At the Heights – Movies since 1926

Last month we traveled to Minneapolis to see friends. Mark Ryan, one of my oldest friends and, like me, an obsessive movie buff, had been telling me for several years about the Heights Theater and how great it is. After going there on a Friday night with Mark and his wife Marge, Nancy and I tend to agree.

The Heights is the oldest continuously operating movie theater in the Twin Cities, showing films since 1926. They run both new and old films, with an emphasis on classics. The schedule below is an example of their eclectic programming.

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The night we were there we saw a new film, See How They Run, directed by Tom George, featuring Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Ruth Wilson, David Oyelowo, and Adrian Brody. Good cast. Set in 1950s London during the run of Agatha Christie’s play, The Mousetrap, the film is a farcical mystery comedy that becomes quite meta by the time it’s over. The way everything neatly fits together is clever and satisfying. (See How They Run is currently available for streaming from Amazon Prime.)

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We got there early for the 7:10 show and had a chance to check out the lobby and auditorium. An organ, which rises up in front of the screen, was being played when we arrived. This was very cool. The organ is played before the 7:10 shows on Friday and Saturday nights. It really adds to the mood of the place.

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The lobby and restrooms are decorated with vintage posters, photos, magazine ads, etc. This lends a museum aspect to the theater, which is itself a celebration of Hollywood history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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John Wayne in The Comancheros¬†holds a place of honor in the men’s room, along with two other Westerns above the urinals. I can’t speak for what’s in the women’s.

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Also on display in the lobby is this vintage 35mm projector.

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When we were there, tickets were being sold at the candy counter. Mark tells me that the original ticket booth is also sometimes used to sell tickets. It’s beautiful. (The view from outside the theater is at left; inside the theater at right.)

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Here is the history of the theater per their website:

“The Heights Theatre is located in Columbia Heights, Minnesota, a Northeast Minneapolis suburb. The theatre was originally constructed in 1926 by Gluek Brewery heir Arthur Gluek as a prohibition real estate venture.

“Built in the Beaux Arts style of the last century, the Heights Theatre building was a simple neighborhood movie house showcasing local talent in stage plays and “High Class Amateur Vaudeville Acts.” The Heights has survived at least three fires, one bombing and “The Big Blow of 1949” when a Fridley tornado twisted the tower sign.

“Tom Letness and Dave Holmgren bought the Heights Theatre in November of 1998. At first sight the theater looked completely different: it was a turquoise box. The original blueprints from the University of Minnesota’s archives revealed that the ornamental plaster of polychromed woodwork and the front windows had been walled-up during World War II. To top it all off the previous owners had slathered the building with turquoise paint.

“Today the theater has been restored to its original glory. A scarlet motorized Grande drape covers the proscenium stage and gilded grills conceal the organ’s pipework. Antique chandeliers are suspended from the ceiling restored with 2600 Egyptian lead crystals. Hand-painted reproduction Edison Mazda bulbs in four colors on separate circuits allow a multitude of effects from 152 lights above four hundred seats. An orchestra pit was discovered under the floor where the mighty Wurlitzer Theater Organ now rises for Friday and Saturday night concerts.

“The Heights has a grand piano in the lobby and an upright piano in the auditorium connected to the organ. The 1926 Williams Brothers steam boiler was replaced with two new high-efficiency hot water boilers and new electrical service as well as plumbing upgrades has been completed over the years. The entire lobby and auditorium were recarpeted, and a sparkling new tower sign crowns the marquee.

“Tom Letness, who became sole owner of The Heights in 2003, specializes in upscale first run films, classic film series and events.”

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Below is a shot of the theater in a previous incarnation with the turquoise paint as described above. Assuming Jerry Maguire is first-run, this would date from 1996.

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Heights Theater Dairy Queen

In addition to concession items, The Heights owns the Dairy Queen next door to the theater and in the, spring, summer, and fall, all theater patrons can purchase items at the DQ and bring them into the theater. The DQ has a full treat line as well as Orange Julius premium fruit smoothies, Hot dogs, BBQ and Grilled chicken sandwiches.

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That does it for this post. Stay tuned for the next one. In the meantime, be safe. — Ted Hicks

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Supplemental – Tech Specs edited from the theater’s website

The Heights WCCO Mighty Wurlitzer

Originally the Heights Theater had a small Robert Morton pipe organ installed in 1927, but this organ was removed in 1936 when the theater was remodeled.

The current organ began its life in 1929 as the WCCO studio organ, back in the days when WCCO had studios located in the old Nicollet hotel at Washington and Hennepin Ave in downtown Minneapolis. It was then a 3 manual instrument with 12 ranks of pipes. Then in the 1960’s it was sold to a private collector and eventually purchased by the Land O Lakes Theatre Organ Society in 1998. Soon after, a deal was struck with the management of the Heights Theater to install the organ, thus making the Heights the first movie theater to have a functioning pipe organ since the Downtown Minneapolis Radio City Theater closed its doors in 1958.

The organ currently has 16 sets of pipes (known as ranks) and also boasts a glockspiel, xylophone, chimes, piano, and marimba, as well as an assortment of rhythm percussions and original theater pipe organ sound effects such as train whistle, bell, birds, and so forth. The section which currently plays is housed in the former dressing room on the right side of the auditorium. The organ’s voices include Tuba, Trumpet, Post horn (the loudest stop) strings clarinet, and a variety of other organ voices to fill out the ensemble.

Organists play a short program Friday and Saturday nights before the 7:10 shows, and also for special movie events and silent movies.

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Projection & General Presentation Information

The Heights Theatre is one of the best-equipped venues for film and Digital presentation in the Twin Cities. In 2012, a complete D cinema installation was done using a Dolby Digital cinema package combined with a brand new BARCO 2K digital projector. Unlike most theaters though, we have kept our full 35mm-70mm Norelco AAII legacy film projectors in place and operational. All film prints are projected reel to reel and not from an automated platter system. The Heights also has one of the best cinema sound systems supporting full Dolby Digital surround sound, DTS Digital as well as excellent mono and stereo optical and magnetic systems.

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About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
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3 Responses to At the Heights – Movies since 1926

  1. David M Fromm says:

    THIS IS TRULY INTERWTING AND ILLUMINATING

  2. MELANIE BEAN says:

    Very interesting, Ted! I loved that they kept the musical instruments in the theater. My grandmother used to play for films in Kansas City, both organ and piano. And this was for silent films!

    Glad you had such a good trip. Melanie

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  3. Vic Losick says:

    Oh man, this is great! Hats off to the restorers and owners, and thanks for this Ted. Makes me want to move to minneapolis!

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