Cinema Inferno

"Economic realities" threaten the Suburban World's sheltering sky

Tenth Ward City Council member Lisa McDonald is also cautiously supportive. McDonald says she won't support approval of Cinema Grill's proposal until she sees final plans for the renovation. But, she adds, the makeover may be the best hope for the property: "If I had my druthers, I'd rather have it be a movie theater than a clothing store."

Or a video store. It was only last year, after all, that the Boulevard Theater on Lyndale Avenue and 53rd Street--also a Mann theater--was turned into a Hollywood Video franchise. In the Twin Cities and nationwide, single-screen movie theaters have become an endangered species: Although no official studies are available, local movie guides list a mere seven such venues compared to a mind-boggling 361 multiplex screens.

It's no coincidence, then, that another local institution--the Uptown Theatre, just down Hennepin Avenue from the Suburban--is also slated for a makeover. McDonald says that last year Landmark Theatres, the national art-house chain that operates both the Lagoon and the Uptown, met with representatives of the four neighborhoods that converge near Lake and Hennepin. Landmark, McDonald says, wants to turn the Uptown into three smaller screens, and that plan, too, is likely to go through--even though a similar proposal several years ago foundered amid public opposition. "The neighborhoods went away saying, 'We'd like to continue to pursue this,'" says McDonald. "The issue is the parking, and we're working on resolving that."

By about 6:45 p.m., a small line has begun to form outside the Suburban World. LePorte fastens on a vintage tie and heads out to helm the popcorn Frankenstein that has been cobbled together from three old machines. Gruber sprints up the tiny stairs to the projectionist's booth and pulls Shakespeare in Love into the projector guides. The film feeds from a reel on the top level of a three-tiered contraption to the old projector overlooking the theater. The equipment, Gruber explains, can only handle a certain length of film before the reel gets too heavy to spin. Which is why the Suburban was probably the only theater in town to schedule an intermission during Titanic, whose bulk had to be divided into two reels. The staff picked the cliffhanger: "Not to worry, miss. In fact, we're speeding up. I've ordered the last boilers to be lit."

Not unlike Titanic passengers, tonight's patrons seem oblivious to the future of their surroundings. They wander in, point out the ceiling to newcomers, and cozy into the well-worn seats. Gruber starts the film, then runs down to check on LePorte, who's keeping watch behind the boxes of Goobers, Raisinets, and Milk Duds.

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