The Big Picture

The Heights Theater's love of cinema's abandoned technologies is larger than life--as is their upcoming 70mm film series

Today, in the Aughts, we've learned to suspect the philosophy of BIG. We know that a multiplex, for instance, is not multiple times better than a single screen. The philosophy of BIG has reached its bloated, logical end. Multiplexes are built in a state of economic denial, their proliferation having become a warped, self-sustaining logic in itself. Even as they go black nationwide, the screens prompt bankrupt owners to ask themselves, "How can the multiplex be an unsound investment? Look how many are still being built."

Which brings us to small.


Breaking rocks in the hot sun: Kirk Douglas fights Roman law in a 70mm Spartacus
Breaking rocks in the hot sun: Kirk Douglas fights Roman law in a 70mm Spartacus

The Heights auditorium is so pregnant with atmosphere and anticipation that you hush your voice automatically upon entering. Three years ago, it was a functional black box, the draperies and gilt designs of its heyday in the Twenties and Thirties muffled under a drab paint job. The best way to describe the ornate transformations carried out since is to suggest how fitting the room was for shows of this summer's glamorous Moulin Rouge. "It's a squirrelly building, it's a squirrelly film," Holmgren says enthusiastically.

The restored theater is on the subdued side of garish, though it retains something of its early character as a German music hall, for which it was originally intended by Arthur Gluek of Gluek's Brewery. Now, it sports a removable thrust stage used for live performances, an orchestra pit, and tapestries along the sides to augment the grand curtain in front of the screen. These renovations underline the theater's commitment to serve as a community theater. The Heights has become a space capable of hosting a GLBT fest or a "Holiday Gala Musicale" (as it plans to in the upcoming months) as well as a Miss Columbia Heights pageant or a concert by local Christian rockers Echelon (as it has in the past year).

"Ultimately, in the next 10 to 15 years, the theaters that are going to survive are the ones that provide a special service," predicts Holmgren. "You're going to see more and more luxury service: $15 and you're in a screening room that only has 45 seats. You'll have special food, maybe, or cocktails, places where you can't take kids under 16 or maybe under 18." The future is already manifesting itself at new theaters like the Maple Grove multiplex, which offers luxury boxes for high-rolling patrons. "That's exactly what we're doing, but with the whole room."

So, you could say that the Heights is not a typical art house, in that it doesn't focus on a steady, canonical diet of "great film" in the way Oak Street and U Film do. One of the reasons Holmgren and Letness are launching a 70mm series is simply that they can. The proprietors are proud of the capabilities of their two special projectors, salvaged from the late Shelard Park and Glenwood theaters, and they're not afraid to show off. So maybe you could call it a craft house, in that it's often devoted to the craft of film presentation rather than the art of filmmaking. There's no getting around it-1998's Godzilla is not The Rules of the Game.

Nonetheless, the Heights has its own elite core of patrons. "It's the same 500 people who keep coming back," says Holmgren, although, in optimistic moments, his estimate sometimes wanders up into the four-digit range. Many of those people have donated time and expertise to the theater as well. Four grandly reconstructed chandeliers loom overhead, lit by special antique bulbs that flicker to mimic natural fire. These renovations were performed by an electronics expert, who also lugged back 2,600 pieces of lead crystal after working on an overseas electronics project.

It's not a far walk from the screening room to the refurbished apartment that Letness and Holmgren share. Just up the stairs from the lobby and through the projection booth is the door to their living room, redone in tasteful antique paneling-although the enormous buffalo head on the wall might not be to everyone's taste. Here, Letness and his Wurlitzer consultants are listening to jazz. On 78 rpm, of course. More specifically, on a Victor 550, one of the first machines with an automatic platter changer. This scene adds to the sense of this theater as a sort of clubhouse for dead technologies--but a clubhouse open to anyone willing to drop a few dollars at the box office.

"This is what people are doing in downtown Columbia Heights," Holmgren boasts, back in the exhibition room. "You know, this isn't Uptown. It's never going to be Uptown. It's never going to be Grand Avenue. But in its own interesting little neighborhood between here and lower Northeast--Harvey, stay out of the Coke. You're walking in the Coke, man."

Harvey Gustafson wanders up from the front of the theater, where he has been squeaking through the dried-up, sticky soda spill from last weekend. (The man who cleans the room called in sick this morning). A quiet, older man who seems to mill about the theater for relaxation, Gustafson is one of the theater's three organists that seem to play before nearly every show. His squeaking shoes remind Holmgren of another film moment, prompting a riff on Maureen Stapleton in Bye Bye Birdie. (The reference, it should be noted, eludes both his companions.) "I'd like to see that film," Holmgren then muses. "Clever little musical."

But can you get it in 70mm?

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