The Last Picture Show

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

Har-Mar Cinema 11
2100 Snelling Ave.

John Noltner

Go past the Burger King-Quik Mart-Ground Round-You Name the Chain They've Got It strip, through the hobby-farm-sized acreage of parking tar, into the belly of the mall proper, where a Barnes & Noble mural has Nabokov, Kipling, and Trollope & Co. absurdly smoking pipes, critting lit, and otherwise highbrowing it in Technicolor. Pass the Merle Norman wig stand (Farrah lives on) and the country-furnishing mart (We Have Beanies!!!), and behold: Har-Mar Theatres, known in Fargo-land as Herrr-Merrr and in the frozen-films section as Haärgen-Mar. Its original, late-'60s twin theaters split a few years back into triplets while another litter of eight got tacked onto the back, but Har-Mar still reigns triumphant when it comes to toilets.

These bathrooms could easily moonlight on a Paris runway: The compound of five primary-color stalls (each outfitted with a matching sink-potty ensemble) is garbed in haute-couture fabrics starting with thick-pile, leopard-print fur on the highly pettable ceilings; in the center is an industrial-sized counter of clear acrylic like the one on which mom would park her macramé belts and false eyelashes after rustling up some fondue. Everything you ever wanted to know about the history of Har-Mar is told in bold strokes in this last refuge from the march of Time. Under a thick skin of what looks to be hardened methylparaben, the gold-glitter walls shine like a lamé sanctum sanctorum. The bare multibulb fixture blares above the mirror bank, erasing all spots and creases in its blinding fire.

Out in the lobby--well, there've been a few concessions to aging mall rats. Starbucks now supplies the coffee. A computer spits out the tickets. What runs at this General Cinema is hardly of note--no classics, no second runs, no subtitles. Last week, Godzilla was grazing on New York at full blast on all three front screens from 11 a.m. until midnight.

After a full round of the premises, one last matter remains--the name. Word is the mall's original owners, Harry and Marie, left it as their gift to the future. The afternoon cashier, busy primping her cuticles, admits she hasn't a clue. Turnover here is high, and institutional memory sketchy. "Beats me," she says. "But I did for a while date a guy in Pittsburgh named Harmar. He liked to ride chopper, fly little planes and stuff. I'd have to doubt that's where this place got its name, but you never know." (Josie Rawson)

Skyway 6 Theatres
711 Hennepin Ave.

It's hard to tell exactly how and when the Skyway 6 earned its wrongful rep as the bad boy of local theaters. Even under the ownership of the prosperous Cineplex Odeon chain, downtown Minneapolis's only movie house has suffered some persistently poor PR, not to mention general neglect. How did a first-run theater in the heart of the city fall out of mainstream fashion?

Some might point to the night, in 1991, when gunfire broke out after a Skyway screening of John Singleton's decidedly pro-peace classic, Boyz N the Hood. Seven people, some of whom claimed gang affiliation, were injured, and the incident set off a mini-media frenzy over violence in the burgeoning 'hood genre. Oddly, there were few signs of public outrage three years later when Michael Hegstrand, a Caucasian and former member of pro-wrestling tag team the Road Warriors, was arrested for violently assaulting a teenager of color at the same site.

Long before Boyz hit the screen, I remember visiting the Skyway to see another coming-of-age flick: Moms was cool enough to escort me and a friend to see The Breakfast Club in 1985. I distinctly recall riding the shiny escalator from the box office up to the main lobby, marveling at its vaguely cosmopolitan air. It's still there, as are the friendly, clean-pressed ticket takers and a solid acre of tragically retro carpet. These days, however, you might also step off the escalator to find one of Minneapolis's finest standing across from the candy counter, keeping a watchful eye on the theater's predominately teen and twentysomething clientele. You could see this as the mark of a high-risk zone. Then again, I've seen two cops posted outside Champp's.

Maybe the Skyway's edgy mystique has less to do with felonious conduct than with familiar trends. Ever since theater proprietors decided to follow Minneapolis money into the suburbs, moviegoers have had one less reason to enjoy a proper urban center. Why see Godzilla on Seventh and Hennepin when it's showing on three screens in the 'burb next door? Lack of free parking is a minus, too, and the neighboring storefronts--alternately seedy and abandoned--don't offer much in the way of preshow window-shopping.

But for all of its practical drawbacks and illusory danger, the Skyway is still among the Twin Cities' most vital venues, if only because it offers a more varied cultural spectrum than any of its metro competitors. Rare is the pocket of Minnesota where whites constitute a minority, and the Skyway is often just such an anomaly. The ownership seems bent on rewarding the core black audience with a heightened presence of "urban" films: From the lowbrow hysteria of Booty Call to the first-rate hip-hop documentary Rhyme & Reason to Spike Lee's vastly underrated Girl 6, black protagonists live longer and livelier on the Skyway's six screens than they do elsewhere. And whereas the nearby Uptown cartel boasts an air of artsy exclusivity, this theater's idea of cinéma moderne appeals to broader sensibilities, unafraid to set He Got Game alongside action-packed brain candy and hit horror flicks like Scream 2 and the aforementioned 'Zilla.

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