Cinema Vérité: Is The Uptown Doomed?

Changes in ownership and operators have fans of the historic theater on the edge of their seats (and that’s only partly because a spring is pushing through).

Uptown Theater

DESPITE ITS CLASSY ANGLICIZED SPELLING, the Uptown Theatre has always been a dump. Well, for as long as I can remember. When it replaced the old Lagoon, which burned down in 1939, the Uptown's sparkling 50-foot tower was supposedly an Art Deco beacon for the aspirations of the commercial district just east of Lake Calhoun, a monument to the mercantile dreams of a new kind of Midwestern neighborhood (and more recently an annual outdoor haven for the free-market exchange of bad skyline photography and overpriced ceramic wind chimes). But for most of the last 70 years, including all of my lifetime, the Uptown has been a dump.

We sat in broken seats with smelly upholstery that was dissolving from the brown acid of millions of
spilled diet cokes.

Which was great! As a kid, my two best friends were dudes who thought cutting old movies into gag reels to entertain their less technically adept buddy was way more satisfying than hanging out with, say, girls. While everybody else was into Michael Jordan and Family Ties, Mike and Vaughn were arguing whether Barton Fink was really a cinematic step forward from Miller's Crossing. Mike's mom would drive us to the Uptown's annual animation festival to see underground but somehow still "award-winning" claymation shorts. We watched Wallace & Gromit in a balcony full of Uptown kids who matched army fatigues with electric blue hair and unusual piercings. We sat in broken seats with smelly upholstery that was dissolving from the brown acid of millions of spilled Diet Cokes. Those weird green neoclassical murals loomed over us, the ones that look like they were constructed by Soviet elementary-school children. It was a rare aesthetic experience, and it made a burgeoning film snob's year.

Sadly, I peaked as a film snob at those festivals. I still haven't been to a midnight movie. I always had a weakness for the suburban comforts of the multiplex with its extra-large Icees and computer-generated wonders starring Tom Cruise. Yup, my taste was shaped by Maplewood II and Star Wars Episodes IV through VI. Probably why I'm writing an essay on the Uptown instead of enjoying my post-USC Film School career in Hollywood like Vaughn and Mike. [CUE: violins. CUT TO: close-up of author's face, wearing beret and smoking clove cigarette, one tear sliding down left cheek.]

I still get back to the Uptown a few times a year for "the important films." The old dump is still where smart people see smart indies before they break through to a lamestream audience. It's still important to consider myself cooler and smarter than everybody else except Mike and Vaughn. But my sense of nostalgia for the old dump has been overcome by a desire to see a movie in actual comfort.

Sure, the Uptown is still great when it's packed on Memorial Day weekend for Woody Allen's first funny movie in 10 years, with film snobs gathered from miles around competing to see who can laugh at a Gertrude Stein joke the fastest. But what about on a Wednesday night when there are only four people in the audience for Werner Herzog's documentary on the Chauvet cave paintings? When the Uptown marquee for Cave of Forgotten Dreams has been reduced to a bit of self-mockery for projecting Herzog's 3-D masterpiece "IN GLORIOUS 2-D!!!"? We lapsed film snobs keep track of each other, and when friends from Chicago and Portland are Facebooking you to say, "No, it's actually cool seeing those ancient paintings in 3-D!" somehow it's not as easy to laugh off the Uptown's small screen or its broken seats.

It might be that nostalgia no longer works as a business model, even in the movie business. The Uptown sits in a rapidly changing neighborhood, with the nearby façades reflecting the latest retail trends: There's an Apple Store down the street, next to an Urban Outfitters and The North Face. There's an American Apparel right around the corner. The old dump has never seemed so out of step.

Landmark Theatres owns art houses in 56 neighborhoods that look a lot like this one, with the same stores and the same kinds of restaurants nearby. In fact, Landmark opened The Lagoon Cinema in 1995—it used to be state of the art: movies and espresso—because of the sorts of urban alts who shop and hang out in neighborhoods like this. But the Lagoon looks like a penny hasn't been spent on it since the day it opened. Might this be evidence of the floundering indie movie business, the fact that the big six studios would rather wager $200 million on a potential blockbuster such as Transformers: Dark of the Moon than $25 million on an artfully bleak Ryan Gosling breakup movie?

Maybe, but it's hard to believe that all of Landmark's art houses are in as rough shape as the Uptown. In fact, I know firsthand that they're not: After all, some of my friends in other cities actually got to see Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3-D at a Landmark theater. Why is our historic art house so dumpy?