The Last Picture Show

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

In the '50s, the Grandview epitomized luxury to McLaughlin. Mirrored walls made its tiny lobby seem larger; the peeps he stole of the ladies' powder-room foyer hinted at comforts far beyond anything offered in the utilitarian men's lav. Both the Grandview and the nearby Highland Theatre were designed in the 1930s by an Omaha Railroad worker named Myrtus Wright who moonlighted as an architect. He created the Highland, located on Cleveland near Ford Parkway, in 1939; reports vary as to whether the Grandview was built in 1933 or 1937. Its most remarkable feature was the cavernous screening room, where McLaughlin kissed a girl in the seventh grade and worried for a week what the priest would say at confession. "I got myself scared to death in that theater," he says. "The first movie I went to without an adult was The Wizard of Oz. I had bad dreams about witches for years."

McLaughlin moved out of the neighborhood before the theater was sold in 1970 to the founder of Mann Theatres, a Minneapolis-based chain. The late Marvin Mann partitioned off the Grandview's smooching balcony to create a smaller, second theater and for a few years operated the twin screens under the name Grandview Fine Arts Theatre. Mann, who also bought and subdivided the Highland Theatre, thought that showing foreign and fine-art films would appeal to the Macalester College students and faculty who lived in the neighborhood.

According to Steve Mann, who now owns the chain with his brother Benjie, the formula worked well enough. But in 1974, Marvin dropped the "Fine Arts" portion of the name and resumed showing new, mainstream movies at the Grandview, making it the only first-run theater in St. Paul for a time.

John Noltner

When McLaughlin moved back into the neighborhood 15 years ago with his own kids, he was thrilled that the Grandview was still open and--save better seating and higher prices (evening admission is now $6)--pretty much unchanged. The big screen still tilts slightly forward, making the stars seem that much larger than life. "It's great to walk a block and a half to see a film that's just been reviewed," says McLaughlin. "And it's a treasure for the neighborhood to have the art-deco character of the place. It feels like going to the movies felt when I was a kid." (Beth Hawkins)

Riverview Theater
3800 42nd Ave. S.

With its marquee jutting out diagonally like a blunt prow, the Riverview has ruled the intersection of 42nd Avenue and 38th Street in South Minneapolis for exactly half a century. Over the years it's shared the corner with a toy store, a drugstore (complete with soda fountain and TV-tube testing machine), a chop-suey joint, a holy-roller church, a bakery, a hair salon, and a hamburger diner; now a bunkerlike medical clinic, a coffee shop, and a garden store set off the unique charms of the Riverview's design. You might call it Deco-Prairie-Scando-Retro; by any name, it's a testament to a moment in history when theaters struggled mightily for an audience that suddenly had TV as an option.

"Movies are your best entertainment value," claimed a 1950s ad campaign, hoping to remind people that the group experience of a large-screen film in a swank setting would always beat out a box in your living room. Yet the Riverview--designed in 1948 by Jack Liebenberg and remodeled in 1956--is also the only movie theater I've ever seen with a TV set available for watching. (I suppose the plan was to offer All-Star Wrestling or Lux Video Theater to patrons who'd gotten bored with Annie Get Your Gun.)

The TV is still there, centered in the facade that divides the rest rooms; so is the snack bar, where once it was possible to hang out on a stool and savor thoughts of Debbie Reynolds or Elvis along with a milk shake. The hall itself is long and deep, with "stadium seating" in place since the years when only stadiums had it. Add the rec-room/lobby/lounge and massive copper drinking fountain, and the Riverview feels almost desperately cozy, mutating the old lobby concept of a grand ballroom into a less grand but appealing living room. The materials and shapes are arch-'50s, a neat version of Dick Van Dyke's TV home: turquoise tile, pickled oak, and oblique angles and kidney-shape contours everywhere. And as in many '50s structures, there are built-in planters placed where no daylight could possibly reach.

But it's not just '50s memories that define the place for me. When Woodstock came out in 1970, the Riverview had it exclusively because, as an independent house not tied to a chain, it had outbid all other theaters: People were coming from all over the metro to get high and watch the Who and Sly Stone. Not much later, proof of the Riverview's inspired eccentricity came when it showed The Godfather, Part II: Coppola's movie was preceded by a cartoon, a travelogue, and a newsreel to create a total 1939 experience.

That about sums up the Riverview--it's both true to its moment and out of its time, a working museum with present business to accomplish. Its true charm is that it's becoming a modest monument: As if through a time-lapse camera, you can keep it center-frame while the world evolves around it. The neighborhood was once so homogeneous that at the nearby school I was in fourth grade with three Barbara Petersons. Now Hong Kong films play each weekend, and neighbors of color wash their cars in the neat driveways of their bungalows. The Riverview has never had an actual view of the Mississippi, but it has been a window to the way we were and are becoming. (Phil Anderson)

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