Uptown wouldn’t be Uptown without the Uptown.
The movie theater’s tall mast broadcasts the neighborhood’s name with crisp 1930s style, a metal torch that tells you this place has style. This week marks a century of theaters on that corner, and if you’re wondering if it was always the Uptown, well, that takes some explaining.
The theater we know and love as the Uptown didn’t start out with that name. That’s because there wasn’t any Uptown yet. The first theater on the site should have been called the Canal. When the masterminds of Minneapolis’ park system dug out a channel between Lake of the Isles and Calhoun, they called it a canal. Somewhere along the line, however, it got upgraded to lagoon and 29th Street was renamed in honor of the new estuary. When a theater was built on the corner of Hennepin and Lagoon, it was named for the rechristened street.
Other theaters of the era were smaller boxes built for flickers (a precursor to flicks) or old stage barns retrofitted for movies. The Lagoon, which cost $100,000 to build, was intended as a deeeeluxe movie experience, a taste of downtown luxury in a neighborhood theater.
It had a ballroom on the second floor, in case you wanted the night to go on and on. Before the crash of 1929, new owners gave it a makeover, turning the ballroom into a dancing school, and tricking out the theater with newfangled sound equipment. It was capable of playing Vitaphone and Movietone, two competing formats for sound-synchronized movies. (Think VHS and Beta.)
New technology, new name: The city’s ballyhoo agents decided to pitch the Hennepin-Lake area as the equivalent of Chicago’s Uptown — a hep place where the right folks went for fun. The theater was rebranded to cement the new rep, but the Uptown of ’29 wasn’t the one you see today.
A fire scraped the joint raw in 1939, and the owners decided to build a new theater on the site. They went with the best theater architects in town: Liebenberg and Kaplan, masters of the Moderne style.
The front was sheathed in Kasota stone with bas reliefs of stylized dancers. The tower went up like a zeppelin mooring mast, with a rotating beam that swept the sky. It was like a piece of the World’s Fair in New York had been dropped into the hot popping lakes district, an embassy of a future both rational and beautiful. We’re so used to it now we can’t imagine how innovative it looked then.
Inside, luxury and novelty. It had a milk bar. The balcony was reserved for smokers, who paid a little extra to puff away in the dark. The walls boasted murals by Gustav Krollmann showing beveled maidens pouring water into our lakes, and they were lit by the magic of Black Light. (A promotional brochure from the time informed us that “black light is now used extensively in Paris and London during the blackouts,” suggesting the gathering malevolence on the far side of the world.)
The original interiors are often described as Art Deco, but they owed more to the overscaled ornate designs that followed the antiseptic severity of 1930s design, and anticipated the 1940s’ odd mix of sleek and baroque.
In short, a masterpiece. In short, a thing of beauty.
Finding its niche
Because it was so closely wed to the styles of the day, it was derided as passe and antique when a new style swept through town, and was altered to fit the new tastes. At least no one hung metal sheets over the facade, or painted over the murals and hung drapes. But in 1949, something was added that spelled out the movie houses’ grim future in two short letters: TV.
They put a TV up on the mezzanine. There wasn’t a lot to see in ’49, but the small box with the cloudy gray screen was an object of fascination far greater than the enormous Technicolor tapestry in the theater. You could imagine having one of these in your house. You could imagine watching a movie in your favorite chair, and getting up for milk without paying a nickel.
The Uptown of 1929 looked to the future of sound, because it had to. That’s what people demanded. The Uptown of 1949 installed a TV to show it was part of this new world.
This is the point in the story where we would usually cut to the sad, slow decline — the yellowed 1970s photos showing the marquee advertising Triple X, the eventual shuttering, the newspaper clippings about holes in the roof and mildewed seats, the valiant neighborhood preservationists pushing for a rehab, the triumphant rebirth, the Troubled Finances, the closing, and then a settled dotage as the occasional host for a road show.
But that’s not what happened to the Uptown.
It suffered, sure. It was bought and sold. It closed for a while, but sprang back to life. It found its niche: interesting movies from interesting sources. You don’t go to the Uptown to see any movie; you go to the Uptown because it’s playing an Uptown type of film.
You wouldn’t leave Minneapolis because it doesn’t have a 10-screen multiplex playing all the loud popular faves. But one of the reasons you live in the city is because it has an Uptown.
In the streetcar era, every neighborhood had a movie house. Those that remain are treasured places for movie lovers; we’ll drive across town to see what they’re like. In a sense, the old-fashioned neighborhood theaters belong to the whole Twin Cities now, and it’s proper that the Uptown is the grandest of the breed.
It always was.