Cinema Inferno

Cinema Grill's proposed renovation will split the Suburban's 1920s interior in two

Coming soon to the Suburban World Theatre: a demolition and redesign team that will split the Minneapolis landmark in two. If Atlanta-based Cinema Grill Systems Inc. has its way, sometime this spring the Suburban, just off Lake and Hennepin in Minneapolis, will lock its doors, and reopen four months later as the latest in the company's nearly 40 flick-and-chow venues. The theater will still show its trademark mix of quirky indies and second-run blockbusters, but patrons will be seated at café-style tables while servers offer a full menu of appetizers, sandwiches, and drinks.

The plan--which involves substantial changes to the Suburban's historic interior--seems to have run into virtually no public opposition. "The only negative things that we're hearing are from people who don't know what we're doing," says Brian Henry of Ascot Realty, Cinema Grill's national real estate representative. His voice rises to a screechy whine as he mimics the few critics he's encountered: "They say, 'What are they doing with our Suburban World?' The fact is, we're going to save the Suburban World. We're willing to put in a business that works there."

Under Cinema Grill's proposal, the current Suburban World box office--behind that window with all the toys stacked up--will become part of the women's restroom. The lounge--that place down the steps with the ratty black-leather couch--and the teeny bathrooms that flank it will be transformed into a kitchen. Two-thirds of the seats will be yanked out to make room for several tiers of tables and chairs. And then, about halfway up the slope of the auditorium, a thick, soundproof wall and projection tower will rise up, splitting the ceiling's blue sky and twinkling stars into two smaller skies twinkling over two smaller, boxy theaters.

A stop by the Suburban on a rainy Monday night finds two staffers getting ready for the 7 p.m. showing of Shakespeare in Love. Manager Elizabeth Gruber, 23, answers the door, flashlight in hand. Assistant manager Patrick LePorte, a fresh-faced 29-year-old, pops out of the men's bathroom with a big gray mop and yellow bucket on wheels. LePorte will pull down about $30 for tonight's six-hour shift; Gruber will go home with $40. They work here, both insist, because they love this oddball theater, and they're glad to offer a quick tour.

Gruber and her flashlight climb up a metal ladder behind the last row of seats. Up in the rafters, a legion of enormous dust bunnies shields the Suburban's secrets from visitors' prying eyes. But Gruber fearlessly wields her flashlight, which seems to scatter the bunnies with its beam. From up here, the twinkling stars look like just plain light bulbs perched above a false ceiling.

That ceiling--and the Spanish-villa statuary along the theater's side walls--were among the features that caused the Minneapolis City Council to place the Suburban on a list of historically significant buildings in 1991. A city study at the time noted the importance of the structure--built in 1927 as the Granada Theatre--as one of the first neighborhood theaters to show talking pictures. The study also cited the "fine Spanish Churrigueresque Revival-style façade and auditorium design" that made the Suburban "the only surviving example of an atmospheric auditorium in Minneapolis and one of the few remaining in Minnesota."

Because of the 1991 designation, the city's Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) must review the proposed renovation of the Suburban before the city will issue any building permits; the commission was scheduled to hear a presentation from Cinema Grill's architectural team as City Pages was going to press. An HPC staff report, issued on February 1 by city preservation planner Amy Lucas, recommended rejection of the plan, with objections centering on the 56-by-20-foot projection tower and the 8-inch-thick sound wall in the middle of the theater. But the report allowed Cinema Grill to "present alternatives to the design" to address her concerns.

Lucas says the 10-member body, appointed by the mayor and City Council, "may look beyond" the staff recommendation and consider "the economics" of the Suburban's situation. "My guess is that the Commission will pass it," she predicts, "but they may request some minor changes." Cinema Grill's Henry seems similarly confident: "We've been working with [the city] since day one," he says. "There may be a few adjustments, but no real hurdles. Everyone has put a positive spin on it with us."

The Suburban's current owner is a little more circumspect. Steve Mann, president of Minneapolis-based Mann Theatres Inc., says that in recent years the competition for Uptown-area movie audiences turned fierce with the arrival of the five-screen Lagoon Cinemas. The Suburban, he says, wasn't pulling its weight: "The theater doesn't lose money, but it doesn't make a great deal of money, either. It's a marginal situation." The property, he adds, has been for sale for several years, and Cinema Grill's offer is the most serious he's had. Still, Mann notes, the buyer faces a February 22 deadline to "conform to contingencies they put in their offer: getting city approval, license approval, financing--just for starters."

So far, reports Henry, Cinema Grill has been sailing through the requirements. Financing is in place, he says, and neighborhood meetings are going well. Gary Farland, president of the East Calhoun Community Organization (ECCO), says he doesn't expect his organization to stand in Cinema Grill's way: "We're in general agreement that [the plan] would be advantageous for the neighborhood. It's just a matter of formally passing it." Farland expects ECCO to give Cinema Grill its blessing at the February 16 board meeting.

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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