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Uptown Theatre at 100: Surviving fire, robberies, and protests to show arthouse flicks

The Uptown as the original Lagoon Theater circa 1916

The Uptown as the original Lagoon Theater circa 1916

An ex-employee of a movie theater is hanging out in the manager’s office. He had been fired a month before for having a gun in his locker, but for some reason he was now getting drunk with his former co-workers. All of a sudden the theater gets robbed and the ex-employee winds up murdered. In his pocket is a hold-up note, indicating, perhaps some kind of inside job gone wrong. It sounds like the plot of a movie, but this 1933 incident is actually part of the colorful history of the Uptown Theatre, which turns 100 years old this week. 

Another story: In 1986, the Uptown Theatre was being picketed for showing the movie Hail Mary, about a modern-day Madonna, by Jean-Luc Godard. Calling the film tasteless and blasphemous, protesters stood outside the theater with signs, but thieves also broke into the theater, damaged two projectors, broke lightbulbs, and stole the film reel. (Luckily, another copy of the film was flown in for subsequent showings, according to an April 1986 article in the Reading Eagle.)

This is some of the history unearthed by Joe Larsen, a longtime employee of Landmark Theatres, which runs the Uptown. You can read some of the stories on his blog, uptowntheatre.blogspot.com. Larsen also happens to be a film archivist who is currently working with Walker Art Center on their film archive, and will be doing sound and video archiving for the Minnesota Historical Society next month.

When Larsen hit his own 10-year anniversary working at the theater, he took an interest in the building’s history, where he’s an assistant manager. The Uptown has a number of old newspapers and documents on site, and in his research he went through other archives in town, such as the Hennepin History Museum, the University of Minnesota architectural archive, and the Minneapolis Central Library.

There were some obstacles along the way. For instance, some of the articles written in the 1980s and '90s contained incorrect information, like getting the date wrong of when the theater opened. Once one article printed false information, other articles followed suit.

When the Uptown opened in 1916, it was a first-run theater, with 1,500 seats and a big orchestra pit. It wasn’t until 1976, when it was taken over by Parallax Theaters, that the venue began to show classic films as double features. In 1985, it was rebranded as Landmark Theater, screening independent and foreign films.

Gustav W. Krollmann murals

Gustav W. Krollmann murals

The building also suffered a great fire, and had to be completely renovated in the 1930s. It re-opened in 1939 with a new streamlined, modern design by Liebenberg & Kaplan, who also renovated the Granada Theatre down the street (a.k.a. Suburban World). According to Larsen, it was during this renovation that the murals by Gustav W. Krollmann, an artist born in Vienna who was a professor at Minneapolis School of Fine Arts (now MCAD), were installed.

The building’s latest renovation occurred in 2012, when the theater closed for eight months. The new modern design meant a loss of 550 seats, and the addition of a full bar (plus digital projection). 

This week, the Uptown is celebrating the building’s history by showing classic films. Larsen says the idea was kind of a collaborative effort between the managers. It all starts with a screening of The Women on Friday, which was the featured film when the space re-opened after the fire in 1939. Starring Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, and Norma Shearer, the classic has a Real Housewives plot, with the women all heading to Reno while they await their divorce proceedings. The Uptown is hosting a party with a cocktail hour prior to the screening, so bring your best 1920s/'30s fashion to the event.

Other films to be screened include The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai, Rebel Without a Cause, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Godfather, Cinema Paradiso, and midnight screenings of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and King Kong.

Check here for a flyer on the series, and visit here for info about the party on Friday night.