Restoring Our Rep

THIS YEAR'S AWARD for arts-related entrepreneurial chutzpah goes to the indefatigable movie-lovers at Oak Street Cinema, who have quietly and assuredly placed another rep house on the cultural map of the Twin Cities.

The new Seventh Place Cinema, situated as of two weeks ago in the Park Square Theatre in downtown St. Paul, isn't blessed with its Minneapolis sibling's environmental advantages. Foot traffic is light in the area, even on the pedestrian oasis between Wabasha and St. Peter streets, where Seventh Place shares a 300-seat theater with Park Square. Just across the way, the abandoned Orpheum serves as a stark reminder that downtown planning can be chancy.

But what Seventh Place does have are good genes and a generous subsidy to give it the necessary push. The elusive owners of the historic Hamm Building that houses the cinema--members of the Hamm family who prefer to remain behind the scenes--got the ball rolling by offering to subsidize Seventh Place's rent in exchange for some new lifeblood on the St. Paul culture front.

According to Kate Steger, programmer at Oak Street and Seventh Place, the proposition was weighed for months. "We were somewhat reluctant at first because downtown St. Paul is a difficult nut to crack," Steger says. "On the other hand, we also felt like there was some promise to the idea. Film in the Cities, though it didn't manage to stay open [it closed in 1993], had a very large following. And with the rent subsidy, it's not a financial risk for Oak Street. It is a staff drain, but hopefully we'll get that under control."

Until the Park Square season resumes on January 14, Seventh Place will be screening first-run art films in the evenings (the acclaimed Amerindie The Keeper starts Friday for a week), as well as children's programming in collaboration with the nearby Children's Museum and retrospectives on Sunday afternoons. (The final installment of Buster Keaton/Mary Pickford double features--playing in newly struck prints to live piano accompaniment--will be held Sunday at 2 p.m.) Then, Seventh Place will scale back to two nights a week, plus some specialty programming for kids and other target audiences.

Steger is both realistic and optimistic about the not-for-profit theater's commercial potential. "This is not the kind of theater that is going to make money," she explains, "but it is the kind that will be readily available for film-related community events. If the Asian-Indian community, for example, wants to organize a Bollywood film series, the existence of Seventh Place is going to make that a lot easier. And in general, our loyal film fans from Oak Street will have another venue to go to."

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