A Little Song, A Little Dance...

Mr. President on the mic: MFA board chief Steve Zuckerman
Paul Demko

A standing-room-only crowd has packed the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown to discuss the future of the beleaguered Oak Street Cinema, which is located a short trek across the U of M campus near Stadium Village. The revival house has been teetering on the brink of extinction for months now, with no films currently listed on its schedule. Trustees of Minnesota Film Arts (MFA), the nonprofit group that owns the Oak Street, have made it clear that their focus is on the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, which kicks off April 20.

Tonight's event, falling on the second Monday in April, is being organized by Oak Street founders Bob Cowgill, Randall Carpenter, and Barry Hans, along with other supporters. They essentially want to wrest control of the West Bank theater from MFA, which has been rumored for months to be peddling the building to developers. They want to return the movie house to its original mission as established a decade ago: showing classic films.

One of the primary purposes of the meeting—the second such emergency gathering this year—is to see how much money the cinema's supporters are willing to contribute toward its financial resuscitation. Attendees are being asked to pledge future donations either to the renegade Oak Street group or to MFA.

After the audience watches "An Eastern Westerner," a short silent film starring Harold Lloyd (with Rich Dworsky, of A Prairie Home Companion fame, providing live accompaniment on piano), Cowgill bounds onto the stage. The Augsburg College professor explains that MFA's board of directors has rebuffed his offers in recent months to take over operational control of the theater. Cowgill further states that he's uncertain of the extent of the theater's current fiscal woes, but that he believes it to be roughly $100,000 in debt.

"That sounds pretty severe," he acknowledges, "but it isn't really when you start thinking about it. A hundred thousand dollars means that if you've got 100 friends with $1,000, you've paid it off.... The problem is, you have to have people behind the theater who are willing to say to the community, We want to keep the mission alive."

Following his comments, Cowgill calls to the stage any members of the MFA board who might be present. The only lucky soul: Steve Zuckerman, a medical doctor who also happens to be the board president.

Dressed in an outfit that only a person who spends many hours in the darkness of theaters could justify (green button-down shirt, red shorts, baby-blue socks), Zuckerman attempts to explain the organization's woes. He pins much of the blame on former executive director Jamie Hook, who was forced out last year after the extent of the nonprofit group's financial distress became clear.

Zuckerman credits the board with stepping in to save the organization from complete economic collapse. "The festival's going forward," he notes. "The organization's pulling itself together. Once we get through the festival we'll deal with the Oak Street situation and try and see what we can do."

But when it becomes clear from the hostility of audience members that they aren't buying Zuckerman's rose-hued analysis, he turns the tables on Cowgill. Zuckerman blames him for leaving the organization shortly after the 2002 merger of Oak Street and the University Film Society. "That's when the organization went downhill," he says. "Now we're trying to put it back together. Don't put the blame on this board."

As audience members howl their disapproval at this argument, Cowgill joins his antagonist onstage. "I've got a little song and dance here," he announces to the crowd. "I wrote the lyrics. Cole Porter's spinning in his grave because he wrote the melody."

And with that, Cowgill, accompanied by Dworsky on piano, launches into a bastardized version of the Cole Porter tune "Please Don't Monkey with Broadway." Except the key phrase, naturally, has been changed to, "don't monkey with the Oak Street." At Cowgill's behest, many in the audience (and even Zuckerman) join in the sing-along.

"That's the formal part of the show," Cowgill announces at the close of the tune. "The rest of you have to put the pressure on the board with me."

Zuckerman, for one, is keenly aware of the pressure. "I feel it," he acknowledges as he descends the stage. "I feel it."

Afterward, Cowgill is warily hopeful that the Oak Street can be saved, if not exactly resurrected to its form in the glory days. "The question now is the next step," he says. "I'm going to talk to Steve, who is a good guy, and I'm going to beg him to let the board have an open meeting with us. I don't think they'll do it, but it would be a great next step."

But, for all intents and purposes, it looks like Cowgill may be walking alone, at least in the short term. Tim Grady, who has been the most active MFA board member in recent months, was not present at the meeting. Reached subsequently, he declines to comment on the future of the Oak Street, saying that any decision will have to be postponed until after the film festival. "We've got a festival to mount," he notes.

Cowgill, for his part, also says that he'll attempt to track down MFA board members during the upcoming festival and press his case. "This even has happened because I don't have any more cards to play," he notes. "The board has shut me out. So all I can do is appeal to the community."

And in that important regard, at least, the night was seemingly a success: Organizers of the tête-à-tête-cum-variety show have received roughly $40,000 in pledges toward the revival of Oak Street. 

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