Movie theaters have provided an escape ever since John P. Harris and Harry Davis opened a five-cents-admission movie theater in a Pittsburgh storefront in 1905 and named it the Nickelodeon. COVID-19 has robbed us of our movie-theater escape this summer (although a few theaters, locally the Heights, are reopening), but if you were a Northeast kid in the 1950s or ’60s, Saturday afternoons would find you at the Ritz, the Heights or the Hollywood.
Movies come to the neighborhood
The first motion picture was shown in downtown Minneapolis in 1903 at the Empire Theatre on 2nd and Washington. Downtown theaters dominated the scene in the first two decades of the 20th century, but by the mid-’20s, entrepreneurs were building in the neighborhoods and the suburbs. Two theaters came online in 1926, the Ritz and the Heights.
Construction costs for the Ritz, at 345 13th Avenue NE, came to $45,000, equivalent to $651,000 today. A small theater, it soon underwent remodeling in 1934, when the entire house was “reseated” with 650 of the “latest type of cushion seats.” The following year it was closed for five days for a $15,000 remodeling project that included a new Art Deco interior designed by Perry Crosier.
The Heights, at 3951 Central Avenue in Columbia Heights, was built by Arthur Gluek, president of Gluek Brewing. Prohibition had shut down the brewery business, but the Gluek family had many irons in the fire, including dairy farms on the fringes of the Twin Cities area whose Golden Guernsey cows supplied milk for the Ewald Dairy. Gluek was also president of the Columbia Heights State Bank. The Beaux Arts-style Heights was originally built for vaudeville shows and plays, but soon became a movie theater. Movies were silent then (“talkies” came out in 1927), and the theater was equipped with a small Robert Morgan pipe organ that provided music and sound effects.
The Hollywood came along much later in 1935. The $100,000 theater at 2815 Johnson Street was trumpeted as the “Incomparable Showcase of the Northwest.” Designed by architects Jack Liebenberg and Abraham Kaplan (L&K), its tall Streamline Moderne pillars and portal lighting in the auditorium gave the impression of an ocean liner. At 900 seats, it was the largest of the three theaters. It was built by Charles Rubenstein, whose father, Louis, built the Granada theater downtown.
All three theaters have some connection to Liebenberg and Kaplan, who designed 200 theaters throughout the Midwest. They were in high demand after receiving high marks for the acoustics at Temple Israel synagogue in south Minneapolis; with the advent of sound, movie houses wanted a good acoustical experience for their customers, too.
L&K was called in to remodel the Heights in 1936. In addition to improving the sound, they also added air conditioning. “When the Heights opened in 1926, it did not have any kind of AC, so it would close in the summer months,” current owner Tom Letness said in an email.
The firm was also chosen for the late 1940s expansion of the Ritz. A Feb. 19, 1949 story in the Minneapolis Star reported that two buildings were built behind the theater, one for a heating plant, and another for air conditioning. The air conditioning system was a signature L&K design.
Andrew Volna, current owner of the Hollywood, explains it this way: “There was an artesian well in the basement that circulated cold water through a heat exchanger and cool air was blown under the theater floor, then through some duct work in the rear of the building, and finally dumped on the heads of the audience.”
Liebenberg and Kaplan also put some glitz on the Ritz, adding a “crying room” in the balcony and giving it its distinctive curlicued canopy out in front.
In the era before television, neighborhood theaters were a source for news. People learned about the beginnings of World War II, for example, through the newsreels that preceded the feature film.
Neighborhood theaters also catered to their neighborhoods. The Ritz acknowledged its largely Eastern European audience by showing Polish-language films. Minneapolis Tribune columnist Will Jones noted in 1938, “In northeast Minneapolis, they seem to wait with bated breath for the next appearance of Shirley Temple, and it matters not the name of the picture nor the supporting cast. . . The Heights theater, at Fortieth and Central avenues northeast, reports ‘Lost Horizon’ and ‘Imitation of Life’ both did very well, while ‘Emile Zola,’ credited with being about the best picture of the year, made a very unimpressive stand at the box office. Light comedies, too, are generally pretty well received. . .”
Theaters also participated in neighborhood events. The Minneapolis Star Tribune noted a 1950 Halloween party held in lower Northeast. The John Ryan Community Center at 30 Second Street NE offered a talent show, games and treats. At the nearby Ritz, kids could participate in a costume judging contest, see free movies and consume free treats.
The Pierce School PTA held a theater benefit at the Hollywood in 1941.
Electric Wonderland Cooking Schools were held at both the Ritz and the Hollywood in the ’40s and ’50s. Home economists demonstrated the latest equipment and techniques.
Tough way to make a living
Making money was never easy in a neighborhood theater. Even today, profit margins for movie theaters hover around 4%, and that includes the money they make off of popcorn.
Neighborhood theaters also had to compete with downtown and suburban theaters, which usually got first dibs on new movies. Theaters rent movies on a sliding scale; first-run movies take a higher percentage of box office receipts. The percentage goes down as the film goes to the next theater. Neighborhood theaters showed “The Sound of Music,” for instance, long after it had played downtown.
In 1959, Sol Fisher, who ran the Varsity in Dinkytown and the Ritz, sought an injunction to stop “preferential distribution” of “Auntie Mame” to suburban theaters. According to a Feb. 24 article in the Star Tribune, Fisher claimed a “‘conspiracy’ to deny ‘first suburban rights’ to his theaters, [plus] the Hollywood and the Heights.” The owners of the Heights and the Hollywood didn’t join in, but declared their sympathy to his case. Fisher prevailed.
There were other difficulties. In 1947, schools and PTAs pressured theaters to show more “wholesome” movies during Saturday matinees instead of the usual “thriller” fare. The theaters complied, with disappointing results. Charles Rubenstein of the Hollywood told the Minneapolis Tribune only 300 of his 950 seats were filled. “We need the cooperation of the schools and the PTAs who asked us to change the type film we were showing.” Fisher said his adult trade had dropped off on Saturday afternoons. Heights owner William Levy said attendance had increased slightly, but not enough to offset the loss of renting a film and showing it one day.
And then there were the criminal acts. A burglary took place at the Ritz in January 1933. Thieves broke in and took a money bag containing $28, about $550 in today’s money.
A series of theater bombings also occurred in 1933, including the Heights, in March. Heights Manager A. J. Withnell said he had been having trouble with the Minneapolis projectionists’ union since he hired an operator the previous July from the Independent Motion Picture Operators’ Union, Inc. The bomb damaged the front of the building, but Withnell cleaned up the mess and the movie was shown as scheduled.
In October 1953, Heights owner William Levy was shot at when a robber took $800 while customers watched a western film.
Lyle Giese, the doorman at the Hollywood, was robbed of 50 cents and a pack of cigarettes as he was closing the theater for the night in July 1955. He told the thieves he didn’t know the combination to the safe, so they took his billfold instead.
The slow decline of neighborhood theaters
Though never very profitable, the neighborhood theaters provided a decent living for the people who owned them. Television took a huge bite out of revenue when people no longer had to go to the theater to see the latest news or watch a movie. Competition from downtown, suburban theaters and drive-ins was stiff. When multiplex theaters made their first appearance in the late 1960s, independent theaters, unable or unwilling to divide their auditoriums, quickened their downward slide.
The Ritz stopped showing movies in 1971, when the Cricket Theatre leased the building. In 1978, Beverly Bachman from St. Paul paid $500,000 for the theater with the intent of turning it into a Polish cultural center, complete with Polish films and a restaurant selling pierogies. She sold the theater in 1980 to Sy Soo, who showed Asian movies. On August 17, 1981, a pipe bomb was thrown through the box office window. “White Power” and a swastika were scribbled on the sidewalk. Minneapolis police investigated the incident in connection with a recent delivery of Nazi literature and swastikas placed on the homes of nearby Asian-American residents. The theater sat dark under Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA) ownership until 2000, when the City Council agreed to sell the building for use by Ballet of the Dolls. Theatre Latté Da purchased it in 2016.
The Hollywood went up for sale in the early ‘70s. It suffered the short-lived indignity of being a porno house after Harry Mohney, Grand Rapids, Michigan tried to add it to his string of Midwest theaters. First Ward City Council Member Sam Sivanich succeeded in denying him an operating license because of inadequate off-street parking. It was part of a city-wide crackdown on dirty movies. The Cutter family bought the theater in 1971. Three years later, Clyde Cutter told Minneapolis Star reporter Roy Close he wished he hadn’t. “The business is completely different from what it was 20 years ago,” he said. “The larger theaters get the preference of pictures; we almost have to beg for them.” He had cut admission to $1, but that did little to bolster attendance. “The first thing some people say when they come in is, ‘Gee, it’s nice to have the theater open again,’” Cutter said. “Then we show a G-rated film and die.”
The Hollywood showed its last movie in 1987. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
MCDA acquired it in 1993 and it sat in disrepair until 2014, when Volna bought it for $1 and the promise to restore its façade and find a new use for it.
The Heights soldiered on, showing 99-cent movies and in the process, becoming Minnesota’s oldest continuously operating movie theater. Tom Letness and Dave Holmgren bought the movie house in 1998 and began a loving restoration that included refurbishing and installing the WCCO Mighty Wurlitzer organ. Temporarily sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic, the theater has reopened with new COVID-19 rules in place. Check out www.heightstheater.com for details.
Below: Patrons line up for a cooking school at the Ritz, 1953. (Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society) Next: A Polish film advertised in the Minneapolis Star, July 23, 1936. The Heights in 1933. The upstairs sheltered Miss Halloran’s Sweet Shoppe; the downstairs housed the Columbia Heights Library. The Hollywood auditorium in 1935. (Photo courtesy MN Reflections Digital Library)