Film

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

I called the company. Mark Cuban, the shrewd but flamboyant Internet billionaire and owner of the NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, bought Landmark Theatres in 2003 from Oaktree Capital Management, with the three Minneapolis outposts—the Uptown, the Edina Cinema, and the Lagoon—counted among the 296 screens at 63 theaters in 17 states. Cuban initially pumped millions into his new "specialty theater" business—opening up a $20 million, 2,000-seat multiplex in Hollywood. But his approach wasn't able to stave off the indie market downturn, and this spring Cuban announced Landmark was for sale, refusing to mute his trademark brashness even in apparent defeat.He told the Los Angeles Times, "If we don't get the price and premium we want, we are happy to continue to make money from the properties." When I called Cuban's PR department in Dallas, nobody would comment on why Landmark was for sale, or on the length and terms of its lease at the Uptown itself, or why it hasn't invested so much as a coat of paint in the last eight years.

It's hard to make sense of what's happening to the Uptown, except that whatever it is, people are uncomfortable discussing it.

The only local who can put this how-much-of-a-dump-is-the-Uptown-really question into historical perspective, longtime manager Hugh Wronski, wouldn't talk to me either, due to the for-sale status, he says. He's employed by Landmark, after all, and they're not talking. But Cuban doesn't own the Uptown Theatre itself: When Landmark sold to Cuban, Oaktree Capital kept much of the real estate, leasing the buildings to Landmark. But over the last few years, it has sold some of them off, and in 2010 the Uptown was sold to a group of investors including Pat Smith and Ned Abdul. Neither Smith nor Abdul was very forthcoming regarding plans for the theater, but when I asked Abdul about his other holdings, he bragged that he owns most of the Minneapolis Warehouse District nightclubs: "Karma, Aqua, Epic, NV." (Yes, that Karma.) He rattled them off in a way that must sound impressive to a certain segment of the Uptown rooftop patio scene, but it was an interesting thing to brag about to a film poseur like me [CUE: '70s detective movie bassline. CUT TO: close-up on author's face, wearing a beret and smoking a clove cigarette, now smirking like Han Solo.].

After you've finished picturing me in a beret again, but before you've visualized clubgoers wrapped in sequins, sipping blue vodka pineapples, üntz-üntz-üntzing to the DJ while François Truffaut rolls in his grave far below the dance floor, remember that like most old-timey theaters, the Uptown is historically protected (though little beyond the historic façade seems original). So I contacted Jack Byers, the planning manager for the Minneapolis Community Planning and Economic Development Department's preservation and design section, to ask about what Smith and Abdul could potentially do to the place. Byers explained that permits for any architectural changes, either interior or exterior, would be "reviewed."

He also told me that when Smith bought the building, he invited Byers and team, along with state and federal officials, down to discuss the possibility of using federal and state preservation tax credits to renovate. Smith says he's committed to continuing the Uptown as a theater but that any renovations have to be "economically viable." Then I called Landmark one more time and asked about renovation. This time the flack volunteered, "We have no plans to leave."

Yes, this kind of oblique but practical business talk sounds scary when there's a cowboy bar and drink-fueled rooftops on every building within walking distance of the theater. It's a stretch to believe one of the town's preeminent nightclub investors bought into the 'hood to restore the city's last great art house to its former glory. But between all the no-comments and non-denial denials, it's hard to make sense of what's happening to the Uptown, except that whatever it is, people are uncomfortable discussing it.

Anybody who saw Cinema Paradiso at the Uptown (or even at home on their anti-social Blu-Ray player) understands that time has no time for romance, theaters are rendered obsolete, and dreamy cinematic memories of summer afternoons in the dark watching Wallace and Gromit eat moons made out of cheese are just that: memories. The Uptown's day has come, and likely gone. The building probably has legs; the fate of the fading and decrepit movie palace, though, is anybody's guess. [CUE: violins. CUT TO: close-up on author's face, wearing beret and smoking clove cigarette, one tear sliding down left cheek.]

Senior writer Steve Marsh's Q&A appears in Mpls.St.Paul Magazine each month. His work also can be found in Delta Air Lines' Sky and at GQ.com and nymag.com.
 

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