Screening New Heights

The ambitious Heights Theatre stretches to bring upscale cinema to an audience outside of Uptown

The Heights Theatre lies a good eight miles northeast of the proven epicenter for upscale commercial film, the Lagoon Cinema in Uptown. Yet, at press time, both theaters are playing Robert Altman's Cookie's Fortune, the movie that opened this year's Sundance Film Festival. As one theater caters to the hipsters and the arty professionals of Minneapolis, the other services the adventurous filmgoers of Columbia Heights. Cineastes in Columbia Heights? you ask. Hasn't this long been the budget movie turf where every Lethal Weapon goes to fire its final shot? What's up with this picture?

From the outside, the two venues appear as different from one another as, say, Life Is Beautiful and Affliction. Where the splashy Lagoon is nestled in between a well-trafficked bookstore and a trendy, tequila-soaked bistro, the antique Heights (est. 1927) sits across Central Avenue Northeast from a pinchpenny storefront heralding "HOT DEALS" and Beanie Babies, with a Burger King on one side of the theater and a Dairy Queen on the other. To be sure, any movie house could benefit from such proximity to an after-show dessert spot, but in the case of the Heights, it's literally the nearby ice cream that allows the theater to unspool its own goodies.

"The whole idea from the beginning was to buy both the DQ and the theater," says Tom Letness, who, along with his partner Dave Holmgren, has co-owned and -operated this pair of mom-and-pop outfits since November of last year. Acting as equal parts entrepreneurs and cineastes, the two native Minnesotans have been using the revenue from their Central Avenue Dairy Queen (and another that they own near Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills) to manage the Heights as a de facto nonprofit. Call it a case of just deserts, since these sweet-toothed film buffs have afforded themselves the opportunity to screen everything from Foxy Brown to Hilary and Jackie in a neighborhood that might seem inhospitable to anything but the next Blockbuster Video. "We're definitely not doing this to get rich," reports Letness. "But if we can keep the Dairy Queen going strong while getting a few people into the Heights who appreciate what we're trying to do with it, then we'll be able to keep putting money into the theater."

Reel optimist: Heights Theatre co-owner Dave Holmgren
David Kern
Reel optimist: Heights Theatre co-owner Dave Holmgren

Indeed, in the six months since they purchased the Heights for $155,000 from Bob Moen and Loren Williams (the latter of whom continues to run the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis), Holmgren and Letness have not only upgraded the film fare from the monstrous likes of Godzilla but have spent roughly 20 grand on returning the 410-seat theater to its original state. Gone is the turquoise-colored aluminum siding that adorned the Heights in its final decade as a second- and third-run house, replaced by a restored version of the brown-brick façade that went up at the theater's christening in the same year that movies became talkies. The thirtysomething co-owners have also greatly improved the projection and sound equipment, as well as the once-squalid lobby and the Spanish-Italianate interior of the screening room itself (which somewhat recalls the splendor of the endangered Suburban World). In the process, Letness and Holmgren have earned the approval of the city of Columbia Heights, which had thought the theater space might be better used as an empty lot. "Eventually," boasts the A/V expert Holmgren, "we'll have the same projection equipment the Cooper Theatre did on the day it closed."

What distinguishes this upstart art house is its owners' risk-it-all (or is that reckless?) passion for cinema. The proof is in the programming, which has included not only Uptown-area attractions but also some relative esoterica: "Bollywood" action-adventure musicals from India, midnight shows of vintage cult movies (e.g., Foxy Brown), weekend matinees for kids of all ages (e.g., It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World), and the recent ultrarare screenings of Aliens in 70mm and Dolby Stereo.

There's more on the way: A one-day-only "Minnesota Film Festival" will be held at the Heights on May 19 in conjunction with Art-a-Whirl (and in playful opposition to the opening of a little indie called The Phantom Menace); and on Friday, the theater will have its first exclusive, local-premiere run with the low-budget acey-deucey romp Relax...It's Just Sex, the booking of which could help convince independent distributors that their films do have a place to screen outside of Uptown. And did I mention the co-owners' imminent plans to offer live organ music before shows? Or the world-class Wurlitzer that might one day blare accompaniment to such silent-film classics as Ben Hur?

 

Speaking of organ music, some skeptics have suggested that the new Heights' lofty ambition is but a pipe dream. Holmgren admits that a few of his own friends have asked, rather offensively, "Are there enough smart people in Columbia Heights?" And among the fellow film enthusiasts with whom I've discussed the theater's potential, the blue-collar neighborhood has come up repeatedly as a limiting factor.

But on a balmy Sunday evening at a quarter to seven, the plan appears to be working perfectly: Not a soul has shown up yet for the 7:15 p.m. screening, but dozens are queued outside the Dairy Queen waiting for the Peanut Buster Parfaits that will pay for Cookie's Fortune. A few minutes later, some Heights ticket buyers begin to trickle in, led by an older gent in black shorts who gives himself away as a regular by ordering the concession-stand "special" (a medium popcorn and a large drink for four bucks, refills included) and asking Letness, "So what's the next movie?"

As a youngish mom and her three kids proceed past the box office, a preteen daughter points to the pair of hunks on the Relax poster and exclaims, "Mom, these boys are gay!" (Mom quickly changes the subject.) A pair of senior-age women comes in chatting about talk shows; a young, intellectual-looking couple excitedly notes a taped-up flyer announcing a new library in town; an assistant art-film curator stops by to check out the competition; and a teenage boy saunters in asking to use the bathroom. By the time Letness threads up a pre-feature Laurel and Hardy short at 7:20, about 15 folks have hunkered down for the show.

"This crowd is pretty typical," says Letness, who's responsible tonight for selling tickets and concessions; answering the office phone; projecting the movie; booking a June 6 screening of a Telugu-language movie called Premamte Idera (This Is Love); and chatting up the press. "So far our audience has been pretty diverse--a mix of seniors, families with kids, and people from St. Paul who don't want to drive all the way to Uptown. We also have a core audience of about 20 or 25 people in the neighborhood who come to see everything we show." Letness, a 38-year-old John Malkovich look-alike who graduated from MCAD with a film degree, doesn't abide by the unproven theory that there aren't enough art-movie fans in the near-Northeast suburbs. He argues that the area has attracted a younger and more sophisticated population in recent years, and that the video boom has surprisingly helped to stimulate the audience's interest in non-Hollywood fare.

But another question might be how the Heights has managed to book its artful roster in the first place, given the well-established tradition of mini-major film companies granting exclusive runs of their wares to Uptown theaters. "The only reason distributors let us have this stuff is that we're far enough away [from Uptown]," says Letness, who interprets the unfulfilled promise of the Reading Cinemas' St. Anthony Main theater as being a function of its relative proximity to Landmark Theatres' Lagoon Cinema and Uptown Theatre.

The 30-year-old Holmgren, however, attributes the Heights' success in snaring titles to an ironic phenomenon whereby the rise of suburban gigaplexes has created the need for a wide variety of product; Cookie's, for instance, is also playing at the Lakeville 18. In turn, this has helped a bit to loosen the iron-clad grip that chain-owned art houses have held on the specialty-film market. Nevertheless, the two partners agree that the Heights (whose film bookings are assisted by an agency in Florida) doesn't really pose a threat to Landmark. "We're like a little fly buzzing around their head," says Letness. "We're not here to compete with them. But I think we offer an appealing alternative to people who don't want to go over there for whatever reason. Basically, I'd say our audience consists of people who are educated and affluent, but not elitist. They don't want to pay for parking, they don't want to go to a multiplex, and they don't want to pay seven dollars for a movie." (The Heights charges five dollars.) "And besides," Holmgren says, "there's enough [art-film product] to go around."

As some of that product is precious to the proprietors, the Heights seems to thrive on the joy of sharing it with the neighborhood audience, giving them something they wouldn't otherwise have. "Little Voice is a film we played that I hated to take off the platter," Letness says. "I adored that movie. I wanted to stand outside the theater with a bullhorn and tell people, 'You have to see this movie--it'll change your life!' There are some films like that, films that are like family--we love them that much. I can be in a crappy mood and then I'll see a great movie and suddenly I'm all better."

Favorites aside, Holmgren and Letness sometimes seem more attached to the projection equipment, talking up the vintage virtues of Cinemascope lenses, RCA Photofone sound, and the Todd-AO system that projects 30 frames per second as opposed to the standard 24. Before owning the theater, the pair used to work as antique dealers of movie-theater hardware, traveling to Midwestern cinemas that were about to close and offering to purchase old-but-reliable machinery for cheap. (One such acquisition--a 1936 Simplex projector that might be mistaken for a train engine--sits on display in the lobby and supplies a reverent, museum-of-the-moving-image sort of vibe.) On the day I visit, Letness throws on a beloved Technicolor clip from the 1951 Betty Grable musical Call Me Mister. And as the star makes like a "geisha" singing, "Gee, I wish I had a G.I.," Holmgren, sitting in the empty theater, nearly seems to swoon. For now, at least, the new Heights has won over its audience.

 

The Heights Theatre hosts the "Minnesota Film Festival" in conjunction with Art-a-Whirl on Wednesday, May 19 at 6:30 p.m.; (612) 788-9079.

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