If you were to find yourself at the intersection of Sunnyside Road and France Avenue S. — to grab a burger at the Convention Grill or pick up a slice at Hello Pizza — you might wonder about the building across the street. A simple structure, painted white, with no particular distinguishing style — except for the big square facade.
It looks like it used to be something other than a dry cleaner’s shop.
It did. It was the Westgate Theater, a movie house for what was then the streetcar suburb of Morningside.
When it opened in 1935, the modest Westgate merited just a few lines in the Minneapolis Star. “The theater embodies the latest in design, including such features as exterior and interior indistinct lighting” as well as “the latest in cooling and air conditioning.”
At least it had a good pedigree: It was designed by the firm of Liebenberg and Kaplan, a Minneapolis architectural firm considered the masters of 1930s style.
Owner Carl Fust, who’d been an insurance agent, and before that a violinist for the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, called the theater his “retirement project.” On its debut, he hired a small orchestra, which he conducted.
But his retirement project didn’t turn out like he’d imagined.
With its 500 seats, the theater was half the size of the Edina Theater, just six blocks away. The larger theater got the big pictures everyone wanted to see; the Westgate got the leftovers.
By the end of 1937, Fust was in failing heath. He died the next year and his retirement project was purchased by the owners of the Edina.
For years, the Westgate was just one of many small neighborhood theaters, but it served a role in the community. The Edina Historical Society (the suburb absorbed Morningside in 1966) collected some memories of the theater, and it’s the stuff of small towns.
For example: Morningside had one police officer, according to the Edina Historical Society’s history of the Westgate. He patrolled the neighborhood until his retirement at age 83. If duties were light, he’d head over to the theater for a break. His wife took the police calls at their home, so if he was needed, she’d know what to do: Call the manager, ask him to go tap George on the shoulder.
In the 1970s and ’80s, neighborhood theaters were fell one by one. They couldn’t compete with the theaters in the suburbs, which had larger screens and more parking. To survive, the Westgate came up with a gimmick: It played one movie — the same movie. Every day. For years.
William Greene, assistant manager of the theater in the 1970s, explained in an e-mail:
“Movies changed weekly and the theater just survived. This changed in 1970, when an overlooked comedy by Mel Brooks, ‘The Twelve Chairs,’ opened and played for an incredible 12 weeks. Then in 1971 another overlooked comedy, ‘Where’s Poppa?,’ played for an unheard-of 36 weeks. The Westgate was getting a reputation for saving small overlooked films.
“In the March of 1972, with high hopes, Hal Ashby’s ‘Harold and Maude’ was booked after a disastrous first run at the World Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. It was also a disaster nationwide, pulled from theaters after only a couple of weeks and left to be forgotten — and it would have been except for the Westgate.”
It played 1,957 times.
By the time the movie went into its third year, indignant Minnesotans had had enough, and they picketed the theater. The marquee finally changed in 1974, and the new hits played — “Silver Streak,” “Annie Hall.”
But it wasn’t enough. The Westgate killed the lights in 1977. The facade was stripped of its theatrical ornamentation and it was remade into a dry cleaning shop.
Now the block is slated for demolition and redevelopment; a residential project has been announced for the site. Can’t say when the old building will disappear, but if you’re in the mood to say farewell, don’t wait.
Not every movie theater deserves an elegy. But small neighborhood theaters do. They played a role that no other community business could perform: They were embassies of the world beyond, a place where you could immerse yourself in the jokes and tropes of the day, where you’d see “News of the World!” and worry about Hitler, then laugh your way through a comic short before settling in for the feature film.
The Westgate, like all the other small neighborhood theaters, told thousands of stories to thousands of people. The day the doors were locked was the day the neighborhood lost a piece of its identity.
You’re thinking: OK, great, nostalgia, history, community, all that, but come on. Rocker-back seats reserved online, Dolby sound, digital projection. It’s better now.
It is. But wouldn’t it be even better if it were right around the corner?