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Flickering out: an ode to the Oak Street Cinema

Regarding Monday’s Community Voices piece, “Before the wrecking ball, a few questions,” the first film I ever saw at the rundown shoebox theater known as the Oak Street Cinema was “This Is Spinal Tap.” I attended the screening with a group of friends, all of whom had already watched Rob Reiner’s comedic faux documentary numerous times on videotape. Experiencing the movie at the Oak Street Cinema with a sold-out audience, however, proved an uproarious revelation.

In a filled auditorium, even the most anticipated lines produced fresh waves of laughter. Simply put, there was a joy to be found in sharing the film with an appreciative audience, some kind of mystical alchemy produced by the collective emotion of strangers watching images flicker in the dark.

Over subsequent years, whenever craving that enlightening cinematic sensation, I would turn to the Oak Street for my fix. Whether viewing a marathon of John Ford westerns, Universal Pictures classic horrors, Hitchcock thrillers, or Warner Brothers crime-noir, the Oak Street was repertory smack to cinema junkies. My fondest personal memories of the theater revolve around the annual holiday screening of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Although the print was in terrible condition, even missing frames from a key scene, none in the audience really seemed to mind. We were too distracted by our collective heartstrings being expertly and shamelessly tugged in unison.

Experience couldn’t be replicated at home
While appreciated, pristine quality prints weren’t required at the Oak Street Cinema. Audiences returned to share an experience that couldn’t be replicated in home theaters, no matter how technologically advanced the set-up. Even as the films found easy availability on DVD, loyal audiences still gathered night after night to join a communal gathering. That was the wonder of our little revival house. Sure, it was cold and damp, but that just made the place all the more cozy. With one hand around a box of warm popcorn and the other hand holding the hand of a date, there was no better place to spend a winter night.

My appreciation for the Oak Street was such that I became an early contributor to Minnesota Film Arts (MFA), the nonprofit organization established to promote revival screenings there and documentaries at the U of M’s Bell Auditorium. As an additional goal, MFA would organize the annual Twin Cities Film Festival. During MFA’s earliest days, the mission seemed to be a success. Screenings continued to be popular, and guest speakers were occasionally brought in as hosts. (I even got to meet Peter Fonda before a screening of his lost revisionist western, “The Hired Hand.”) Within a few years, however, the organization showed signs of fracturing.

The first noticeable downturn was in the quality of the quarterly screening calendar. Gone was the attractive glossy piece, replaced by cheap newsprint that looked, felt and read like subliterate personal ads. Such a drastic nosedive in the marketing quality wouldn’t have mattered, of course, had the actual screenings remained as remarkable. Unfortunately, it was soon clear that repertory screenings were slowly being pushed to the margins in order make more room for contemporary foreign films.

Repertory mission disappeared

Unbeknownst to supporters of MFA, the identity of Oak Street Cinema was being overhauled by the very people who were entrusted as its stewards: the board of directors. Without a word to members, the board quietly removed any mention of repertory cinema from MFA’s mission statement. But responsibly reporting such a change must have been a low priority in the midst of chaos caused by a financial mismanagement so widespread that the organization faced the threat of bankruptcy. All of these troubles were hidden from MFA members until revolting staffers held a public forum prior to a “Citizen Kane” screening.

I was at that screening, but hadn’t gone for the forum. In fact, I was oblivious to any commotion prior to arriving at the cinema and finding TV news crews interviewing patrons about the theater’s suddenly bleak future. Recriminations flew that evening as the few MFA directors in attendance attempted to absolve themselves of blame and emphasize their commitment to the theater. The contentious debate ended with MFA members being told that lines of communication would remain open. After that night, however, no messages would be conveyed. Months later, when a letter did arrive bearing the MFA logo, it was a solicitation for financial contributions.

By that point I had already pretty much given up on MFA. Checking its website gave little reason for hope. Instead of a full calendar of future screenings, there were only sporadic listings of foreign films dotting the horizon. It was clear that the MFA had made repertory screenings a thing of the past at the Oak Street.

I haven’t been back to the Oak Street Cinema since the “Citizen Kane” debacle. It has been reported that the building is on the verge of being sold, and the sole focus of the MFA these days seems to be doggedly maintaining the Twin Cities Film Festival.

Whether showing highbrow or lowbrow, classics or obscurities, at its height the Oak Street Cinema invited us all to celebrate the rich history of cinema. For film fans, it was a shrine to the moving image. That our shrine would be plundered by its supposed guardians makes the fate of the Oak Street Cinema as tragic as any film ever screened within those revered walls.

An early and longstanding contributor to MFA, Brad Richason eventually allowed his membership to expire. When not toiling as a Twin Cities freelance author, he oversees the national sales efforts of Lerner Publishing Group, an independent children’s publisher. He can be reached at brichason [at] comcast.net.

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