The Last Picture Show

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

You could call this a travesty, or you could just call it the work of the free market's invisible hand. Steve Mann, whose company has operated the Boulevard since 1972, sees it as a little of both. Over the past few years, Mann says, attendance at the theater steadily dropped--partly, he speculates, because of competition from video and satellite TV. "Our lease expired two years ago," Mann explains, "and we had been on a month-to-month basis ever since. I negotiated with Bruce Bermel, the owner of the building, to extend the lease three years. He wanted me to extend it to 10. I could've updated the building, but I didn't know what my destiny was going to be. Bermel then decided to do a redevelopment of the building, and he found an anchor tenant--Hollywood Video."

Residents caught wind that the theater was in danger early last winter. A 300-member Tangletown Association formed, gathered more than 5,000 save-the-Boulevard signatures, and enlisted the support of 11th Ward City Council member Dore Mead--all to no avail. "Unfortunately Bermel was not asking the city for assistance," Mead says, "so we did not have a hook into him. It was frustrating because of the incredible resources that came forward to keep the theater going. The head of the Minnesota Film Board, Randy Adamsick, offered to help. The mayor's office offered financial assistance." But ultimately, Mead concedes, Bermel had the right to do with the building as his bottom line demanded.

In fairness, dollars speak louder than words. Had theater attendance consistently matched the number of, say, membership in the Tangletown Association, perhaps the Boulevard would've been a venture worthy of future investment. "I didn't kick the theater out," Bermel says. "I subsidized [it] for 20 years, only charging them taxes and operating expenses to help keep them profitable. The film industry changed. People would rather spend their money on videos or go see Titanic at the mall megaplexes. Fifteen years ago, you couldn't find parking in our lot, or on the neighboring streets because the theater would be so full. That's not the way it is now." (Christina Schmitt)

Southtown Theater
Bloomington

The Southtown Shopping Center has never been so busy. The recently revamped '50s mall has a new Kohl's and a Bed, Bath and Beyond store; on the corner, a strip of brick and glass lines up Bruegger's Bagel Bakery, Subway, Play It Again Sports, and Mailboxes Etc. Judging from the packed parking lot on a sunny Saturday, property owner Kraus Anderson's plans to revitalize the shopping area have paid off.

But if you grew up in the south suburbs of Minneapolis, it's hard not to get a lump in your throat as you drive past that new strip mall. You see, until 1995, this was the location of the Southtown Theater, one of Bloomington's first--and one of the metro's last--grand movie houses. When it opened in 1964, Bloomington had arrived.

The theater's horseshoe shape soared above I-494, glittering as the sun caught its crushed white-quartz panels. A marquee spanning the front announced current showings in bright lights. "There was this feeling that every time you drove up a red carpet would roll out," says Todd Cummings, the last manager of the Southtown before it was torn down to make way for Bruegger's in October 1995.

In 1964, says Steve Mann, whose father and uncle built the theater, the Southtown was a venue like no other. The inside, all shades of red, brick, maroon, and rust, featured a fountain, complete with goldfish, and backlit cut-glass panels on the walls. The auditorium seated 1,200 in plush rocker chairs, and the back eight rows had ashtrays built into the seats. In the ladies' room, each stall had its own sink and makeup mirror. "The ladies really liked the bathroom," Mann says.

But Mann's uncle wanted to move to California in the '70s and the theater was sold to General Cinema. That company eventually divided the single auditorium into two in the early '80s. "What a crime when they put a wall down the middle of that theater," Mann moans. In the 1,200-seat auditorium, all the chairs had been slanted toward the middle of the screen. When the wall was built the seats weren't moved, creating some neck-twisting perspectives.

The Southtown ultimately fell victim to competition from its own corporate parent, Mann says, sitting smack between General Cinema's Mall of America and Centennial Lakes theaters. When the demolition plans were announced Mann tried to buy it back and turn it into a discount theater, but was turned down: The land the Southtown was on had become too valuable for the movies. (Wittman)

Southdale Theater
Edina

Movies don't happen without light, of course, but light itself is cinematic. This came clear through the fog of my first trip to a mall-plex shoebox theater. It was...the late '60s? Very early '70s? The movie was a reissue of Fantasia, the venue was the now-defunct Southdale, and we were stoned. We had the visual munchies for dancing hippos and skittering toadstools and those brooms chasing Mickey. But before the movie there was...a screen-size cool blue light. No curtains. No previews or movie trivia. Just a giant wall built from a single brick of intangible blueness.

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