Print the Legend

In 40 self-sacrificing years at the helm of the University Film Society, Al Milgrom has seen his reputation grow to mythic stature. How this grumpy old man might cope with turning over his life’s work is another story.

Yet the routine has its rewards for Milgrom: To observe him at festivals around the world is to watch someone at home. Everyone knows him there, and he's well acquainted with how to find all the good food tables, interesting conversations, lively parties, and cheap hostels. But in Milgrom's own locale, his passion can be both generous and unforgiving. Feed his enthusiasm, and you'll get a gush of encouragement--as when Milgrom pushed Rolf Belgum to bump his video master of Driver 23 up to 35mm, a move that led to wider exposure for that documentary. Get in his way, and you'll encounter a bitter streak that supporters find confounding.

"When I look back, I think I put a lot of things on hold," he admits. "Unfortunately, the Film Society has ruined my life."

He pauses, letting an intense look freeze on his face. Then he forces a long laugh, as if he were joking all along. Milgrom says this line every year, colleagues report. Prompting the question: Is he trying to tell himself something?

Photo of Al Milgrom from U film's middle days, by Greg Helgeson
Photo of Al Milgrom from U film's middle days, by Greg Helgeson

In High Noon, Gary Cooper's sheriff tells incredulous townspeople that he'll defend them against the murderers when the moment of reckoning arrives. But no one quite believes him until he draws his guns. At the U Film Society, Al Milgrom has informally announced his retirement every year since 1992, and few take him at his word. The last supposed "sabbatical" he took was in 1993, and it lasted for six weeks. "I was here the whole the time," Milgrom says. "There are too many things that fall through the cracks."

The acknowledged heart and guts of the society began making more official-sounding noises about leaving in 1994, when he publicly and adamantly declared that he would be doing something else by 1998. In 1997 he announced that he would relinquish some duties immediately, then relinquished none.

In person, Milgrom maintains that he is not at all uncomfortable with the idea of passing the U Film Society on to a successor. "Like anyone in his golden years, your friends start dropping like flies," he says. "I don't want to die with my projector around my neck. And you wonder, what would I do tomorrow if I wasn't doing this? I would have to go into career counseling. I would have to recycle my personality. Seriously, I'd have to reprioritize my ego and my ambitions. I'd need three months holding my head in my hands and reflecting, and then I'd do something."

But those who have known Milgrom for years are skeptical that he will ever retire. Randy Adamsick was with him for the society's first, seat-of-the-pants international festival back when it started in Stillwater two decades ago. (He held up a piece of cardboard to frame the projection of the opening-night movie, The Grey Fox.) After leaving the staff in 1988, Adamsick stayed on as a board member, and he remembers flying with Milgrom to a Washington seminar for arts-organization founders looking to cultivate successors.

"We got an NEA advancement grant," explains Adamsick. "You put together a proposal, a five-year plan for succession, and they fund you--I think we got a hundred grand. But what I'll never forget was going with Al to the NEA offices, and going to this seminar on founder-directors and their protégés. It was a room full of people like Al and me. And it was all the same issues: You, as the protégé, will never have the same intensity or passion--true--and the founder will never let go and hand it over to you. The pride just sits in doing it.

"It's always been something of a mystery to me--and I think this relates to this merger---that Al has had little or no interest in what happens to the Film Society after he leaves. And I don't think he will leave. At the low points, it exists so Al will have a place to go in the morning."

Some 20 employees have circulated through the Film Society in the past decade alone, and Milgrom has trained several four-to-six-year die-hards who believed they might one day succeed him. "I think a really sad thing has been his propensity to push people like me out," says Adamsick. "When a lieutenant--as he used to call me--reaches a certain level, suddenly..." What? Is he or she fired?

"No," says Adamsick, "He wears you down. My ticket to leave the staff was when I really felt I was going to hit Al. I'll tell you the incident, because it's kind of hilarious: He was just irate because the Minnesota Daily did not have a review of that night's film. And the reason there was no review was that the day of the screening, the writer's mother had died. And he said, 'That's not good enough.' He literally said that."

Milgrom responds that he's never pushed anyone out. "I've never groomed anybody to be a successor," he says. "If they want to be a successor, let them show me what they've got. But Minneapolis is talent-poor. Look at the Walker. Did they find someone in town? No, they needed to do an international search."

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