A Personal History of the Uptown Theatre

I was hired at the Uptown Theatre on August 23, 2004 thanks to Takeshi Kitano.

Applications for the establishment at the time asked the hopeful hire to write the name of their favorite film on the back of the front page, as a way to ensure they were paying attention to directions. I listed Kikujiro. I had discovered this 1999 gem about eighteen months prior, after an acquired bootleg of Battle Royale jumpstarted my interest in Asian cinema. Seeing 'Beat' Takeshi in this film led to a viewing of his classic Sonatine. I was unable to fully comprehend the film's dark deadpan comedy at the time, but decided to give him another shot.

I had seen the Kikujiro VHS on the shelf of Hollywood Video a while before, with its colorful and intriguing back cover particularly catching my eye. I suppose I didn't rent it at first because of a hesitancy towards foreign films, but any wariness had subsided by the Spring of 2003. So I watched it, and fell in love.

Around the time of August of 2004, then-head Uptown manager Michael Meyer had also recently viewed Kikujiro. Having thoroughly enjoyed it, and being surprised to see this obscure selection listed as someone's favorite film, I was granted an interview. The meeting was brief and barely consisted of typical interview topics, as attention was instead turned to this delightful movie. I had apparently been hired before I stepped through the door.  Beat Takeshi had done my work for me.

I had moved to Minneapolis at the beginning of August and had spent my time deep within a lack of human contact. So on my first night of work (we were playing the Zatoichi remake, another Beat Takeshi connection), I was elated to be invited out by fellow floor staffer Rich Gill and assistant manager Rebecca Brammer-Shlay to the Uptown Bar. Too elated, it seems, as I quickly downed some screwdrivers that turned out to be much stronger than anticipated (this was the Uptown Bar, after all).

After telling a story of how upset I was in 1997 when my mother would not let me cut my hair to match that of Zorg in The 5th Element, it was decided that I needed a mohawk. And so, I proceeded to walk with this group to Rich's living quarters where this was accomplished. I woke up the next morning, sitting on a couch in a place I did not recognize, and confusingly opened every other door on the 1st floor before finally finding the one that exited me to the street. Wandering aimlessly and gathering a few strange stares from passers-by, I eventually returned to my studio apartment to discover that I was covered in hair and dried blood and now had a mohawk shaved into my head that veered somewhat to the left.

This was my introduction to the Uptown Theatre.

There are too many memories, so I will list no more. Instead, while I have previously touched on my favorite theatrical experiences at the Uptown, these are the films I have been the proudest to screen throughout my tenure.

*Che (2009)
This special cinematic experience put together both parts of Steven Soderbergh's epic into a combined roadshow release. There were no ads, trailers, or credits, just a five-minute musical overture over a map of Cuba before the film and a souvenir program listing cast and crew information for each audience member. A rare moment where attending a film felt like a true event.

*Fantasia (2011)
Screenings of Disney repertory films are quite rare, as steep prices and strict regulations tend to keep bookers at bay. I took it upon myself, however, to convince Landmark higher-ups that Fantasia would indeed make its money back, which it accomplished with the added help of weekend matinee shows.

*A Serious Man (2009)
There have been a number of films in my time at the Uptown that I have viewed under the influence of too much alcohol, but A Serious Man was the only one I walked out of convinced that it was the most perfect movie I had ever seen. Upon a sober re-watch, this was still pretty much correct. And while the Uptown would typically get only one showtime a year that would sell out all 900 seats, A Serious Man was the only title that I recall selling out two.

*Spooktacular! (2006)
My favorite midnight selection. While its centerpiece was the public domain classic Night of the Living Dead, Spooktacular! was preceded by over a half an hour of old horror movie trailers and animated shorts. Wildly entertaining and everything that a good midnight movie experience should provide.

*Thirst (2009)
Many midnight movie selections at the Uptown are decided through collaboration between Landmark's wonderful midnight film booker and the theater's actual staff, so I am proud to have had a hand in screenings such as Hackers, Torque, and Rocky IV. Thirst, however, was a special case. Originally slated to open in a week-long run, it was swiftly removed from theater calendars across the country because its distribution studio did not want to pay for advertising and shipping. We at the Uptown immediately fought to bring it to the big screen in some capacity, which led to two midnight showings and a momentary sense of important accomplishment.


Goodbye, Uptown Theatre

The first screening I attended at the Uptown Theatre was a midnight show of The Omega Man on August 14, 2004. I began working there nine days later.
This film was my tribute to the theater when it closed for renovations in January 2012. It was removed from YouTube due to copyright claims from Warner Brothers and screened at the Trylon Microcinema devoid of context in January 2013.

Music - "Liu Lien" by Yao Lee (from Goodbye, Dragon Inn)


A Brief History of the Uptown Theatre

The 1,500-seat Lagoon Theater opened in Minneapolis on June 3, 1916 as part of a dance hall and storefront block. This $100,000 development was built of gray terracotta and rough textured brick with an interior painted old rose and gray, housing an orchestra pit and a 40-foot stage. The business would later change its name to the Uptown on April 11, 1929 (see above photo) that coincided with the installation of sound equipment and a screening of The Dummy.

A bizarre botched robbery occurred in 1933. 21 year-old Ted Fisher had been fired from his usher post due to a gun being found in his locker, but was present one month later during a hold-up as he was in the office, mixing drinks with on-duty managers. After a struggle with the bandit, Fisher was shot and killed. What makes matters strange is that a holdup note was later found in his pocket that read, "Open that safe and take the cash from yesterday and today's receipts and come out the alley door, and lay it on the stone wall, and then walk up the alley to the railroad tracks, and then turn left. Don't look back or call for help, or you'll be shot. You are covered all the time." While it might seem that Fisher was in on the robbery, it does not explain why this note was not used. Perhaps Fisher arrived to rob the theater only to find himself beaten to the punch, but this is mere speculation.

A fire broke out in the Uptown during a 1938 screening of Trade Winds, leaving the theater a charred husk. The city then hired the firm of Liebenberg & Kaplan for a $65,000 renovation, and this new Uptown Theatre opened on November 16, 1939 with a screening of The Women.

The structure showcased a streamline moderne design that was popular at the time. Two large incised roundels were placed into a kasota stone facade with a curved corner that symbolized themes of travel and adventure in cinema. Inside the auditorium, murals composed of acoustic-celotex depicted the history and geography of the Twin Cities. One shows early explorers gazing upon what would be the future Minneapolis, while the other shows a giant Father of the Waters presiding over a group of water sprites that symbolize the lakes of the city. The building also boasted 900 seats and a 60-foot tower that was the first three-sided vertical tower sign in the country and had to be approved by civil aviation authorities.

There is a news article from the Star Tribune on July 8, 1975 that is of particular interest. Written by Irv Letofsky and titled, "When the Stars Didn't Fall on Hennepin Av.," it concerns an attempted American Graffiti class reunion by then-owners Metropolitan Theater Co. that would have brought together the film's seven stars. Only two showed up, however, and they were Mackenzie Phillips and Bo Hopkins. General manager Dennis Slusher is quoted as saying, "I was going to commit suicide today," and Letofsky later writes: "We just wanted to create some excitement," said Slusher, who as of late last night had not done himself in.

Amarcord would be the last film played at the Uptown before its first closure that same year. Landmark Theatres, then known as Parallax Theatres, bought the property in 1976. There have been rumors throughout the years of the Uptown being an X-rated theater, but these claims appear to be inaccurate, as there was no time between Metropolitan (though it may have been General Cinema, or perhaps this was the same company) and Landmark for this to occur. This new Uptown screened classic double features along with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which began on May 19, 1978.

A lobby remodel took place in 1984 (though another source cites 1989) to re-create art moderne and neo-baroque design elements that included a bizarre circular box office/concession stand combo. Then in November 1985, the Uptown switched their repertoire to feature foreign and independent cinema. This began with The Coca-Cola Kid and would begin to be a huge success the following February with a month-long run of Akira Kurosawa's Ran. It was around this time that Godard's Hail Mary was also screened that drew a wave of controversy and protesters. The theater was even broken into one night and the 35mm print stolen.

The Uptown was a cinema powerhouse in the Twin Cities throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was deemed a heritage site in 1990, but it then spent a decade fighting off plans to transform into a triplex design that so many other single-screen cinemas across the country had fallen victim to. The Rocky Horror Picture Show also ceased in 1996 in favor of weekly screenings of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. This lasted ten months before returning to regular midnight screenings, though it would not be until Halloween 2009 that Rocky Horror would return.

While theater attendance across the country dwindled slowly throughout the 2000s, the Uptown was still able to sell out its massive auditorium at least once a year with the likes of Juno, Pan's Labyrinth, A Serious Man, and Blair Witch Project - the last of which sold out every show for weeks. It also became locally (and occasionally nationally) famous for its clever marquees such as, 'We Have A/C, Who Cares What's Playing?,' declaring Limits of Control and The Brothers Bloom to be 'Better Than the Star Trib Review,' and referring to Joss Whedon as 'The Writer of 4 Episodes of Roseanne.'

The Uptown Theatre quietly closed for renovations on January 31, 2012 after a screening of Pariah. It was re-opened on September 14, 2012 with Sleepwalk with Me. The new modern design saw the addition of a full bar, the loss of 550 seats, and the replacement of 35mm with digital projection.

It was a beauty.


A Decade of Minneapolis

It was ten years ago today that I made my move to Minneapolis. I had spent that early morning in Wausau, Wisconsin waiting at an Emma Krumbee's for breakfast with company that never arrived, and then I was off. It was a different time. I had, up until that point, rarely traveled outside of the state. I had not seen a film by Werner Herzog. I hated salads and chicken wings. I was not yet a Pepsi fan.

The internet tells me that the temperature in the Twin Cities was 87 degrees, but my memory places it higher, at least inside of a small studio apartment overlooking Loring Park and the Minneapolis Community & Technical College, the excuse that had brought me here. I recall placing a box fan in the window to relieve the heat, but it soon fell out and broke on the floor, leaving me with nothing. I did not want to be there.

It was the next night when I changed my mind. Wandering into the park, I unknowingly encountered the Walker Art Center's Music & Movies in the Park. The Owls played, and then the Steve McQueen film Love with the Proper Stranger. Minneapolis wasn't so bad.

And so I share my favorite areas and experiences, because.

Aliens (Uptown Theatre, 2009)
The Dark Knight (Uptown Theatre, 2008)
Step Up 3D (Showplace ICON, 2010)
Wild Blue Yonder (Oak St. Cinema & Bell Auditorium, 2006)
Zatoichi 5: On the Road (Uptown Theatre, 2004)

Collateral was the first film I saw on the big screen in Minneapolis, and The Omega Man was the first at the Uptown Theatre, but it was my third - Zatoichi 5 - that first made it sink in that I was now surrounded in a movie screening paradise. Who would think to play the 5th Zatoichi film? I never found out if it was the only title available or was chosen at random, but sitting in the darkness with a scant few others, I knew that this place was somewhere special. Four years later would see the release of The Dark Knight, a sequel to a movie that I remain unfond of. It was to open at the Lagoon Cinema, but wishing to view it on the biggest screen possible, we just took the print across the street. While a select few guests can be invited to private employee screenings, this one in particular got a bit out of hand. And so, in the darkness, a few hundred of us watched the spectacle that, to my surprise, I was not unfond of. The next year was a routine midnight of Aliens, made special by the introduction of the legendary Rock & Roll Ray. The pre-show revealed that he had an actual alien to show the crowd but had unfortunately escaped, and then, about 30 minutes into the film during its first major action sequence, Ray emerged dressed as an alien and battled his cohorts on stage. It was like something out of a William Castle experience, and it was glorious.

Werner Herzog's Wild Blue Yonder played at the 2006 Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. It was only scheduled for one screening at the long-gone Oak Street Cinema, but the reels had been put out of order. Stopping the film mid-way through, the festival folks promised a new screening down the street at the Bell Auditorium, but when it occurred a few days later, some of the reels were still placed in wrong. No one in the audience said anything. It was too good to stop again (it remains, in my opinion, the greatest film of the 21st century). Step Up 3D holds a special place in my heart as the crowd consisted of myself and a few friends, a pair of teenage girls, and the late, great Terry Blue. Perhaps the most prolific and certainly the most outspoken of regular theater visitors in the area, watching this ridiculously entertaining film with him laughing and clapping throughout was a gold standard of the big screen experience.

Burger/Fish & Chips @ The Anchor Fish & Chips
Chicken w/ Black Bean Sauce @ Shuang Cheng
Chicken Josh @ Darbar India Grill
Walleye Fingers & French Fries @ Liquor Lyle's
Sweet Potato Korokke @ Moto-i

It's only the korokke that no longer exists on a menu, and it breaks my heart to this day.


Of course the pre-2012 Uptown Theatre is my favorite place in Minneapolis. It was my favorite place probably anywhere. But these are others to like too, and they are quite nice.

Block E 15 (desolate mainstream movie viewing, closed in 2012)
Brooklyn Center (fascinating failed suburbia with an actual abandoned mall)
Cedar Lake Trail (Days of Heaven-level beauty past the Walker & the 394 overpass)
Chinese Express (best Chinese take-out in the city)
Country Bar (unexplainably divey, closed in 2014)
Downtown St. Paul (and the view at night from the highway coming from Wisconsin
Half-Price Books (treasure trove of VHS, among other things)
Heights Theater (tremendous repertory screenings in a classically styled auditorium)
Hennepin County Library System (their inter-library loan system is a miracle)
Light Rail Blue Line (scenic trip right to Mall of America)
Liquor Lyle's (home base bar for many early years)
Mall of America (it's Mall of America)
Mortimer's (the destination when I was sure that I'd never amount to anything in life)
Moto-i (Godzilla films on Sunday nights)
Nicollet Village Video (incredible obscure VHS selection, closed in 2010)
Maplewood (my favorite suburb to visit, with its amazing mall and thrift stores)
St. Anthony Falls Historic District (where many of my films were shot)
Trylon Microcinema (the staff consists of most of the best people in town)
Uptown Bar (Monday Record Parties and the community that followed, closed in 2009)
Walker Art Center (made me enjoy video art w/ Cao Fei, Minouk Lim, and John Smith)

There are memories.