By Coco Mault
Just north of Minneapolis on Central Avenue, past blocks of ethnic food marts and taquerias of North-East, lies the neighborhood of Columbia Heights. It’s similar to many Minneapolis suburbs, with its strip malls, gas station oasis’, and movie theaters. But none have a theater quite like the Columbia Heights neighborhood at 39th Avenue NE. The Heights movie theater stands out from its surroundings, taller than the nearby businesses and quite a bit flashier. A large marquee juts out over the sidewalk announcing the latest feature and, above that, another marquee stands tall attached to the building’s brick facade with the words The Heights blinking in lights.
After walking through the lobby where a grand piano sits at the ready not far from the concessions stand, 400 red fabric covered chairs sweep down and usher movie-goers to a proscenium stage. From here the statement is clear: the old style of presenting movies is alive and well at The Heights.
On Friday and Saturday nights, not only is there a stage, but grand red curtains cover the screen in order to focus attention on the pre-show entertainment. Visitors are treated to a Wurlitzer Theater Organ performance before the film rolls. And what a performance it is. Organists Edward Copeland, Kim Bogen, Harvey Gustafson, Karl Eilers, and Tom Needle are the regular organ players, and they look positively minuscule atop the Mighty Wurlitzer’s bench. It’s larger than life to accommodate the all-surrounding instrument. The player’s feet dangle above large wooden foot pedals, and the keyboard itself curves around the player — even so, they must stretch to reach the top-most layer of keys. The sounds crash out of golden grates on either side of the stage, high above the seats. Cymbols, drums, tamborines, castenettes, and of course the organ, piano, and xylophone sounds explode as well, sounding something like a rooftop merry-go-round. Coupled with the highly animated musician on stage, it is easy to get swept up in the excitement. As the theater fills up with people, the applause between songs grows. It’s irresistible.
In addition to showing the latest films, what makes The Heights extra unique are their special events. On Valentine’s day they have been known to show silent, black and white romance films with live music accompaniment. They frequently have Opera in the Theater HD film events, and recent film showings have included “The Long Long Trailer” (1954) starring Lucile Ball and Desi Arnaz, “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), the 1961 version of “West Side Story,” and a new 35mm print of the 1938 comedy “Bringing Up Baby.”
Upcoming films to be screened this month at The Heights include “Le Corsaire” (March 20), “Harold and Maude” (March 21), and “La Boheme” (March 25).
Their most popular event though, comes in December; their showings of the 1954 Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney classic, “White Christmas,” which frequently sells out. A close second in popularity are their showings of the 1942 Irving Berlin classic, “Holiday Inn.” From The Heights’ facebook page: “It’s not in 3D, color or digital wide screen, but it is probably the most fun you will have in a movie theater.”
3951 Central Ave. NE
Columbia Heights, MN 55421