Every week or so, the staff at the Uptown Theatre go about their routine of adorning the 70-year-old movie palace's marquee with the title of the latest film to set its reels in motion on screen. Before they complete their handiwork, however, they'll sign their names at the bottom.
But this signature is no ordinary John Hancock — or Alan Smithee — as it were. This gesture appears in the form of a referential or sarcastic addendum to every movie title and sometimes in place of it, whether it's “Mel Gibson goes beyond Thunderdome in ‘The Beaver’” or “The Aristocrats’ Funnier than Drew Carey.”
Thanks to the savvy of a couple of employees and a love of cinema that goes beyond concessions, the Uptown's marquee has become its own form of entertainment. With each joke that shines forth and captivates, passersby become the audience for what is the slowest comedy routine in the world. Spare us the rimshots, or we'll be here all night. But is that really so much of a bad thing?
To some, apparently so. A “Withering Glance” piece in the Star Tribune left two uncomfortably seated curmudgeons commiserating over the sad state of their sore behinds, and a feature write-up in Mpls. St.Paul Magazine described the theater with the word “dump” no less than seven times.
However, these sour reviews and seat springs that feel torn right out of grandma's mattress are no reason to overlook the Uptown's art deco facade, its great success with special event programming and its picturesque interiors — in need of repair as they may be.
Even if a feature at the Uptown received standing ovation, it may be because the seats are just that uncomfortable.
“We're kind of falling apart in some places here but people still keep on coming, sometimes in droves,” Chief of Staff Joe Larsen said. “We can sell out our 900-seat theater. People keep coming.”
Larsen, who has worked at the Uptown for seven years, penned such marquee quips as “Jane Eyre: Based on a book, I think” and a note that “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” would be played “In Glorious 2D.”
Assistant manager Rich Gill's first memory of an embellished marquee was for the 2002 cult film “Bubba Ho-Tep,” where “Evil Dead” star Bruce Campbell plays an aged and nursing home-bound Elvis Presley. Uptown employees subtitled the film, “Return of the King,” in reference to its resurrected and geriatric protagonist but also as a nod to the “Lord of the Rings” sequel that was playing in theaters at the time.
Last summer, Errol Morris' documentary “Tabloid” was at the Uptown during a particularly memorably heat wave. “We have AC,” the Uptown's marquee declared, “Who cares what's playing.”
“[Tabloid] was not very well attended,” house manager Patrick Cross said, who also came up with the zinger, “so we certainly didn't think it was going to hurt it at all.”
“We don't try to get too risque or offensive,” Gill said, though he and his co-workers had a few run-ins with the characteristic letter writers who were upset when a “Ten Commandments” parody played at the Uptown in 2007.
“This offends me,” they may have written, in delicate script, “this offends my delicate sensibilities.”
For all their sarcasm, however, those in the marquee department rarely toe the line. Cross once put “Bride and Prejudice,” an Indian film, up as having “an all star caste.”
“It was pretty dicey,” Cross said. Whether the description raised an eyebrow or two, it remained up for the full run without incident.
While they wait for that renovation that seems perpetually fixed on the horizon, the Uptown's employees will have to make do by attracting their audience with their bountiful wit and film knowledge.
The theater has long been a meeting and potential breeding ground for "The Room” and “Rocky Horror” fans and a classic standby for cinephiles looking to catch independent cinema features before they hit the Lagoon down the street.
The illuminated witticisms have been part of the Uptown billing off and on for the last decade, but in the last two years employees have managed to keep the good lines rolling.
“We just keep on truckin',” Larsen said.
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