The Last Picture Show

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

The Southdale was one of those cynical and inhospitable haul-'em-in theaters, made almost entirely of extruded plastic like an airplane cabin. And whether thanks to the architecture or the weed, the cool blue light both advanced and retreated. It was shallow, then deep. It was here, then elsewhere. We were in it; it was outside of us. For visual dessert we later crawled out on an East Bank bridge and toked again to the zaggy red rhythms of Reddy Kilowatt, high with us above the Mississippi. Now there was a performer. (Anderson)

Film in the Cities
St. Paul

John Noltner

For many years, one of the most devoted film venues in the Twin Cities showed its soul in its trappings, which were spartan, cozy, and nomadic. Film in the Cities, the departed-and-lamented media center that began teaching kids and ended up teaching college students and faculty, providing cameras to would-be auteurs and hosting photo exhibitions, added film screenings to its package in the 1980s.

The first few shows were held in a classic film-club setting, the lobby of FITC's headquarters on University and Raymond in St. Paul. The windows had to be papered over, folding chairs were as good as it got, and the jittering hum of the 16mm projector was always part of the soundtrack. You had to really like movies--from avant-garde explorations of emulsion to raw personal documentaries, not to mention a memorable Hispanic science-fiction melodrama--to go there.

But after film fans discovered this eager alternative to other art houses, and some grant money came in, FITC found a wonderful hall in the Burlington Northern building in St. Paul. Here, where only board-of-directors presentations had gone before, was an actual projection booth along with real cushiony seats and dark-paneled walls--all providing the perfect setting for retrospectives and U.S. premieres by directors with musically throat-clearing names like Gyula Gazdag. Still, downtown St. Paul was a hard sell for entertainment. As audiences dwindled and the corporate co-optation of independent film began, FITC briefly moved its show to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design's student auditorium before turning out the light completely in 1993. (Anderson)

Cedar Theater
Oak Street Cinema
301 S.E. Oak St.

When Bob Cowgill ran the Cedar Theater in the late '70s and early '80s, the roof leaked water like a geyser. Residents of the nearby highrise would throw beer bottles, bicycles, and old stereo equipment onto the roof of the theater for target practice. The room was drafty in the fall and ice-cold in the winter, and it smelled like gas for years because of an oil company accident that spilled about a thousand gallons of fuel into the theater--a catastrophe that Cowgill jokingly likens to the Exxon Valdez incident. "It was a terrible theater," he says, "and yet it had a special place in the hearts of movie lovers in this town. It had a sense of independence."

Cowgill was 22 when he and a partner took out a bank loan to run the Cedar from 1978 to 1983. "We were young and naive and we rolled the dice on every single movie," he says. "We booked the films that we wanted to see ourselves. We'd spend everything we had to get a film like John Huston's Wise Blood, knowing that if it failed, the theater could close the next week."

But it didn't, instead becoming the Twin Cities' reigning first-run art house for several years--"the Lagoon Cinema of its day," Cowgill says. In the late '70s, the Uptown was still a mere second-run theater; distributors still took a hands-on approach to releasing films by the likes of Herzog and Fassbinder; and, crucially, home video hadn't yet spoiled the possibility of reopening a classic sleeper such as Days of Heaven and selling out the house. Daily newspaper critics were still interested enough to give substantial coverage: Cowgill remembers earning a long article on the front page of the Minneapolis Tribune's arts section when he dared to program a John Ford series against the big studio releases in the summer of '79. "These days, a retrospective of anything could never get that kind of placement amid blockbusters like Godzilla," he laments.

It's probably no coincidence that Cowgill sold his share of the Cedar in 1983--around the time the Reagan administration loosened laws that prohibited studios from owning theaters--or that he chose to sit out the late '80s and early '90s before launching Oak Street Cinema three years ago. "Every time I rent a tape of some film I really care about, I get this bittersweet feeling," Cowgill said in 1995. "We've got video, but what we really want are the movies." And at Oak Street, we've got 'em. (Rob Nelson)

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