In the drama of my family, the Uptown Theatre played a lead role. Sitting in the middle of the block at 1053 Grand Avenue, the theater began as the Oxford in 1921. In 1929, the Uptown was reborn as an “atmospheric theatre” with an Italian motif, stucco walls, faux balconies, stars and clouds on the ceiling, and a brightly lit marquee. In the 1950s, it was again remodeled in mid-century modern style. In 1976, the Uptown turned its lights out for the last time, to make way for a parking lot.
The Uptown’s place in our family story began in the early 1930s. My dad, Verne Cummings, had started in the movie theater business as an usher when he was fifteen and worked his way up to a “plum” assignment as the manager of the Uptown. One of Dad’s best managerial decisions was to hire Esther Lindgren as a cashier. They married on June 15, 1936.
My first memory of the Uptown was going to see Disney’s Bambi when I was about four. I saw lots of movies—as many as three a week. Sometimes I got to sit in the projection booth with the operator. Often, I’d go with Dad to the theater in the morning, when he “did the books.” In his office was a set of wooden cubbyholes—the repository for everything left behind in the auditorium. We got first pick of anything that wasn’t claimed after thirty days, so we always had a colorful supply of mittens and scarves.
Described in an ad in 1929 as “Distinctly in a class by itself,” the Uptown was a palace to my young eyes. There was a grand Ladies Lounge upstairs with sofas and dressing tables and a maid in attendance. The doorman’s job was to turn the wheel on the ticket box to grind out the tickets. He and the ushers wore uniforms with epaulets and lots of gold buttons. I always had a small-girl crush on one or another of them.
The Uptown was the first theater in Saint Paul to have air-conditioning. Down in the cavernous and spooky basement, an artesian well pumped cold water into a series of pipes. As the water fell from the pipes, huge fans blew through the rain to cool the air in the auditorium.
During World War II, Dad served in the Army in Europe. After the war, he chose to stay with the familiar and went back to the Uptown. We kids, now numbering three, resumed our three-movies-a-week routine.
When I was fourteen, I started working at the Uptown as the popcorn girl. I made the popcorn in a little upstairs room and carried it down to the candy counter. When the theater was remodeled in the 1950s, the clouds and stars disappeared, the Ladies Lounge became a utilitarian restroom, and Dad’s office was moved downstairs. The popcorn machine was moved downstairs, too, and I worked behind the expanded candy counter.
At sixteen, I was promoted to the box office. Adult tickets cost twenty-five cents and kids got in for twelve cents. At the end of each shift, the cashiers had to reconcile ticket sales to the money taken in. Dad was a stickler for accuracy. More than once, I “padded the books” with some of my own change so that my numbers came out equal.
With the advent of television, the movie business declined and the Minnesota Amusement Company sold the Uptown to an independent owner who drastically cut Dad’s salary. Dad decided it was time to develop a new career. While he studied for his license to become a real estate agent, Mother split the manager’s job with him at the Uptown. By the late 1950s, Dad was ready to launch his new business. We all said good-bye to the Uptown with regret for the loss of this fixture in our lives, but also anticipation for the next step in our family’s journey.
Patricia Cummings grew up in Nativity Parish. After graduating from St. Catherine’s College, she taught English, married, and had three children. Pat then spent twenty-five years in the field of philanthropy, most recently as the executive director of the Phillips Foundation. Now retired, Pat spends much of her time volunteering in the community and writing.