Heights Theater organ preserves the legacy of movie music
In the northeast Minneapolis suburb of Columbia Heights thrives a pillar of Minnesota movie history. Built in 1926 by Gluek Brewery heir Arthur Glueck as a Prohibition real-estate venture, the Heights Theater has been showing films since 1927.
Tom Letness became the sole owner of the simple neighborhood movie house in 2003, spending the years since then restoring the theater to its original glory, installing a digital projection system and, just a few weeks ago, adding more comfortable seats.
This commitment to a modern history allows audiences to experience more than just going to a movie. It's an event.
And with its spectacular lobby and elegant auditorium is another piece of history that Letness has steadfastly maintained and expanded to provide a richer experience than ever before.
It's the Heights Organ.
When the theater was first constructed, it had a small Robert Morton pipe organ. Films were silent then, and the pipe organ provided all of the music and sound effects for audiences. After movies shifted to sound, the pipe organ was removed. The chambers were left, though, and this allowed for WCCO's old studio organ to be installed in 1998 by the Land O'Lakes Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society soon after Letness purchased the theater with his then-partner, Dave Holmgren.
"The original concept of what we were going to do here was a bit different," Letness said, because with the organ removed there was not much left to even highlight its original presence. "It was just basically a box with some ornamentation left at the top that had not been covered over."
Originally, they were going to put in a huge curved screen that would make use of the wall space and provide a larger platform for exhibition. But, then they went to the University of Minnesota architectural archive and discovered the original blueprints for the building. It was at that point, he said, that they realized that what they were "looking at was much different than what was originally there."
If they started poking around, "maybe by chance a lot of these things we thought were gone were maybe still there," he said. "So, sure enough, we went into the old organ chambers and just looked around, and it turned out that the back side of the openings were just covered up with fiber board. Once we did that, we realized there was this whole secret world on the other side of all these false walls."
That secret world started it all. Letness and Holmgren wanted to bring it back, wanted to provide something uniquely available to this theater that modern theaters couldn't touch. Holmgren contacted the Organ Society, and the balls started rolling again.
"We opened up the orchestra pit. And now we provide the space, and the Land O'Lakes organ society maintains and provides the organ," Letness said.
This commitment to making an old idea new again has provided a unique experience for the Twin Cities community ever since. Taking advantage of the theater's recent monthlong closure to replace the seats, organist Ed Copeland — whom audiences often see performing at the Heights, but who also takes care of the organ — worked with his team to expand the capabilities of the organ.
"We actually tore the organ apart and rebuilt a bunch of it that had been done, but there were some issues," Copeland explained. "So, for example, we had to replace 458 valves in the organ. There is a valve for literally everything the organ does."
Each valve is connected to every action on the organ — every sound is produced in part because of a valve that opens and closes. Fixing these so that all the available sounds would sing was just one part of a massive project to revitalize the organ and add new features. One exciting feature still to be completed is a player piano that will be wired to the organ to provide a more authentic piano sound, instead of the more synthesized sound provided by the organ currently.
Every weekend before evening shows and often during restoration screenings of old silent films, the organ welcomes people to the magic of cinema. Whether you're old enough to feel nostalgic or young and find it a curious piece of history, the organ's presence carries the weight of magical realism and brings audiences into the dream that is the cinema, turning the experience into an event, rather than just a way to pass a few hours.
This summer, in particular, the Heights Theater is screening many older films to highlight the organ, such as a recent screening of Harry O. Hoyt's 1925 long-lost silent classic, The Lost World, featuring Karl Eilers at the keyboard.
It's a rare treat to see a silent film with a live organ performance like it used to be, but that's only part of the Heights' draw. In an era of discord and cynicism, the Heights Theater and all its unique features provide a refuge for community to come together and remember what connects.
Recently on organist Copeland's Facebook page he posted an image a child had drawn of him while performing for a Laurel and Hardy event at the theater. The joy of this drawing, and the inspiration Copeland's playing provided for it, sums up the value the Heights Organ and the theater play in the community — bringing people together in a common love of going to the movies.