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Remembering the Uptown Theatre’s early days

In 1916, In an effort to appeal to a middle-class audience that considered movie-going not quite respectable, the theater promised it would show “high class pictures at all times, including Metro, Fox, and Triangle productions.”

The current marquee on the Uptown Theater in Uptown Minneapolis
The current marquee on the Uptown Theater in Uptown Minneapolis
MinnPost photo by Iric Nathanson

Minneapolis’ beleaguered Uptown received another blow with the news that the Uptown Theatre’s operator, Landmark Theatres, is being evicted from its 105-year-old home on the corner of Hennepin and Lagoon avenues. The Twin Cities’ last remaining link to the silent movie era, the Uptown began life as the Lagoon Theatre when it opened in 1916. At the time, the Lagoon was in the forefront of a movement that was transforming the early motion picture theaters from the tawdry store-front exhibition halls that characterized the industry’s infancy to the opulent movie palaces that marked its teenage years.

In its opening-week ads, the 1,500 seat Lagoon promoted an elegant image for itself, noting its “extremely beautiful interior tinted with yellow frieze and gold, with curtains of an old rose shade which add richness and splendor to the interior.” In an effort to appeal to a middle-class audience that considered movie-going not quite respectable, the Lagoon assured its potential customers that it would show “high class pictures at all times, including Metro, Fox, and Triangle productions.” The Lagoon may have considered itself a palace, but it was a palace that was accessible to the general public at a cost of 10 cents.

A 1916 ad for the then Lagoon Theatre.
Minnesota Historical Society
A 1916 ad for the then Lagoon Theatre.
In 1916, the Hennepin-Lake commercial district was not yet known as Uptown. That designation would come more than a dozen years later when the district decided to rebrand itself. In order to support that rebranding effort, the Lagoon decided that it would also take on a new name. In April 1929, the theater announced that it would now be known as the Uptown. The movie palace explained that its new name “was chosen to confirm with a movement now in progress to establish the Lake and Hennepin community as the Uptown district of Minneapolis, fashioned after a similarly-named district of Chicago.”

The new name coincided with a transformation that was sweeping the movie industry with the advent of the “talkies.” Two years earlier, in 1927, Warner Brothers released “The Jazz Singer,” the first feature-length motion picture with a recorded musical score and lip-synchronized dialogue. When the Uptown revealed its new identity in 1929, the theater also announced that it would no longer show unsynchronized films. The Uptown went on to report that it was inaugurating the new policy with “The Dummy,” a movie starring Ruth Chatterton and Jack Oakie. “Every word of dialogue is spoken in this all-talking drama,” the theater noted.

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Despite its new name, the Uptown retained the building’s original façade with its vaguely classical features through the 1930s. Not until 1939 did the theater receive the makeover that gave the Uptown its more modern appearance. That year, on April 25, the Uptown caught fire. While the fire, which started in the ventilating system, was quickly brought under control, extensive smoke damage left the theater’s interior in shambles. The Uptown’s owners brought in the architectural firm of Liebenberg and Kaplan to repair the damage and give the theater a new up-to-date Art Deco look.

An image of the Uptown Theater tower.
University of Minnesota Archives
An image of the Uptown Theater tower.
The rebuilt Uptown staged its grand re-opening on Nov. 16, 1939, with the showing of “The Women,” starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell. The theater advertised free parking, with smoking permitted in the balcony. Admission was 25 cents for adults before 5 p.m., with an increase to 35 cents after 5. 

Liebenberg and Kaplan added the theater’s most notable feature, a 50-foot sign, originally topped by a searchlight that was later removed. The architects also brought in an Austrian-born artist named Gustave Kollman to create a bas relief sculpture for the theater’s rebuilt façade. The sculpture, which still adorns the Lagoon side of the building, includes symbols representing the movie industry and nearby Lake Calhoun, now Bde Maka Ska.

One of the Gustave Kollman sculptures that adorn the outside of the Uptown Theater.
MinnPost photo by Iric Nathanson
One of the Gustave Kollman sculptures that adorn the outside of the Uptown Theater.
“Compare this artistic delight to what passes for decoration in modern movie houses today,” says architectural historian Larry Millett, “and you will understand why people love old theaters.”

But now, with Landmark Theatres’ eviction, the future of this much-admired theater, a major Minneapolis landmark, is very much in doubt.