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Morningside: Home to an independent spirit, Tippi Hedren, and two years of 'Harold and Maude'

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
Morningside is a little urban village with a fascinating history.

Very few Edina neighborhoods can lay claim to even one contribution to global cinema. Morningside, the streetcar suburb just west of France Avenue across from Linden Hills, gets two.

Morningside can lay claim to all sorts of other bona fides, besides those in the realm of film. It’s a little urban village with a fascinating history; a part of Edina, but only fitfully. All of the phone numbers west of France are in the 952 area code, but the village itself is in a Minneapolis ZIP code. Walking down Sunnyside Road feels a lot more like the rest of southwest Minneapolis than most parts of Edina.

It’s had an independent streak for a long time. The village grew up on a major streetcar line and urbanized a lot faster than the sleepy, rustic suburb to the west. Morningside seceded from Edina in 1920, remaining an independent hamlet up until 1966, when it was re-annexed by Edina. Based solely on visible business signage and organizational names, the neighborhood seems more particular about its Morningside identity than its Edina identity. A Morningside native warned me that if I made factual errors in this piece, I’d hear about it from the citizenry. They’re organized, active and very proud of Morningside.

So maybe it’s this independent spirit that fostered two of the great footnotes in the history of film. The first is the childhood home of one of the movies’ most interesting actresses, and the second is the birthplace of a cult surrounding a classic 1970s film that’s still beloved today. And they’re just a few blocks from each other in Morningside.

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Tippi Hedren is the actress best known for her roles in two of Alfred Hitchock’s films, "The Birds" and "Marnie." She was poised for massive stardom, like her fellow Hitchock leading ladies Eva Marie Saint and Grace Kelly, until a nasty falling out with the legendarily domineering Hitchock. Her contentious relationship with the director is the stuff of legend, the subject of a number of books and at least two movies. “He ruined my career,” she once said, “but he didn’t ruin my life.”

Beyond that, though, she’s had a fascinating career unlike that of any of her contemporaries, involving – among other things – the creation of a wildlife sanctuary for big cats in Southern California, where she lived with her husband and three children for years. Recently, her 1981 action-slash-message-film “Roar” was re-released by Alamo Drafthouse. “Roar” was notable for its menagerie of co-stars, over a hundred large cats, none of whom were trained or domesticated. All the action with the cats was improvised – there were over 70 attacks during the course of filming.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The Hedren house on Alden Drive

If this is not something on your radar, I urge you to read in full the press release by Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League. “So singular, so breathtaking,” he writes, “You’ve never seen a move like ‘Roar’ and there will never, ever be a movie like ‘Roar’ again.” Eva St. Marie was great, but she never made a movie with 100 untamed, undomesticated lions.

Hedren was a native of the city whose roots ran deep. She was born in New Ulm in 1930, and lived in Morningside from age 4 through 17, attending Morningside School and modeling for Donaldson’s before striking out for Hollywood.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The Hedren house on Morningside Road

According to the fine folks at the Edina Historical Society, there are two homes in which Hedren lived, a few blocks from each other. The first was at 4231 Alden Drive, where the family lived in 1940. It’s since been torn down, and replaced with a larger house in the early 1990s. In fact, Alden Drive at the moment is lined with dumpsters filled with sheetrock and scrap wood, a large number of teardowns and remodels happening in the neighborhood.

The second home is at 4311 Morningside Road, and it remains looking much as it probably did in 1944 when the Hedrens lived there.

In fact, this is maybe the real estate coup of the year: Tippi Hedren’s childhood home on Morningside Road is currently for sale. If you’re looking to make a fresh start in a highly walkable urban village in the Edina school district, in the childhood home of a classic Hollywood leading lady, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you.

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On Sunnyside Road, across from the Convention Grill, a greasy spoon diner opened by Greek immigrants in the 1930s, there’s a dry cleaning company housed in a palatial green and beige complex. The business now faces the France Avenue side of the street, but if you walk down Sunnyside, you’ll recognize the lines of a classic movie theater. It’s now a modest side entrance stripped of the marquee and lights, but still recognizable as a deco facade. If you peek in through the back door, you can still see the guts of the theater's interior, now filled with industrial washing machines. This was the Westgate Theater [PDF] from 1935 to 1977, a 500-seat one-screen theater that served the immediate neighborhood for decades. Of all the hundreds of movies it showed in that time, it’s most associated with one in particular.

"Harold and Maude" opened locally at the very end of December 1971, at the World Theater downtown. Starring Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort (and with a soundtrack by Cat Stevens), "Harold and Maude" was the story of a deadpan, disaffected 20-year-old boy and his relationship with an 80-year-old woman. Directed by the great Hal Ashby, it’s odd and charming and sad. Like all really great movies, it is endlessly quotable. (That disgusted priest! “I would be remiss in my duty if I did not tell you that the idea of intercourse … makes me want … to vomit.”)

The morning Tribune and evening Star had three movie critics between them in the early 1970s, and each one of them gave a favorable notice to "Harold and Maude."

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The Westgate Theater

“Slender, tenuous, less steamy and more whimsical than I had imagined,” said Ben Kern at the Tribune. “I was close to blacking out from laughter,” said Will Jones, also of the Tribune, in a cool but generally positive review. Most enthusiastic was Don Morrison of the Star, who gave it an unqualified rave. Morrison, a native of Texas via New York City who sported a bushy hipster goatee, was a much more lively and over-the-top prose stylist than his somewhat staid morning colleagues. His review is characteristically effusive. “A glorious addition to a class of movies that I might as well admit I love simply because they are,” he writes. Morrison credits Ashby and cinematographer John A. Alonzo for stopping “short of excess but maintaining a proper note of insanity that makes it all right.”

"Harold and Maude" generally got good reviews all over (though Vincent Canby at the New York Times hated it), but it was sort of a bust on its first run. In those days, first-run movies opened at one of the downtown theaters, such as the World. After they ran there – sometimes for a week, sometimes for months – they’d open elsewhere in the neighborhood one-screen theaters and in the suburbs. (Or at least in those neighborhood theaters that hadn’t switched to an all-porno format.) "Harold and Maude" closed at the World after a very short amount of time, and opened at the Westgate in Morningside in early March.

It remained there for 115 weeks and one day, or 1,957 performances – twice a night every night, at 7:15 and 9:25 p.m., for over two years. 

Why "Harold and Maude"? There was no shortage of great American movies in the early ’70s that could have generated as much steady enthusiasm as "Harold and Maude." But something about "Harold and Maude" resonated deeper than most films, and made people want to come back, and over and over, for years. It wasn’t hard for me to get some perspective on this topic – I only had to call my mom, Ann Sturdevant. "Harold and Maude" is one of her favorite movies, from the first time she saw it in her Midwestern hometown, Cincinnati, at the age of 22. I asked her why it resonated with her and with her generation. She answered in part:

The movie is a delightful cinematic feat. Beautiful color. Macabre scenarios. Hilarious scenarios. Touching scenarios. … "Harold and Maude" came out at a time when America was changing. The standard starter home, 9-to-5 job, and American mores in general were being questioned. An unpopular Vietnam War was brewing. It is as though the youth of that generation wanted to stop having their lives played out like plastic toys, arranged and rearranged in perfectly acceptable order.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Inside the Westgate Theater today

The Star and Tribune ran nearly 20 separate pieces of reportage on the "Harold and Maude" phenomenon over the course of the two years, and many of the interviews they ran with enthusiastic fans sound very much like what mom says above. They cite the black humor and free-spirited message and the touching, unconventional love story. In one of those pieces, written during the second year, the theater’s manager, Ralph Watschke, cites the progression of fans over time: “Middle-aged fans latched onto it. Then a college crowd, then a teenage crowd that thought it was camp. For about a year, the audience was filled mostly with 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds. By now, it’s a little of everyone.”

One such fan, a 21-year-old St. Paul civil servant named Douglas Strand, saw the movie at least 200 times and became something of a local media darling. He was interviewed by the Star or Tribune on at least four separate occasions. He even looked quite a bit like Bud Cort, and told reporters he’d been in a relationship with a 65-year-old woman who’d recently died. When asked about the film’s appeal locally, Strand speculated that it had some innate, deadpan quality that “we Midwesterners can understand.”

In fact, Ruth Gordon visited Westgate for the first anniversary in 1973, joining theatergoers for coffee and cake before the film and regaling columnists with tales of her first visit to Minneapolis – 60 years earlier in 1916 as an actress in a traveling road show. (She also met Mr. Strand, and the two apparently struck up a mail correspondence that lasted for years.) For the second anniversary in 1974, she was joined in person by Bud Cort, who’d taken a few years off acting to live on a commune and do theater in France. Also joining them was Don Morrison, whose rave probably played some part in the word-of-mouth that made the film such a phenomenon.

They were greeted by at least a few protesters. The local papers reproduced a number of photos of local residents picketing the theater, demanding “variety” and "a change of scene." How tongue-in-cheek these protests were is hard to discern through the fog of history, though much of the exasperation in the neighborhood seems to have been deeply felt.

Why did "Harold and Maude" do so well, for so long, at the Westgate? It’s one of those weird combinations of factors that can’t be replicated: word-of-mouth excitement generated in part by the enthusiastic recommendation of a larger-than-life local media figure, playing out in a cozy theater in a cute neighborhood just outside town but not completely out of the way, with a tone and sensibility modulated perfectly for a young, lightly countercultural, Midwestern audience.

The run at Westgate became something of a national selling point, as well as a point of pride. In 1973, Don Morrison reported that the Detroit Free-Press featured ads for "Harold and Maude" citing the fact that it had “Minneapolis rolling in the aisles.” By 1974, the same week the movie had finally closed at the Westgate and moved to die a quick death at the Uptown, the movie had reopened in New York to record-breaking crowds. Its status as a cult favorite was cemented. Part of the enthusiasm perhaps stemmed from the marketing campaign, which highlighted the movie’s unprecedented run of success at the Westgate.

“Minneapolis is three years ahead of New York City,” the ads read. 

If that’s true, how many years ahead of Minneapolis was Morningside? 

Thanks to Jane Cracraft for the Morningside insider knowledge and for her input, and to Dave Kenney, whose terrific book "Twin Cities Picture Show" was the first place I’d read the story of "Harold and Maude" at the Westgate.

You can (and should!) read Ann Sturdevant’s full appreciation of "Harold and Maude" here.

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Comments (3)

The other Hedron house on its

The other Hedron house on its 'deep flat lot' doesn't sound long for this world.

Excellent piece

Thanks for the great column, Andy. You nailed it.

Convention Grill

Hello, Andy!
I enjoyed this homage to Morningside but was surprised the Grill didn't rate among your hot spots. Since 1934, Convention Grill has charmed the heck out of 39th & Sunnyside. Greasy spoon? Not usually, but the silverware is mismatched, for sure. Also the paper napkins are mostly upside down. But CG malts, fries and burgers hit the spot. So say 81 years worth of blissed-out, groaning, repeat diners. You love Minneapolis institutions; you ought to check it out!