St. Paul was once packed with dozens of movie theaters.
The Paramount, a gilded first-run palace on West Seventh and Wabasha, showed the city’s first talkie in 1927, and many modest neighborhood theaters were scattered outside of downtown. Suburbanization, television, and ultimately the wrecking ball destroyed most of them by the end of the 20th century.
Several mid-sized “nabes” (aka neighborhood movie theaters) can still be found in Minnesota. They include the Riverview and Uptown theaters in Minneapolis, and in the suburbs you’ll find the Heights and Edina Cinema.
There are only two left in St. Paul: art deco two-screeners the Grandview and Highland. The Grandview has shown movies in the Macalester-Groveland ‘hood since 1933, and was spiffed up this summer with new seats and draperies.
Meanwhile Highland, with its elegant decor and distinctive marquee, has occupied a prime spot in the heart of Highland Park since 1939. After shutting down in August for renovations it’s set to reopen this Friday.
Recent trends embraced by theater chains like Alamo and ICON have included large plush reclining seats and multi-screen venues with fully stocked bars. That kind of radical update “just did not make sense [at the Highland],” says district manager Michelle Mann.
Before the renovation, the Highland only fit about 400 movie-goers on the first floor and roughly 320 upstairs. Adding recliners would have shrunk the capacity by about 60 percent. Instead, the roughly $1 million update focused on adding new seats and drapes, sprucing up the concession stand, adding a small Mann Theatre museum highlighting the family-owned chain’s 83-year history, and making the auditoriums more spacious, which ultimately only cost them 20 to 40 seats.
Like its neighbor the Grandview, Highland is one of the few remaining examples of true art deco architecture left in the Twin Cities. Both were designed by part-time architect Myrtus Wright, who crafted in the sleek, streamlined style of the era. A jack-of-all-styles, he also built the castle-like entrance to the Castle Royal Nightclub at the Wabasha Street Caves.
While many smaller local theaters are experimenting with repertory and special screenings, the Highland plans to stick with its first-run model. Mann says that they are considering adding wine and beer to their offerings, though probably no cocktails (no matter how much a gin martini might improve one’s enjoyment of the latest Avengers movie).
[Editor's note: Author/historian Dave Kenney provided some background information on local movie theaters in the Twin Cities for this piece.]