The Last Picture Show

John Noltner

Cooper Theatre
St. Louis Park

For this small-town kid weaned on Disney and drive-ins, a risqué film experience meant sneaking into Caddyshack without proper ID and a little rum in my Coke. That changed on a muggy Saturday evening in 1986, when I trekked off to see David Lynch's Blue Velvet at the Cooper Theatre in St. Louis Park.

It was the film's opening night, and the Twin Cities' largest single-screen movie house was filled to capacity with 800 suburbanites, hipsters, couples, and lonely hearts. When Lynch pissed on suburbia's white picket fence, his goody good guys and evil caricatures turned the audience's sporadic snickers into a collective howl. When he shamelessly and ruthlessly degraded his femme fatale to turn the detective genre on its head, a half-dozen ticket holders hit the squeaky swinging doors; their shouts for a refund echoed past the Cooper's supersized, overstaffed concession stand (where real popcorn was popped to be topped with real butter).

Then, for the first time since watching Warner Bros. cartoons while dangling on my father's knee, I was rapt. The rusty red exit signs faded from the corner of my mind's eye. The tattered edges of the screen no longer kept fantasy segregated from reality. Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth--tripping on carbon monoxide, OD'd on misogyny--pitched a tent in my subconscious, daring my anxieties to look in the mirror. I don't think I was alone. While Lynch gleefully terrorized his protagonists, the Cooper's refrigerated air seemed to have frozen the audience solid.

Over the coming months, I scoured the movie listings for a similar sensation, convinced it was the film and not the venue that had given me such a high. Grades be damned, I spent school days watching foreign films at the University of Minnesota's Bell Auditorium, weekends catching up on the classics at Walker Art Center, and evenings bundled in the Uptown Theatre's dank balcony documenting the differences between studio sludge and independent cinema. Still, I couldn't re-create the experience at the Cooper, couldn't simulate that full-body buzz.

Two years later I found myself back in St. Louis Park, once again lounging in one of the Cooper's soft blue velvet seats and watching the first local screening of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Outside, protesters were picketing the controversial adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis's spiritual novel, making those of us who'd braved the line feel somehow special. The energy I'd felt at Blue Velvet suddenly seemed accessible.

And sure enough, when Willem Dafoe's Jesus was denying the Devil, it happened again. Goosebumps covered my arms, and exhilaration buzzed in my gut.

That very day I vowed to see every movie Cineplex Odeon would show at its neglected flagship. For the next 36 months, no matter how brilliant or bad the film (the breathtaking restoration of Lawrence of Arabia, Jack Nicholson's unmentionable sequel to Chinatown, Kevin Costner's bloated Dances With Wolves, U2's egotistical Rattle and Hum), the experience was special.

In part it was the Cooper's aesthetic, unchanged since the theater was built for $1 million in 1962. From the high ceilings in the spacious lobby to the once-plush carpeting running up the stair-stepped floors to the screen--35 feet high, 105 feet wide, and literally wrapped around the first few aisles--the Cooper felt like a remnant of a time when seeing a movie was an event not unlike a night on the Great White Way. Sometimes I'd even feel compelled to dress up a little, just because that's what the place deserved.

Years after the Cooper was unceremoniously destroyed in 1991 to make room for an office building, I rented a copy of Blue Velvet and readied my psyche for a workout. But when Frank Booth made his appearance there was no menace, no thrill. Lynch's film--the film that changed my life--seemed inconsequential, no more challenging than the average thriller. Still, I know that if the Cooper were still standing, I'd pay double to see Blue Velvet or Godzilla--or even Caddyshack--again and again. Because on that screen, in that place, projected light was more than entertainment. It was magic. (David Schimke)

Parkway Theater
4814 Chicago Ave.

When the Parkway opened in 1931, it was the last place you'd go in Minneapolis--literally. The theater stood at what was then the edge of the city, and the streetcar line used to turn around right in front.

Like the neighborhood the Parkway used to anchor, the theater has aged. But it's done so in a grand way, reminding you of a faded yet powerful past. The multicolored carpet is badly frayed and dull, and the gray-and-black-speckled paint on the walls and ceiling is cracking. The wall draperies, in goldenrod, royal blue, and burnt orange, harken back to a time when kitchen appliances wore those colors, and the proscenium curtain no longer opens or closes. Even the air in the theater feels old, lukewarm, and humid.  

But for all its faded grandeur, the Parkway is still part of a tradition in which going to a movie is more than just a way to get away from a stuffy house. The huge auditorium looks like you could hang glide through it, and the screen rests above a small stage where you can almost see a piano player.

This summer the 67-year-old neighborhood mainstay will get a face-lift, says Bill Irvine, the Parkway's owner of 22 years. New carpet and paint have been ordered, and Irvine hopes to restore the theater to the way he remembers it from first working there almost a quarter-century ago. He was the manager then; when the owner decided to sell to a porn operator from Omaha, Irvine kept bidding up and six months later was able to buy back what had already become an X-rated venue.

The Parkway still is rarely packed the way it was in the glory days; yet Irvine's eclectic choice of features attracts a healthy and motley collection of patrons to each show. Irvine says he'll bring in just about any film as long as it's an indie and it's good. Recent offerings have included It's In the Water, a spoof on homophobia, and The Big One, Michael Moore's latest tirade against corporate America. "It's hard to describe," Irvine says of his programming. "But I know what I'm doing." (Kelly Wittman)

Roseville 4 Theatres
1211 Larpenteur Ave. W.

For two bucks--half that on Tuesdays--you're pampered into another world. As the opening credits roll--perhaps for the double-Oscar acting tour de force As Good As It Gets--you sink into your seat and get hugged firmly, but not clammily, like you're some kind of dignitary. If you tip your head back, the plush chair is up there to catch it, spring-loaded and ready to rock the go-go-go of your day away. No movie-theater seats in town can settle your bones like the Roseville 4's rockers.

And there are hundreds of them. Many of the older multiplexes have sliced and diced their space until the screens seem no bigger than postage stamps and the soundtrack from the flick next door bleeds into your consciousness like the screams of a comedy-club heckler. The Roseville is large enough to accommodate more than 200 people in each of its four screening rooms, and even the two equipped with Dolby sound somehow keep the noise where it belongs.

Further setting the Roseville off from its multiplex peers is the fact that it's strictly a mom-pop-and-sons operation. The theater is owned by GTI, or Guetschoff Theaters Inc., and five or six days a week the 58-year-old ticket clerk in the red, white, and blue uniform is clan mother Barb Guetschoff, who commutes 40 miles from Cambridge. Until recently, Guetschoff and her family owned theaters in Rosemount, Hastings, Apple Valley, Elk River, Cambridge, Shakopee, and Roseville. Now Roseville is all GTI has left. With just two years remaining on its lease, and the possibility that the Rainbow Foods next door might decide to expand, no one wants to buy it.

Which is fine with Guetschoff. The theater feels like family, she says, and as if on cue a former worker named Margaret stops by the counter to chat and get updated on the grand gathering Guetschoff has planned. "We're going to have a bunch of former employees in and watch a movie at midnight on Saturday," Guetschoff explains later. "Margaret lives in New Mexico now, and we'll also have people coming in from Moorhead, Sandstone, Eagan."

Even when it's not conducting special screenings for alumni, the Roseville is a busy place. Just a few block east on Larpenteur Avenue are the McDonough housing projects, and it is not uncommon for carloads of Hmong families or teens to help sell out the theater for the weekend shows or the Tuesday discounts. A few years ago, when Batman finally hit the second-run circuit, lines extended 50 yards along the sidewalk. For a middle-aged matriarch who has spent years in the Thai refugee camps, it is a bold but worthwhile adventure to part with a few precious dollars and rock beside her children in front of Jurassic Park, Disney animation, or the latest Hollywood disaster scenario. "We're probably more multiracial than most places," Guetschoff allows.

"Did you sleep with her?!" Jack Nicholson demands to know, jealous of Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear; you sigh and reach deeper into your popcorn bag. For years, local moviegoers have been aware that the Riverview Theater uses real butter on its popcorn. As it turns out, so does the Roseville 4--no brag, just fact. You munch a little, you rock a little, you watch a little. It is as good as it gets. (Britt Robson)  

Grandview 2 Theatres
1830 Grand Ave.
St. Paul

Highland 2 Theatres
760 Cleveland Ave. S.
St. Paul

As a child growing up just off the intersection of Fairview and Ashland in St. Paul, Pat McLaughlin spent a lot of time in St. Paul's neighborhood movie theaters. There was the Park, at Selby and Snelling, where for 12 cents McLaughlin could buy an entire afternoon of entertainment, preferably cowboy flicks. If he had a few cents left over after buying his ticket, he'd get a Hollaway sucker. The hard caramel on a stick would last all the way through the newsreels, through the comedy shorts, and, if he wasn't greedy, through the double feature.

McLaughlin, now 53 and a consultant to small businesses on health-insurance issues, made the rounds to all the theaters in his part of St. Paul: the Uptown, on Grand near Lexington; the St. Clair, at St. Clair and Snelling; the Midtown, at Como and Snelling; and the Randolph, on Randolph and Hamline. Most of them have long since been shuttered (the St. Clair and the Midtown, strangely enough, were both converted to racquet clubs), but McLaughlin's favorite lives on.

In the '50s, the Grandview epitomized luxury to McLaughlin. Mirrored walls made its tiny lobby seem larger; the peeps he stole of the ladies' powder-room foyer hinted at comforts far beyond anything offered in the utilitarian men's lav. Both the Grandview and the nearby Highland Theatre were designed in the 1930s by an Omaha Railroad worker named Myrtus Wright who moonlighted as an architect. He created the Highland, located on Cleveland near Ford Parkway, in 1939; reports vary as to whether the Grandview was built in 1933 or 1937. Its most remarkable feature was the cavernous screening room, where McLaughlin kissed a girl in the seventh grade and worried for a week what the priest would say at confession. "I got myself scared to death in that theater," he says. "The first movie I went to without an adult was The Wizard of Oz. I had bad dreams about witches for years."

McLaughlin moved out of the neighborhood before the theater was sold in 1970 to the founder of Mann Theatres, a Minneapolis-based chain. The late Marvin Mann partitioned off the Grandview's smooching balcony to create a smaller, second theater and for a few years operated the twin screens under the name Grandview Fine Arts Theatre. Mann, who also bought and subdivided the Highland Theatre, thought that showing foreign and fine-art films would appeal to the Macalester College students and faculty who lived in the neighborhood.

According to Steve Mann, who now owns the chain with his brother Benjie, the formula worked well enough. But in 1974, Marvin dropped the "Fine Arts" portion of the name and resumed showing new, mainstream movies at the Grandview, making it the only first-run theater in St. Paul for a time.

When McLaughlin moved back into the neighborhood 15 years ago with his own kids, he was thrilled that the Grandview was still open and--save better seating and higher prices (evening admission is now $6)--pretty much unchanged. The big screen still tilts slightly forward, making the stars seem that much larger than life. "It's great to walk a block and a half to see a film that's just been reviewed," says McLaughlin. "And it's a treasure for the neighborhood to have the art-deco character of the place. It feels like going to the movies felt when I was a kid." (Beth Hawkins)

Riverview Theater
3800 42nd Ave. S.

With its marquee jutting out diagonally like a blunt prow, the Riverview has ruled the intersection of 42nd Avenue and 38th Street in South Minneapolis for exactly half a century. Over the years it's shared the corner with a toy store, a drugstore (complete with soda fountain and TV-tube testing machine), a chop-suey joint, a holy-roller church, a bakery, a hair salon, and a hamburger diner; now a bunkerlike medical clinic, a coffee shop, and a garden store set off the unique charms of the Riverview's design. You might call it Deco-Prairie-Scando-Retro; by any name, it's a testament to a moment in history when theaters struggled mightily for an audience that suddenly had TV as an option.

"Movies are your best entertainment value," claimed a 1950s ad campaign, hoping to remind people that the group experience of a large-screen film in a swank setting would always beat out a box in your living room. Yet the Riverview--designed in 1948 by Jack Liebenberg and remodeled in 1956--is also the only movie theater I've ever seen with a TV set available for watching. (I suppose the plan was to offer All-Star Wrestling or Lux Video Theater to patrons who'd gotten bored with Annie Get Your Gun.)  

The TV is still there, centered in the facade that divides the rest rooms; so is the snack bar, where once it was possible to hang out on a stool and savor thoughts of Debbie Reynolds or Elvis along with a milk shake. The hall itself is long and deep, with "stadium seating" in place since the years when only stadiums had it. Add the rec-room/lobby/lounge and massive copper drinking fountain, and the Riverview feels almost desperately cozy, mutating the old lobby concept of a grand ballroom into a less grand but appealing living room. The materials and shapes are arch-'50s, a neat version of Dick Van Dyke's TV home: turquoise tile, pickled oak, and oblique angles and kidney-shape contours everywhere. And as in many '50s structures, there are built-in planters placed where no daylight could possibly reach.

But it's not just '50s memories that define the place for me. When Woodstock came out in 1970, the Riverview had it exclusively because, as an independent house not tied to a chain, it had outbid all other theaters: People were coming from all over the metro to get high and watch the Who and Sly Stone. Not much later, proof of the Riverview's inspired eccentricity came when it showed The Godfather, Part II: Coppola's movie was preceded by a cartoon, a travelogue, and a newsreel to create a total 1939 experience.

That about sums up the Riverview--it's both true to its moment and out of its time, a working museum with present business to accomplish. Its true charm is that it's becoming a modest monument: As if through a time-lapse camera, you can keep it center-frame while the world evolves around it. The neighborhood was once so homogeneous that at the nearby school I was in fourth grade with three Barbara Petersons. Now Hong Kong films play each weekend, and neighbors of color wash their cars in the neat driveways of their bungalows. The Riverview has never had an actual view of the Mississippi, but it has been a window to the way we were and are becoming. (Phil Anderson)

Har-Mar Cinema 11
2100 Snelling Ave.

Go past the Burger King-Quik Mart-Ground Round-You Name the Chain They've Got It strip, through the hobby-farm-sized acreage of parking tar, into the belly of the mall proper, where a Barnes & Noble mural has Nabokov, Kipling, and Trollope & Co. absurdly smoking pipes, critting lit, and otherwise highbrowing it in Technicolor. Pass the Merle Norman wig stand (Farrah lives on) and the country-furnishing mart (We Have Beanies!!!), and behold: Har-Mar Theatres, known in Fargo-land as Herrr-Merrr and in the frozen-films section as Haärgen-Mar. Its original, late-'60s twin theaters split a few years back into triplets while another litter of eight got tacked onto the back, but Har-Mar still reigns triumphant when it comes to toilets.

These bathrooms could easily moonlight on a Paris runway: The compound of five primary-color stalls (each outfitted with a matching sink-potty ensemble) is garbed in haute-couture fabrics starting with thick-pile, leopard-print fur on the highly pettable ceilings; in the center is an industrial-sized counter of clear acrylic like the one on which mom would park her macramé belts and false eyelashes after rustling up some fondue. Everything you ever wanted to know about the history of Har-Mar is told in bold strokes in this last refuge from the march of Time. Under a thick skin of what looks to be hardened methylparaben, the gold-glitter walls shine like a lamé sanctum sanctorum. The bare multibulb fixture blares above the mirror bank, erasing all spots and creases in its blinding fire.

Out in the lobby--well, there've been a few concessions to aging mall rats. Starbucks now supplies the coffee. A computer spits out the tickets. What runs at this General Cinema is hardly of note--no classics, no second runs, no subtitles. Last week, Godzilla was grazing on New York at full blast on all three front screens from 11 a.m. until midnight.

After a full round of the premises, one last matter remains--the name. Word is the mall's original owners, Harry and Marie, left it as their gift to the future. The afternoon cashier, busy primping her cuticles, admits she hasn't a clue. Turnover here is high, and institutional memory sketchy. "Beats me," she says. "But I did for a while date a guy in Pittsburgh named Harmar. He liked to ride chopper, fly little planes and stuff. I'd have to doubt that's where this place got its name, but you never know." (Josie Rawson)  

Skyway 6 Theatres
711 Hennepin Ave.

It's hard to tell exactly how and when the Skyway 6 earned its wrongful rep as the bad boy of local theaters. Even under the ownership of the prosperous Cineplex Odeon chain, downtown Minneapolis's only movie house has suffered some persistently poor PR, not to mention general neglect. How did a first-run theater in the heart of the city fall out of mainstream fashion?

Some might point to the night, in 1991, when gunfire broke out after a Skyway screening of John Singleton's decidedly pro-peace classic, Boyz N the Hood. Seven people, some of whom claimed gang affiliation, were injured, and the incident set off a mini-media frenzy over violence in the burgeoning 'hood genre. Oddly, there were few signs of public outrage three years later when Michael Hegstrand, a Caucasian and former member of pro-wrestling tag team the Road Warriors, was arrested for violently assaulting a teenager of color at the same site.

Long before Boyz hit the screen, I remember visiting the Skyway to see another coming-of-age flick: Moms was cool enough to escort me and a friend to see The Breakfast Club in 1985. I distinctly recall riding the shiny escalator from the box office up to the main lobby, marveling at its vaguely cosmopolitan air. It's still there, as are the friendly, clean-pressed ticket takers and a solid acre of tragically retro carpet. These days, however, you might also step off the escalator to find one of Minneapolis's finest standing across from the candy counter, keeping a watchful eye on the theater's predominately teen and twentysomething clientele. You could see this as the mark of a high-risk zone. Then again, I've seen two cops posted outside Champp's.

Maybe the Skyway's edgy mystique has less to do with felonious conduct than with familiar trends. Ever since theater proprietors decided to follow Minneapolis money into the suburbs, moviegoers have had one less reason to enjoy a proper urban center. Why see Godzilla on Seventh and Hennepin when it's showing on three screens in the 'burb next door? Lack of free parking is a minus, too, and the neighboring storefronts--alternately seedy and abandoned--don't offer much in the way of preshow window-shopping.

But for all of its practical drawbacks and illusory danger, the Skyway is still among the Twin Cities' most vital venues, if only because it offers a more varied cultural spectrum than any of its metro competitors. Rare is the pocket of Minnesota where whites constitute a minority, and the Skyway is often just such an anomaly. The ownership seems bent on rewarding the core black audience with a heightened presence of "urban" films: From the lowbrow hysteria of Booty Call to the first-rate hip-hop documentary Rhyme & Reason to Spike Lee's vastly underrated Girl 6, black protagonists live longer and livelier on the Skyway's six screens than they do elsewhere. And whereas the nearby Uptown cartel boasts an air of artsy exclusivity, this theater's idea of cinéma moderne appeals to broader sensibilities, unafraid to set He Got Game alongside action-packed brain candy and hit horror flicks like Scream 2 and the aforementioned 'Zilla.

A final caveat: If you're looking for quiet, the library is three blocks up. (James Diers)

65 Hi Drive In Theatre
10100 Central Ave. N.E.

Vali-Hi Drive In Theatre
11260 Hudson Blvd.
Lake Elmo

Cottage View Drive In
9338 S. East Point Douglas Rd.
Cottage Grove

As the pink of twilight deepens to purple, the pace quickens. Car after car groans through the humped dirt rows, and the night air is filled with the crunch and pop of gravel under the tires. Doors burst open, spewing anxious children and their work-weary parents, young couples itching with anticipation of the dark, and clusters of jeaned and T-shirted teens.

The children lead their parents to a makeshift playground--a rusty swing set with two black rubber seats, a beat-up but serviceable slide, and mounds of dirty sand--while the couples and teenagers make a beeline for the concession stand. A couple of 16-year-old boys slouch in line, punctuating their conversation with what they must consider gangsta gestures and surreptitiously eyeing the entrance. Behind them, a young man and woman are woven into each other's arms; when the line moves, they move as one.

As the magic hour approaches, parents drag their children back to their cars. Teens pull out lawn chairs, blankets, and coolers filled with sodas and whatever contraband they've conned out of siblings or swiped from parents. Couples hunker down--some of their cars will appear abandoned until the heads resurface at intermission--and, finally, the giant screen begins to flicker.  

For nearly 50 summers this scenario, with slight period variations, has played out in drive-in theaters around the country. Minnesota's first outdoor theater, at 1101 E. 79th St. in Bloomington, opened in 1947 with Carnival in Costa Rica, a decidedly B movie starring Dick Haymes, Vera Ellen, Celeste Holm, and Caesar Romero (better known to boomers as the Joker from the Batman television show). Among those in attendance that evening was Minneapolis Tribune columnist Will Jones.

Jones took a cab to the premiere, racked up an extravagant $9.15 taxi bill, and regaled Twin Citians with a detailed account of the experience in the next day's paper. "We watched Carnival in Costa Rica," wrote Jones. "It was, however, poor second to the Minnesota moonlight." His Yellow Cab driver was quoted as remarking that "it was nice to watch a movie without someone crunching popcorn or peanuts in your ear."

During their heyday in the giddily motorized '50s, drive-ins primarily appealed to families and teens. Parents on a budget could bring popcorn and treats from home, no baby-sitters were required, and the cost of admission was made for large clans--one ticket per carload, regardless of size. For teenagers, the appeal was self-evident: Countless relationships were either consummated or wrecked during such classics as I Was a Teenage Werewolf (starring the late Michael Landon) or Beach Blanket Bingo, with perennial teens Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.

At the peak of drive-in mania, there were 40 theaters sprinkled throughout Minnesota, 19 of them in the metro area; among the latter was West St. Paul's the Corral, decorated in a Western motif, and Mann's France Avenue Drive-In in Edina, the first to offer two screens at one location. By the late '60s, however, drive-in attendance had plummeted. One of the industry's last-ditch efforts was to offer individual heaters in hopes of creating year-round entertainment: "Electric in-car heaters keep you in comfort even at below-zero temperatures," crowed a 1967 newspaper ad. But the fad--as well as a few brave patrons--soon froze out.

According to Dan Shattuck, a local drive-in buff whose exhibition of photos, ads, and owner interviews is currently on display at Blaine's 65 Hi--one of three remaining metro drive-ins--a few key developments spelled the demise of the outdoor theater: Daylight-saving time (implemented nationally in 1967), the advent of the VCR, and the raising of the drinking age to 21. "I understand how the first two affected business," says Shattuck, "but the last one puzzles me." After all, he reasons, drive-ins had long been a hotbed for underage drinking, and the change should have brought more customers.

But though it may be endangered, the drive-in experience is not extinct yet. At the three local drive-ins--the Cottage View in Cottage Grove, the Vali-Hi between St. Paul and Hudson, and the 65 Hi--weekend nights are packed, and once school lets out, the weekday nights should fill up as well. Best of all, admission is still charged by the car, not the number of passengers. (Mary Ellen Egan)

Boulevard Theatre

On April 26, the Boulevard's two screens showed the crime noir L.A. Confidential and the Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle The Man in the Iron Mask--both excellent choices, in terms of taste and marketability, for second-run films. Tickets were $1.50, half of what it would have taken to rent either film from a video store.

Less than a month later, the red-and-gold marquee at Lyndale Avenue and 53rd Street reads, "Closed." The Depression-era facade is boarded up; yet someone has taken the time to write on its glass pane in pink glitter lipstick, "We Love You, Blvd." In a few months those words will be erased, along with the rest of the Tangletown theater's history, when the 1930 building becomes home to a Hollywood Video outlet.

You could call this a travesty, or you could just call it the work of the free market's invisible hand. Steve Mann, whose company has operated the Boulevard since 1972, sees it as a little of both. Over the past few years, Mann says, attendance at the theater steadily dropped--partly, he speculates, because of competition from video and satellite TV. "Our lease expired two years ago," Mann explains, "and we had been on a month-to-month basis ever since. I negotiated with Bruce Bermel, the owner of the building, to extend the lease three years. He wanted me to extend it to 10. I could've updated the building, but I didn't know what my destiny was going to be. Bermel then decided to do a redevelopment of the building, and he found an anchor tenant--Hollywood Video."  

Residents caught wind that the theater was in danger early last winter. A 300-member Tangletown Association formed, gathered more than 5,000 save-the-Boulevard signatures, and enlisted the support of 11th Ward City Council member Dore Mead--all to no avail. "Unfortunately Bermel was not asking the city for assistance," Mead says, "so we did not have a hook into him. It was frustrating because of the incredible resources that came forward to keep the theater going. The head of the Minnesota Film Board, Randy Adamsick, offered to help. The mayor's office offered financial assistance." But ultimately, Mead concedes, Bermel had the right to do with the building as his bottom line demanded.

In fairness, dollars speak louder than words. Had theater attendance consistently matched the number of, say, membership in the Tangletown Association, perhaps the Boulevard would've been a venture worthy of future investment. "I didn't kick the theater out," Bermel says. "I subsidized [it] for 20 years, only charging them taxes and operating expenses to help keep them profitable. The film industry changed. People would rather spend their money on videos or go see Titanic at the mall megaplexes. Fifteen years ago, you couldn't find parking in our lot, or on the neighboring streets because the theater would be so full. That's not the way it is now." (Christina Schmitt)

Southtown Theater

The Southtown Shopping Center has never been so busy. The recently revamped '50s mall has a new Kohl's and a Bed, Bath and Beyond store; on the corner, a strip of brick and glass lines up Bruegger's Bagel Bakery, Subway, Play It Again Sports, and Mailboxes Etc. Judging from the packed parking lot on a sunny Saturday, property owner Kraus Anderson's plans to revitalize the shopping area have paid off.

But if you grew up in the south suburbs of Minneapolis, it's hard not to get a lump in your throat as you drive past that new strip mall. You see, until 1995, this was the location of the Southtown Theater, one of Bloomington's first--and one of the metro's last--grand movie houses. When it opened in 1964, Bloomington had arrived.

The theater's horseshoe shape soared above I-494, glittering as the sun caught its crushed white-quartz panels. A marquee spanning the front announced current showings in bright lights. "There was this feeling that every time you drove up a red carpet would roll out," says Todd Cummings, the last manager of the Southtown before it was torn down to make way for Bruegger's in October 1995.

In 1964, says Steve Mann, whose father and uncle built the theater, the Southtown was a venue like no other. The inside, all shades of red, brick, maroon, and rust, featured a fountain, complete with goldfish, and backlit cut-glass panels on the walls. The auditorium seated 1,200 in plush rocker chairs, and the back eight rows had ashtrays built into the seats. In the ladies' room, each stall had its own sink and makeup mirror. "The ladies really liked the bathroom," Mann says.

But Mann's uncle wanted to move to California in the '70s and the theater was sold to General Cinema. That company eventually divided the single auditorium into two in the early '80s. "What a crime when they put a wall down the middle of that theater," Mann moans. In the 1,200-seat auditorium, all the chairs had been slanted toward the middle of the screen. When the wall was built the seats weren't moved, creating some neck-twisting perspectives.

The Southtown ultimately fell victim to competition from its own corporate parent, Mann says, sitting smack between General Cinema's Mall of America and Centennial Lakes theaters. When the demolition plans were announced Mann tried to buy it back and turn it into a discount theater, but was turned down: The land the Southtown was on had become too valuable for the movies. (Wittman)

Southdale Theater

Movies don't happen without light, of course, but light itself is cinematic. This came clear through the fog of my first trip to a mall-plex shoebox theater. It was...the late '60s? Very early '70s? The movie was a reissue of Fantasia, the venue was the now-defunct Southdale, and we were stoned. We had the visual munchies for dancing hippos and skittering toadstools and those brooms chasing Mickey. But before the movie there was...a screen-size cool blue light. No curtains. No previews or movie trivia. Just a giant wall built from a single brick of intangible blueness.

The Southdale was one of those cynical and inhospitable haul-'em-in theaters, made almost entirely of extruded plastic like an airplane cabin. And whether thanks to the architecture or the weed, the cool blue light both advanced and retreated. It was shallow, then deep. It was here, then elsewhere. We were in it; it was outside of us. For visual dessert we later crawled out on an East Bank bridge and toked again to the zaggy red rhythms of Reddy Kilowatt, high with us above the Mississippi. Now there was a performer. (Anderson)  

Film in the Cities
St. Paul

For many years, one of the most devoted film venues in the Twin Cities showed its soul in its trappings, which were spartan, cozy, and nomadic. Film in the Cities, the departed-and-lamented media center that began teaching kids and ended up teaching college students and faculty, providing cameras to would-be auteurs and hosting photo exhibitions, added film screenings to its package in the 1980s.

The first few shows were held in a classic film-club setting, the lobby of FITC's headquarters on University and Raymond in St. Paul. The windows had to be papered over, folding chairs were as good as it got, and the jittering hum of the 16mm projector was always part of the soundtrack. You had to really like movies--from avant-garde explorations of emulsion to raw personal documentaries, not to mention a memorable Hispanic science-fiction melodrama--to go there.

But after film fans discovered this eager alternative to other art houses, and some grant money came in, FITC found a wonderful hall in the Burlington Northern building in St. Paul. Here, where only board-of-directors presentations had gone before, was an actual projection booth along with real cushiony seats and dark-paneled walls--all providing the perfect setting for retrospectives and U.S. premieres by directors with musically throat-clearing names like Gyula Gazdag. Still, downtown St. Paul was a hard sell for entertainment. As audiences dwindled and the corporate co-optation of independent film began, FITC briefly moved its show to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design's student auditorium before turning out the light completely in 1993. (Anderson)

Cedar Theater
Oak Street Cinema
301 S.E. Oak St.

When Bob Cowgill ran the Cedar Theater in the late '70s and early '80s, the roof leaked water like a geyser. Residents of the nearby highrise would throw beer bottles, bicycles, and old stereo equipment onto the roof of the theater for target practice. The room was drafty in the fall and ice-cold in the winter, and it smelled like gas for years because of an oil company accident that spilled about a thousand gallons of fuel into the theater--a catastrophe that Cowgill jokingly likens to the Exxon Valdez incident. "It was a terrible theater," he says, "and yet it had a special place in the hearts of movie lovers in this town. It had a sense of independence."

Cowgill was 22 when he and a partner took out a bank loan to run the Cedar from 1978 to 1983. "We were young and naive and we rolled the dice on every single movie," he says. "We booked the films that we wanted to see ourselves. We'd spend everything we had to get a film like John Huston's Wise Blood, knowing that if it failed, the theater could close the next week."

But it didn't, instead becoming the Twin Cities' reigning first-run art house for several years--"the Lagoon Cinema of its day," Cowgill says. In the late '70s, the Uptown was still a mere second-run theater; distributors still took a hands-on approach to releasing films by the likes of Herzog and Fassbinder; and, crucially, home video hadn't yet spoiled the possibility of reopening a classic sleeper such as Days of Heaven and selling out the house. Daily newspaper critics were still interested enough to give substantial coverage: Cowgill remembers earning a long article on the front page of the Minneapolis Tribune's arts section when he dared to program a John Ford series against the big studio releases in the summer of '79. "These days, a retrospective of anything could never get that kind of placement amid blockbusters like Godzilla," he laments.

It's probably no coincidence that Cowgill sold his share of the Cedar in 1983--around the time the Reagan administration loosened laws that prohibited studios from owning theaters--or that he chose to sit out the late '80s and early '90s before launching Oak Street Cinema three years ago. "Every time I rent a tape of some film I really care about, I get this bittersweet feeling," Cowgill said in 1995. "We've got video, but what we really want are the movies." And at Oak Street, we've got 'em. (Rob Nelson)

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