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Is there a future for neighborhood theaters in the Twin Cities?


If a bank branch closes, they bring a crowbar to the logo. If a Burger King closes, no one is asking the city to declare the sign a landmark. But when a neighborhood cinema closes, there’s an unspoken rule: don’t to dare touch this marquee.

Neighborhood theaters occupy a unique place in the urban landscape. For locals, they’re often one of the few artifacts of a bygone era, especially when a marquee has been burning holes in the night since FDR’s time.

If you’ve been to Edina lately, you may have noticed that the eponymous theater has reopened. The marquee is now bright red. You hope it stays in the dark.

Neighborhood movie theaters have been hammered for decades by familiar enemies – television, home video, massive multiplexes that offer 16 screens and modern conveniences. Add in COVID, and it’s a miracle all the small movie theaters have survived. The Edina was closed for a while and few thought it would return. But it is.

Reopening the theater seems almost audacious. And generous: this is prime commercial territory, after all. They could have converted it into offices and shops, and kept the marquee as a quaint relic that gave you all the feelings of nostalgia.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time the theater has left and the sign has remained.

The Old Lyndale Theater (2932 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.) hasn’t shown movies since 1954. Built in 1915, it has spent more of its life not being a movie theater than showing movies. movies. But it still looks like a movie theater, mainly because of the marquee.

The Wayzata (619 Lake Street E., Wayzata) was built in 1932, designed by Liebenberg and Kaplan, the same company that made the Edina, Uptown, Varsity, and other Minnesota landmarks. It closed in 1985, the building was converted for commercial use, but you better believe they saved the historic sign.

The Boulevard Theater (5315 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.) hasn’t shown a movie in nearly four decades, but you know what it was: there’s a big blocky marquee that still screams the name. If the sign were gone, it wouldn’t look like a movie theater. It could be any no-frills office building from the 1930s. The marquee tells you it was special.

But special How? ‘Or’ Whatexactly?

Because it was the dreamland embassy. A dark room inhabited by the citizens of an imaginary world. Newsreels, cartoons, travelogues, crisp detective stories, prestige productions in which slim, elegant people in tuxedos tap danced on alabaster stairs. We imagine everyone walking out of the theater flushed and elated, and grabbing a soda at the pharmacy before heading home on a rolling cart. Better, simpler times, and all that.

When you see an old marquee, you idealize everything. We never think of the bored teller, the usher who wished he had a more fitted suit, the projectionist who was suffocating in the booth in July, the manager who worried about receipts.

And we rarely think of the end of the old theaters: threadbare seats that creaked when you sat down. Walls stripped of ornaments, said to be “to be modernized”. An undersized screen that played movies of diminishing quality.

Most neighborhood theaters have closed because people have stopped going. This is the obvious lesson – and the hardest to learn.

Things might be different today, however. Small theaters in pedestrian areas should work well. Imagine your neighborhood with a marquee that glowed in winter’s twilight or summer’s twilight, the twinkling seductions that still ignite something sympathetic in the modern heart. Imagine thinking, again: this is our movie theater.

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