The Last Picture Show

Movie theaters used to have majestic screens, rocking chairs, and real butter. Some still do.

Cooper Theatre
St. Louis Park

For this small-town kid weaned on Disney and drive-ins, a risqué film experience meant sneaking into Caddyshack without proper ID and a little rum in my Coke. That changed on a muggy Saturday evening in 1986, when I trekked off to see David Lynch's Blue Velvet at the Cooper Theatre in St. Louis Park.

John Noltner

It was the film's opening night, and the Twin Cities' largest single-screen movie house was filled to capacity with 800 suburbanites, hipsters, couples, and lonely hearts. When Lynch pissed on suburbia's white picket fence, his goody good guys and evil caricatures turned the audience's sporadic snickers into a collective howl. When he shamelessly and ruthlessly degraded his femme fatale to turn the detective genre on its head, a half-dozen ticket holders hit the squeaky swinging doors; their shouts for a refund echoed past the Cooper's supersized, overstaffed concession stand (where real popcorn was popped to be topped with real butter).

Then, for the first time since watching Warner Bros. cartoons while dangling on my father's knee, I was rapt. The rusty red exit signs faded from the corner of my mind's eye. The tattered edges of the screen no longer kept fantasy segregated from reality. Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth--tripping on carbon monoxide, OD'd on misogyny--pitched a tent in my subconscious, daring my anxieties to look in the mirror. I don't think I was alone. While Lynch gleefully terrorized his protagonists, the Cooper's refrigerated air seemed to have frozen the audience solid.

Over the coming months, I scoured the movie listings for a similar sensation, convinced it was the film and not the venue that had given me such a high. Grades be damned, I spent school days watching foreign films at the University of Minnesota's Bell Auditorium, weekends catching up on the classics at Walker Art Center, and evenings bundled in the Uptown Theatre's dank balcony documenting the differences between studio sludge and independent cinema. Still, I couldn't re-create the experience at the Cooper, couldn't simulate that full-body buzz.

Two years later I found myself back in St. Louis Park, once again lounging in one of the Cooper's soft blue velvet seats and watching the first local screening of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Outside, protesters were picketing the controversial adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis's spiritual novel, making those of us who'd braved the line feel somehow special. The energy I'd felt at Blue Velvet suddenly seemed accessible.

And sure enough, when Willem Dafoe's Jesus was denying the Devil, it happened again. Goosebumps covered my arms, and exhilaration buzzed in my gut.

That very day I vowed to see every movie Cineplex Odeon would show at its neglected flagship. For the next 36 months, no matter how brilliant or bad the film (the breathtaking restoration of Lawrence of Arabia, Jack Nicholson's unmentionable sequel to Chinatown, Kevin Costner's bloated Dances With Wolves, U2's egotistical Rattle and Hum), the experience was special.

In part it was the Cooper's aesthetic, unchanged since the theater was built for $1 million in 1962. From the high ceilings in the spacious lobby to the once-plush carpeting running up the stair-stepped floors to the screen--35 feet high, 105 feet wide, and literally wrapped around the first few aisles--the Cooper felt like a remnant of a time when seeing a movie was an event not unlike a night on the Great White Way. Sometimes I'd even feel compelled to dress up a little, just because that's what the place deserved.

Years after the Cooper was unceremoniously destroyed in 1991 to make room for an office building, I rented a copy of Blue Velvet and readied my psyche for a workout. But when Frank Booth made his appearance there was no menace, no thrill. Lynch's film--the film that changed my life--seemed inconsequential, no more challenging than the average thriller. Still, I know that if the Cooper were still standing, I'd pay double to see Blue Velvet or Godzilla--or even Caddyshack--again and again. Because on that screen, in that place, projected light was more than entertainment. It was magic. (David Schimke)

Parkway Theater
4814 Chicago Ave.

When the Parkway opened in 1931, it was the last place you'd go in Minneapolis--literally. The theater stood at what was then the edge of the city, and the streetcar line used to turn around right in front.

Like the neighborhood the Parkway used to anchor, the theater has aged. But it's done so in a grand way, reminding you of a faded yet powerful past. The multicolored carpet is badly frayed and dull, and the gray-and-black-speckled paint on the walls and ceiling is cracking. The wall draperies, in goldenrod, royal blue, and burnt orange, harken back to a time when kitchen appliances wore those colors, and the proscenium curtain no longer opens or closes. Even the air in the theater feels old, lukewarm, and humid.

But for all its faded grandeur, the Parkway is still part of a tradition in which going to a movie is more than just a way to get away from a stuffy house. The huge auditorium looks like you could hang glide through it, and the screen rests above a small stage where you can almost see a piano player.

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