Finding Minnesota: Heights Theatre Features Old-Time Charm

COLUMBIA HEIGHTS, Minn. (WCCO) — Before a movie starts, you’ll see ads on the screen and previews of coming attractions, but it’s an old-time attraction drawing customers to one Twin Cities theater.

The Heights Theatre in Columbia Heights features music from a vintage Wurlitzer organ Fridays and Saturdays, as customers take their seats.

It’s a flashback to a time when organ music was about the only sound movie audiences heard.

Harvey Gustafson is among five veteran organists who take turns volunteering their talents.

“In the 1920s, the organ was extraordinarily popular in the days of silent movies,” he said.

It turns out, a pipe organ can still help set the stage today.

“You play some things that are up tempo,” Gustafson said, “some that are more relaxed, play things from different periods.”

For Tom Letness, the owner of the single-screen theater, the organ music is one way of trying to compete with the multiplexes.

“It really appeals to people who are looking for something different,” he said.

Letness bought the theater 15 years ago. He’s steadily taken it back to its glory days, while also bringing the equipment into the 21st century.

“Technology changes and you have to change with it,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that you just throw out an old technology too.”

He updated to digital for new releases, but also kept his old film projectors, so he can show classics as well.

The organ, meanwhile, is a classic itself. It started out in the old WCCO Radio studios.

“It was kind of the binder that held the thing together and offered a change from just talk,” said Gustafson.

Now, it may be a gimmick to get more people into the seats.

But to the musicians who remember its heyday, there’s a bigger mission.

“The idea is to keep the idea of the organ as an entertainment instrument alive,” said Gustafson.

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