I’ve lived in Dayton’s Bluff just a few blocks from the Mounds Theatre all my life, but not for the whole life of the Mounds Theatre. It was built in 1922, and I was born twenty-nine years later.
The Mounds started out as a silent movie house. It was billed as “The Pride of Dayton’s Bluff.” It had a small stage for vaudeville acts. Local musicians played in an orchestra pit.
The first “talkie” was shown at the Mounds in late March 1929—on what would eventually become my birthday. The movie was My Man, starring Fannie Brice. The Mounds was remodeled in the 1930s, receiving air conditioning, an exterior ticket booth, and a fancy marquee.
The theater had a close call in the late 1940s, when Highway 12 cut through Dayton’s Bluff, destroying all of the businesses and homes across the street from it. Surviving that, the Mounds underwent a major renovation in 1950. Its brick exterior was covered with stucco, its vertical sign and marquee were replaced with a horizontal, twinkling “MOUNDS” sign and lighted attraction board, and most of its interior was “modernized.”
I’m pretty sure the first movie I saw at the Mounds was the original Shaggy Dog in 1959. After that I saw so many movies there that it is difficult to remember many specific ones. At first they were mostly Disney flicks. One Sunday in 1962, our family hiked over to the Mounds in a snowstorm to see Disney’s Babes in Toyland. Eventually, I graduated to more grown-up movies, including the first James Bond films, Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and the greatest of them all, Goldfinger.
I don’t remember the final movie I saw at the Mounds, but it was on a rainy night and a section of the auditorium was roped off because the roof was leaking. The Mounds had fallen on hard times. It finally closed in July 1967.
The Mounds sat empty for decades but there were rumors something was going on inside. Strangest of all, it was always listed in the phone book. I’d occasionally call the number, but no one ever answered. Finally, in 1988, I wrote to Don Boxmeyer, a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, asking him if he knew anything about it. To my surprise, he wrote an entire column in reply. The building was owned by George Hardenbergh, a former Ramsey County commissioner and a genuine character. He collected old theater organs and had moved them into the Mounds, planning to get them assembled and working. But he never did.
At a 1997 neighborhood meeting about a new streetscape for the area, architect drawings showed the Mounds restored to its former glory. But these were just drawings. There were no actual plans to do anything. When I asked about the current state of the Mounds Theatre, someone said it was infested with rats and would be torn down very soon. But it wasn’t.
In early 2000, I attended another neighborhood meeting and met Raeann Ruth, the executive director of the nonprofit Portage for Youth. She mentioned George Hardenbergh was donating the Mounds Theatre to her organization, and she was in the process of raising money to renovate it. I wrangled a tour of the building. Amazingly, the interior of the theater was still intact, buried under an incredible number of organ pipes and other stuff. Only a couple of light bulbs illuminated the interior. I started working on getting more lights fixed and have been volunteering at the Mounds ever since.
The Mounds officially reopened in October 2003 as a general-purpose venue for movies, plays, dinner theater, and other activities. I once again started watching movies at the Mounds, and finally got to see The Wizard of Oz on a full-sized movie screen.
The Mounds will probably still be going strong long after I am gone. Or maybe I won’t be—gone, that is. The Mounds is purported to be the most haunted place in the Twin Cities. If so, I might drop in for a visit.
Greg Cosimini has lived in Dayton’s Bluff all his life, as did his parents. His four grandparents emigrated from Italy just to live there too. Greg wandered off to the U of M to study electrical things but always came back at night. He then worked in the exotic suburbs of Eagan and Eden Prairie before realizing there is no place like home.