The Phantom of the Movie House

Jack Liebenberg's forgotten legacy.

But after '40s antitrust legislation took control of movie theaters away from production companies, the theater boom waned. In the '50s, the twin advent of television and suburbia permanently altered the economics of cinema and gave birth to the megaplex. By this time Liebenberg had established his reputation, and as local anti-Semitism relaxed from its peak in the '30s he picked up contracts outside the movie industry.

Today not much of Liebenberg's legacy survives. Though a number of his theaters still stand (the Uptown, the Edina, and the Varsity among them), their interiors have suffered years of neglect and ham-handed remodeling to the point of becoming unrecognizable. Only their classic facades remain, providing an ironic counterpoint to the bare concrete and cookie-cutter design of their newer counterparts. Scherer says he refuses to set foot into a contemporary theater: "It's all bottom-line minimalism," he growls. "Get them in, get them out. Pack them in, pack them out. You feel like a sheep being herded to the stockyard."

Still, it's possible to get a sense of the architectural passion that once made movie theaters more than black boxes; it just takes a five-hour road trip. Fargo, North Dakota, has a partially restored Liebenberg movie house, the Fargo Theater, which features art films, stage performances, and regular recitals on an original Wurlitzer pipe organ. The theater is currently closed for restoration, but will reopen later this summer. (Joseph Hart/Dara Moskowitz)

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