The Heights Theater has been nicknamed “the jewel of the Twin Cities,” and like a prized jewel, it’s maintained its beauty and splendor for nearly a century.
The theater, located in Columbia Heights, was constructed in 1926 and is said to be the oldest continually operating theater in the Twin Cities. The Heights started as a silent movie theater with a pipe organ installed at center stage. As movies transitioned to sound, the organ was removed in 1936.
About 20 years ago, Tom Letness became owner of the Heights and launched an extensive restoration process to bring the theater back to its former glory. That process included installing a pipe organ, which attracts local organists to perform delightful music before every screening at the Heights. The organ started its life in 1929 as the WCCO studio organ. When it was installed in 1998, the Heights became the first movie theater in the Twin Cities to have a functioning pipe organ since 1958.
It’s efforts like these — the pre-show music, the restored Beaux Arts architecture — that makes the Heights a time machine of sorts, transporting audiences back in time so they can enjoy classic films in the environment they were intended to be screened in.
“There are a lot of people that have been watching these movies forever and they’ve never seen them in the theater, so the opportunity to see them in a theater with a group of people is a huge draw,” Letness said.
Haunting of the Heights
What would October be without some spooky, black and white movies? This fall the Heights hosts a five-film series, The Haunting of the Heights Theater, that showcases five different approaches to telling stories about ghouls, ghosts and bedeviling contact with the afterlife.
The weekly series screens films every Thursday, starting on Sept. 26 with a showing of “Poltergeist” and concluding with “The Others” on Oct. 24. In between, the series features three rarer pictures from the 1940s: A terrifying and influential haunted house film called “The Uninvited,” the thoughtful and eerie “Portrait of Jennie,” and a four-part anthology film called “Dead of Night” — a great option for fans of “The Twilight Zone.”
Following the series, the Heights will return to its original glory by screening the 1925 silent picture, “The Phantom of the Opera,” with live musical accompaniment by Karl Eilers on the Heights Mighty Wurlitzer. This showing, in the classically restored theater, will give audiences a rare glimpse at what moviegoing was like when the Heights opened in 1926.
Feast for the eyes
Every year, the Heights partners with the Star Tribune’s Taste section to screen a movie where food plays an important role. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Taste section, both parties are partnering to host a four-film food-centric series.
Films in the Taste series will be screened every Wednesday, starting Oct. 2 with Sidney Poitier classic “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” The series spans four decades, featuring “The Godfather,” “The Big Chill,” and “Julie & Julia.”
“(Restaurant critic) Rick Nelson is here for each one of the shows, it’s a pretty cool event,” Letness said.
Every screening in the Taste series will be accompanied by a raffle and other giveaways — so arrive early.
Celebration of cinema
This fall, the Heights will close out their year-long film series that celebrates some of the greatest titles in motion picture history.
On Sept. 23, Sidney Lumet’s wildly prescient “Network” will make its Heights debut. The bitterly satirical 1976 film tells the story of a burnt-out news anchor who’s publicly broadcasted nervous breakdown births a ratings bonanza. Viewers will find the film that spawned the classic quote, “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore,” is still uncommonly relevant in 2019.
Following “Network,” the Heights will screen two cult classic in October: “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Clue.” A fresh take of the classic board game, “Clue” presents a spot-on parody of murder mysteries with a cast of the 1980s’ best comic actors and three different endings.
“Little Shop of Horrors” is rooted in an ultra-low budget schlock horror film from 1960. The picture was later turned into a Broadway musical, which itself was adapted to the screen and has become one of the most underrated musicals in cinema history. The Heights will show the beloved 1986 musical adaptation, starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin.
In November, the Heights hosts their perennial screenings of the quintessential comedy-musical, 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain.” The dazzling Technicolor classic follows the story of a silent movie star who has trouble navigating the film industry’s transition to talkies — or sound pictures.
“People just love it, it’s a pretty easy sell,” Letness said. “People have now come to expect it.”
The film features impressive dance numbers that made Debbie Reynolds’ feet bleed, put Donald O’Connor in bed rest for several days and a performance of the rain-soaked title song that caused a water shortage in Culver City. Screenings sell out quickly each year, so advanced tickets are a must.
The Heights ends every year with a “White Christmas” extravaganza. Before screening the 1954 Christmas classic — which stars Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye — there is a 20-minute concert by Maud Hixson, singing a stocking full of holiday tunes. There will also be Christmas-themed pre-show music performed by Ed Copeland on the Heights Wurlitzer.
Letness said the movie, which sold out all 11 showings in 2018, only gets more popular every year.
“That truly is an experience that, for many people, is the way they start their Christmas season,” he said. “It’s the mother lode of Christmas movies.”
For more information on these showings, or to purchase tickets, visit www.heightstheater.com.