interest in making good, clean movies anymore," said Proctor, echoing complaints of other theater owners (primarily Bill Call, who runs the Kaysville Theater, and Dolores Kohler of the Sandcastle in Bountiful).

With more than 50 years working in theaters and more than 30 as an owner, Proctor is the elder statesman among Salt Lake theater owners. And the Avalon celebrated 50 years in business this past spring.

The key to success for these independent theaters appears to be attracting audiences who have been turned off by the less personal multiplex theater experience. Their ticket prices tend to be half of those charged by theater chains, as do their concession prices (though, as a first-run theater, the Tower must charge first-run ticket prices).

Unfortunately for the owners, lower ticket prices also mean less revenue.

Of course, the theaters aren't just at the mercy of film studios and fickle filmgoers anymore. They are also at the mercy of film distributors.

"(The distributors) have us over a barrel. They don't have to give us anything, but many of them still do," Henderson said. "The movie theater chains ... can keep their films on some screens almost until they go to (home video). And then we've got to contend with the dollar houses just to get what movies remain."

Surviving in the competitive world of cinema also means diversification. The Tower has carved out its own niche by bringing in foreign films and other "arthouse cinema" fare. "We're trying to target a more upscale audience - a college-age or educated crowd - with what we bring in. Our target audience has more specialized tastes."

Proctor, who once owned the Blue Mouse and gave Tanner his start there, sometimes tries to target film buffs at the Avalon as well. On some weeks, he will show a classic movie from the '30s, '40s or '50s (many of which he owns on 16mm) rather than settle for whatever movies are available at the time.

"You've got to do something different these days," Proctor agreed. "There are so many theaters competing for audiences and they've all got the same thing playing."

Both the Tower and Avalon also have video rental businesses, which have buoyed them up during particularly lean times. The Murray has found its gold mine in a popular Saturday night hypnotism show that features Ben Van Der Meide. (The Avalon also offers a Saturday night hypnotism show from Don Spencer.)

Many single-screen theaters haven't been as lucky. The casualty list includes the Rialto Theater (now home to the Off Broadway Theatre troupe) and the Vista Theater (now a live dinner theater, the Desert Star Playhouse). Both the Centre and Century theaters have made way for multiplexes located on their old sites. Even the Villa Theater is now part of a national Carmike movie chain.

Still, just one bad week can significantly hurt an independent theater.

"We're constantly dancing on the edge of closing," Tanner said, noting that he is currently looking for a major investor to right the Tower's financial ship.

"When you still owe (distributors) money, it's hard to get the best films from them," he said. "There's no question that we've lost out on getting some movies we wanted because of our financial standing."

Of the three, the Avalon is probably in the best shape because Proctor actually owns his theater. Tanner and Henderson are operating their respective theaters in sites owned by other people.

But Proctor admits he has had offers that have tempted him to sell the Avalon, as has Henderson with the Murray. Henderson is also hoping to work out an exclusive arrangement to show locally made movies produced by Feature Films for Families, a home video distribution company based in Murray.

"It's an experiment for both of us," Henderson said. "They want to see if their movies can do well theatrically and I'm always looking for another way to bring in family films.

"But it doesn't mean anything if people don't come out and support it."