The Phantom of the Movie House

Craig Lassig

If you've gone to the movies in any of the small towns of the Midwest, or at any of the Twin Cities' last remaining neighborhood theaters, chances are you've experienced the architecture of Jack Liebenberg. Beginning in the 1920s, Liebenberg built or remodeled hundreds of movie theaters in the art-deco style throughout the upper Midwest, including the Uptown, the Varsity, and the Suburban World.

In those days, movies were among the few businesses that profited, and the buildings that housed them served as temples as much as entertainment venues. "I don't think it's overstating it to say that going to the movies was a religious ritual for a lot of people," says Herbert Scherer, an art librarian at the University of Minnesota who has devoted the better part of the last 20 years to studying the architectural legacy of the art-deco movie house. "Movies cost a dime or not much more. And it gave you a wonderful escape from the heat--because theaters were one of the first institutions to be air-conditioned--plus the dreariness of everyday life during the Depression."

The physical environs, no less than the glamorous tales onscreen, helped perpetuate the fantasy. Depression-era cinemas' broad, horizontal marquees, topped by the flashing spike of the theater sign, signaled the triumph of the futuristic deco style, a symbol of optimism in the worst of times. To this day, says Scherer, these buildings "serve as visual icons of what we think movie theaters should look like. As the Parthenon is the classic exemplar of Greek architecture, art-deco movie theaters are to movie-theater architecture."

Born to Jewish immigrant parents in Milwaukee, Liebenberg graduated cum laude with the University of Minnesota School of Architecture's first class. He earned a scholarship to Harvard, where he won the prestigious Prix de Rome, though World War I prevented him from collecting his award in Italy.

By the time Liebenberg came back to Minneapolis in the 1920s, the city had become identified as a center of anti-Semitism. Jews were openly segregated; not even the local chapter of the American Automobile Club admitted Jewish members. As late as 1946, Nation editor Carey McWilliams would dub Minneapolis "the capital of anti-Semites in the United States. In almost every walk of life, an iron curtain separates Jews from non-Jews."

Even with Liebenberg's brilliant credentials, there wasn't much business for him in the Twin Cities. "He was too much of a gentleman to say anything about it," says Scherer, who interviewed Liebenberg shortly before the architect's death in the mid-1980s. "But he was circumscribed by the opportunities for a Jewish architect in those days. He was limited to Jewish business." In 1927, Liebenberg was commissioned to build Temple Israel at 23rd and Hennepin Avenue. The structure he created was distinguished by stunning acoustics, a fact that prompted one of Temple Israel's members to hire Liebenberg to renovate his movie theater, the Granada (now the Suburban World).

In his first cinema design Liebenberg stuck with tradition, creating an ornate interior in the Atmospheric style. Tiny stars twinkle in the Suburban's broad ceiling, a spotlight moon passes overhead during the course of each show, and the walls are covered with plaster carvings simulating false balconies and statuary. The overall effect is supposed to approximate the romance of a Spanish villa, in keeping with the themes of the silent-film era.

But Liebenberg's design also incorporated innovation. He gave the Granada stadium seating, tucked the bathrooms under the risers to conserve space, and lined the back walls with acoustic sound baffles made of sugar-cane waste. It was this latter feature, Scherer says, that made Liebenberg's career.

The old Atmospheric theaters were acoustic nightmares: When talkies arrived in the '20s and loudspeakers were installed in silent-movie theaters, the noise bounced off all those plaster statues and broad ceilings. Liebenberg's sound tiles swallowed up the echoes, while the terraced seating offered comfortable views of the screen. His design soon caught the attention of Paramount Pictures, which at the time owned many movie houses in the region.

"In essence, Liebenberg and his partner became the Paramount house architects," Scherer says. "Once they got that reputation they were doing movie theaters all over the Twin Cities and all over the upper Midwest." And with the movie business dominated by Jewish immigrants, Liebenberg's heritage for once didn't hurt.

By this time, tastes had shifted from the dreamy nostalgia of the Atmospheric style, and deco was in ascendancy. Where Atmospheric theaters had embodied a fairy-tale past, the deco houses--which Scherer has traced to 1920s Berlin--were progressive and optimistic. Using expanses of chrome and glass, architects like Liebenberg invented a sleek vision of the machine age. And in the lean '30s, their structures were conveniently cheap to build and maintain. All through the Depression, Liebenberg and his partner kept busy retrofitting old movie houses in the new style. The Varsity, the Uptown, the Edina, and the Campus all underwent dramatic Liebenberg conversions. So did the Hollywood Theaters in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and in Grand Forks, North Dakota, the Astor in Duluth, the New Ulm Theater, the Time in Austin, and the Egyptian in Sioux Falls. Scherer counts more than 200 Midwestern theaters designed or redesigned by Liebenberg.

But after '40s antitrust legislation took control of movie theaters away from production companies, the theater boom waned. In the '50s, the twin advent of television and suburbia permanently altered the economics of cinema and gave birth to the megaplex. By this time Liebenberg had established his reputation, and as local anti-Semitism relaxed from its peak in the '30s he picked up contracts outside the movie industry.

Today not much of Liebenberg's legacy survives. Though a number of his theaters still stand (the Uptown, the Edina, and the Varsity among them), their interiors have suffered years of neglect and ham-handed remodeling to the point of becoming unrecognizable. Only their classic facades remain, providing an ironic counterpoint to the bare concrete and cookie-cutter design of their newer counterparts. Scherer says he refuses to set foot into a contemporary theater: "It's all bottom-line minimalism," he growls. "Get them in, get them out. Pack them in, pack them out. You feel like a sheep being herded to the stockyard."

Still, it's possible to get a sense of the architectural passion that once made movie theaters more than black boxes; it just takes a five-hour road trip. Fargo, North Dakota, has a partially restored Liebenberg movie house, the Fargo Theater, which features art films, stage performances, and regular recitals on an original Wurlitzer pipe organ. The theater is currently closed for restoration, but will reopen later this summer. (Joseph Hart/Dara Moskowitz)

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