The night before the Uptown Theatre was shut down, Patrick Cross and Rich Gill packed up and took inventory. Then, as they do each week, they weighed what to write on the marquee.
“I’ll Be Back” from “The Terminator” felt too obvious. Something inspirational? Never crossed their minds. In the end, they settled on a pair of movie quotes, snagged from “Clerks” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
“I Assure You We’re Not Open.”
“You’re Still Here?” Space. “It’s Over.” Space. “Go Home.” Longer space. “Go.”
The tone — familiar, funny, irreverent — is typical of the Uptown’s marquee, known for bantering with its Minneapolis neighbors. For decades, rather than simply posting a movie’s title, star and director, staffers at the historic single-screen movie theater have been more likely to make a joke.
“Emma,” the marquee asserted recently. “Based on the Hit 1995 Film Clueless.”
For “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” it noted, “It’s an Art Film.”
“In this day and age of social media, everyone can be clever on Twitter in 280 characters,” said Gill, the theater’s lead assistant manager. “With a marquee, you only have 15, 20 words you can fit up there. That speaks to the cleverness of the people at the theater.
“Can I make this funny in five words?”
During a pandemic that has darkened movie screens across the country, the messages on theaters’ marquees have never felt so relevant. Rather than advertise the latest films, their readographs are encouraging us to wash our hands and reminding us of our love of movies.
Local theaters with classic marquees are playing along. Last week, the Parkway Theater changed its message, letter by letter, from “When Harry Met Sally on Zoom” to “The Month the Earth Stood Still.” The Riverview Theater in south Minneapolis has quoted “The Wizard of Oz’s” Dorothy with “There’s No Place Like Home” and “Finding Nemo’s” Dory with “Just Keep Swimming.”
But the Uptown has been crafting witty, sometimes weird messages for years. The latest, like so many others, went viral. The marquee’s last message for who knows how long has been shared across Instagram, Twitter and Reddit, under the headline “Uptown Theatre Never Fails.”
“We like to have fun with it,” said Cross, 40, the theater’s head manager since 2008.
That’s about the time the theater began regularly cracking jokes. A funny few got good reactions and Cross figured, why not?
“There was never a formal edict: ‘OK, now we shall try to be clever with our marquees,’ ” he said.
It just became a thing, said Gill, 40, a manager at the Uptown since 2009. “People would try to outdo each other.”
Each Wednesday, the managers would e-mail supervisors and floor staff with the title of the next show and a question: Any ideas for the marquee? A reply isn’t required. But some staffers run with it.
“Everyone’s into different stuff, but I think you could classify all of us as film nerds,” said Gill, who along with other theater staffers is furloughed for now. The marquee reflects their tastes and personalities. The theater’s midnight movies, too.
“Everyone who works there works there because they specifically wanted to work at the Uptown,” he said. “We try to make it our theater as much as we can.”
First opened in 1916 as the Lagoon Theater, it boasted 1,500 seats, an orchestra pit and a 40-foot stage. It was renamed the Uptown in 1929, when it got sound equipment, first showing “The Dummy,” according to a history of the theater compiled by Joe Larsen, a former employee. After a fire and a $65,000 renovation, the new Uptown Theatre — with its Kasota stone facade and 60-foot tower — opened in 1939 with a screening of “The Women.”
Landmark Theatres bought the place in 1976. Its lobby was remodeled in 1984. In 2012, a renovation added a full bar and subtracted 550 seats.
The theater is known for screening independent films and midnight movies, foreign titles and quirky finds. But its marquee might get the most love.
One of the earliest quips Gill remembers advertised the cult horror film “Bubba Ho-Tep,” featuring Elvis Presley stuck in a nursing home. It read: “Return of the King” — a nod to the movie’s geriatric protagonist but also the “Lord of the Rings” sequel that was dominating screens then. Another classic: “Jane Eyre: Based on a Book, I Think.”
In 2010, during an intense heat wave, the Uptown was playing Errol Morris’ “Tabloid.” But the sign said, simply: “We Have AC. Who Cares What’s Playing?”
That one popped up in a weather report on CNN. Others have blown up on Reddit or Instagram, perplexing Gill, who doesn’t understand how to work Reddit, and Cross, who eschews social media, following just one Twitter account: the Dairy Queen on 38th Street. Some have landed in actors’ feeds.
Timothée Chalamet demanded to know who came up with the marquee for his film “Beautiful Boy,” starring “Zaddy Steve Carell.” Anna Kendrick replied to the theater’s sign for “The Hollars” — “Anna Kendrick Ain’t No Hollars Back Girl” — saying “Oh my god I want to hate this, but I just don’t.”
For “The Last King,” the marquee read, “Starring That Red Beardo Wildling Guy From Thrones,” and the red beardo guy himself, Kristofer Hivju, posted it on Instagram, collecting some 16,000 likes.
“I know my last name is hard to pronounce but ... He he!” he wrote.
Filmgoers and passersby often compliment Uptown staffers on the latest. But just as often, Cross said, they’ll pop in to say, “I don’t understand.”
A woman buying a ticket to “Emma” alerted Gill that the sign was wrong. In fact, she said, “ ‘Clueless’ is based off ‘Emma,’ ” Gill recalled, laughing. “Yeah, that’s the joke,” he said. She shook her head: “Well, it’s still wrong.”
But the marquee doesn’t always josh. For the 2016 masterpiece “Moonlight,” it said on one side, “Featuring Janelle Monae Who Will Someday EGOT.” On the other: “A Frank Ocean Song for the Eyes.”
Changing the message means climbing a 15-foot ladder to slide letters into the tracks. Many are decades old, metal and heavy, Cross said. One staff member lost her grip and a letter fell on her forehead, cutting her. “I don’t think she had a permanent scar from an Uptown letter,” Cross deadpanned.
A marquee with a simple title and director means that the staff couldn’t come up with anything clever. Or “it may have just been really cold out,” Cross said.
But by now the staff knows that the neighborhood looks to its marquee for its messages, in these times and always, Cross said, turning earnest. “There’s a sense of community around it.”