Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Destruction of the Hopkins Theater

Thirty years ago, a landmark streamline-style movie theater in Hopkins, MN (a suburb west of Minneapolis) came crashing down on the corner of Fifth and Excelsior Avenues after forty-four years of operation, to make way for an automobile dealership--a dealership that itself wouldn't last much more than a decade. The demise and demolition of the old Hopkins Theater happened in almost a blink of an eye, and came as a shock to many.

Just days before it came down, I was able to walk through the theater one last time and pick up a few souvenirs including old tickets, movie press packets, a theater catalog from the 1970s, an actual piece of film in the projectionist booth, lots of other paper items, even the sign on the door announcing the theater was closed. In 2008, I had the opprotunity to meet former owner Harold Engler, who showed me some of his own pictures and souvenirs of the old theater, and gave me insight on its history, and why he ultimately closed it down.

The Hopkins Theater in 1942
The Hopkins Theater, built by brothers Abraham and Louis Engler, opened with great fanfare on the evening of Saturday, August 20, 1941. The mayor of Hopkins and the city councilmen were there along with some special guests, while the Hopkins municipal band played in the lobby. People came from all over to see the new, modern theater. When it opened, the theater seated 1,200 and had amenities that included staggered seating, so that no one would be seated directly in front of someone else, love seats at the end of every other row, a spacious balcony, a state-of-the-art sound system, an acoustic board celing, air conditioning in the summer (when almost no homes and few businesses had it), smoking loges, and a smart, ultra-modern design. The theater building was topped with a 40 foot tall, eight-sided metal tower displaying over 5,000 feet of neon, with the word HOPKINS spelled out vertically on four alternating sides. The full 40-ft display lit up at night in multiple colors and could be seen from blocks away. It served as an unofficial gateway to the city, letting you know exactly where you were.
Newspaper ad for the grand opening
of the Hopkins Theater on August 20, 1941.
The movie shown on that first night was, appropriately, "Sis Hopkins," a comedy starring Judy Canova, Bob Crosby and Jerry Colonna.

In the early years of the Hopkins Theater there was no television, so "going to the movies" once or twice a week was a way of life for much of the population, no matter what town they lived in. Harold Engler recalls that in the early days, theater patrons were treated to a full two-hour evening program. It would begin at seven p.m. with coming attractions, a newsreel (the closest thing anyone had to television news then) and cartoons such as Tom & Jerry, Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker. At 7:30 the movie would start, and in those days the feature would change every Wednesday and Sunday, to keep people coming back to the theater. During the Second World War, which the United States entered just months after the Hopkins Theater opened, a big booth in the lobby sold war bonds, and posters throughout the theater encouraged patrons to buy more bonds.

As a boy, Harold Engler grew up in the theater. By junior high he was doing many of the jobs there, including working behind the candy counter and selling tickets. At age 17, before he graduated from high school, his father Abraham fell seriously ill and the decision was made to make Harold part owner of the theater. The teenager took over his dad’s duties, which included buying the movies, bookkeeping and advertising. “All those [newspaper] ads were handmade,” he says. “We didn’t have fax machines or copy machines then. I thought carbon paper was the greatest thing on earth.”

In 1948, the first television station went on the air in the Twin Cities and that changed the habits of moviegoers. “It hurt the theater business a lot for a while,” Harold says. “There was nothing we could do but wait it out. Thousands of theaters froze throughout the country. Then Cinemascope came in, in 1953, and that was the resurgence of the industry. Big, big screen and stereophonic sound. We had surround sound all the way around. We were one of the first theaters to put it in. Any innovation that came along, we had it right away. Then people started to come back to the movies.

“Prior to that, movies were really bad. When TV hit, they just weren’t making good movies. So the timing was really disastrous. People could stay home and could watch all this junk for free instead of coming to the theater to see it for fifty cents. So it woke up the moviemakers, and they started to make bigger and better movies. After that, theater attendance just soared.”    

Harold Engler takes pride in the innovations that his father, and later himself, came up with at the Hopkins. From the beginning, the theater had features such as black lighting hidden in the isle seats that reflected off the carpeting in the auditorium, so people could find their way down the isles without the lighting distracting the patrons watching the movies. There was a crying room for parents to take their crying babies. Decades before restaurants had smoking sections the Hopkins Theater had its own smoking loges in the back four rows, where patrons paid an extra nickel for the privilege of smoking while watching the movie. (The nickel fee was later dropped.)  In addition to the nightly features, the theater was famous for its weekend kiddie matinees. There would be traffic jams leading into the city of Hopkins every Saturday as parents from all over dropped off and picked up large groups of children at the theater.

“I liked doing innovative things,” Harold says. “I would look at what our competitors were doing and I’d try to figure out what we could do different. We were the first theater to run all day long outside of downtown Minneapolis. The Uptown [a similar-style neighborhood theater in Minneapolis] used to, but we were the first suburban theater to run all day for bargain matinees ‘til 6 o’clock. We put in Tuesday movie specials. It cost a buck to get in. I loved to do stuff like that, just trying to get people interested in coming to our theater.”

Other promotions he had included a Wednesday two-for-one night sponsored by Dayton’s department stores where with a special Dayton’s card a moviegoer could bring a friend and get two admissions for the price of one. For senior citizens there was a Golden Age Club where seniors could get in for a reduced price with their Golden Age cards. This promotion brought a letter of commendation from Mayor Charles Stenvig of Minneapolis. But probably the most popular promotion was the Birthday Club. “We used to give prizes to all the kids that came in for birthday parties. And then we gave the Birthday Girl or Birthday Boy a bigger prize or nicer prize. We seated them all in one area together so they’d always be together,” Harold recalls.

By the 1960s, the movie theater business had changed greatly since the forties when the Hopkins first opened, and Harold Engler and his partners, who included a brother and two cousins, stayed on top of the trends and innovation. Retail space was built around the theater building and the Englers brought in new businesses that they either owned outright or leased to others, including a liquor store, a convenience store, a florist, an appliance shop and a small café.

The features no longer changed every Wednesday and Sunday. The era of the blockbuster had begun and a particularly successful movie could be on the marquee for weeks. The average run for a really good movie at the Hopkins in the early sixties was three weeks or less, but in 1965, the James Bond feature “Goldfinger” broke the records. On its Friday premiere it drew the biggest house in the theater’s history and the next night the crowds were even bigger, according to an article in the Hopkins Sun, a local newspaper. “Goldfinger” ran for almost two months, which was almost unprecedented then. After that, however, bigger movies had longer runs. There were also fewer movies being made than there were in the forties, which meant the features were more expensive for the theater operators to buy, so they had to run longer to recoup the costs.

As the trend toward box office blockbusters with longer theater runs continued, the Hopkins was one of the first theaters in the country to become a multiplex; several screens under one roof. Just about all theaters are like that now but in the late sixties when the idea first came to Harold Engler, the concept was radical.

“I heard about a theater in Kansas City that had four screens. There happened to be a theater convention down there and I went down to see it [the four-screen theater] but I couldn’t get anybody to come with me. They thought it was just nuts. It wasn’t accepted. So I took a cab and went to this theater [owned by the company that later became the AMC Theaters chain] and took a look at it. I was enthralled. They had automated equipment in the projectionist booth, one candy counter, one box office and four screens. I thought, this is it! I came back, and I talked my partners into converting the upstairs balcony of the theater.”

In 1971, the Hopkins Theater became the Hopkins 1-2. The balcony was converted into a second smaller theater by suspending a screen and floor over the main theater with steel girders. Some thought there had to be some funny business going on with that second theater in the balcony. “Everyone seems to think we’re going to start running dirty films upstairs. We aren’t,” Harold Engler explained to Minneapolis Tribune columnist Will Jones as the new theater was getting ready to open. “But I think it would be a good idea to have a film with adult appeal playing in one theater and, say, a Disney in the other one.”

Downstairs, where the smoking loges were, a new automated projection booth was built, making the Hopkins the first theater in the area to be fully automated. Instead of having a projectionist in the booth threading a reel into a projector and having to manually switch to a second and third reel every twenty minutes or so, all the reels could be spliced together onto one huge reel on a projector positioned horizontally on the floor of the booth and it would run automatically. At the push of a button, the lights would go down, the movie would start and run by itself until the end when the lights would automatically go back up and the film would rewind automatically. No projectionist needed except to watch over things.

“The union was not very happy with us,” Harold says. “We eliminated the projectionist. What we actually did was take our projectionist and made him the theater manager and operator, and paid him more money. He was still union, but we only paid one person instead of having multiple projectionists. We became multiple choice. You didn’t see just a Betty Grable movie, you could see a Betty Grable movie and an Edward G. Robinson movie.” (Not that the Hopkins was exactly showing those kinds of movies in 1971.) “You could see a murder mystery and a musical. It was unheard of to have more than one screen. And then everybody started doing it.”

In 1973 a third theater was built in some of the former retail space that was connected to the building. The numbers 1-2-3 were painted in bold black and white squares on the sides of the big neon tower, alternating with the word HOPKINS.

In 1981 yet a fourth theater was put in, in the old liquor store that was located in another part of the building. It was a tiny one with just 150 seats that would be good for showing independent and niche films. But there was resistance from the City of Hopkins.

Harold recalls, “The architect came back and said, yeah, we can put a theater in there, and I said ‘well go to the city and get a building permit. I’d like to have it open by Labor Day.’ He came back and said the city won’t give you a building permit. They said you don’t have enough parking spaces. They had a ratio of so many seats to parking spots. It was so stupid.”

The son of one of Harold’s business partners volunteered to go down and talk to the city administrators. He offered to remove some 300 seats from the main auditorium in exchange for allowing the fourth theater but the city still objected on the grounds that there would be parking problems. So Harold went to some of the neighboring businesses, many of which weren’t open on weekends or evenings when the theater traffic would be heaviest, and got them to agree to allow use of their lots for overflow parking. Finally the city relented and allowed the fourth theater to be built, with the stipulation that seats be removed from the main auditorium.

“About two, three months later we were ready to open the theater, the seats were out, we had them taken out, and I called the seat man and said I want them back in by Friday,” Harold says. “‘They’ll be there,’ I was assured.  So we had them reinstalled. I came to the office the next day [and] my partner’s son called me and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said ‘We’re putting the seats back.’ He says, ‘You can’t do that! I promised the city that I’d take them out.’ And I said, ‘But I didn’t promise the city I’d take them out. So if they call you, you have them call me.’ They never said a word.”

Over the years, Harold and his partners purchased or built dozens of neighborhood theaters in the Twin Cities area and Engler Theaters became a well-known and successful chain in the region. The crown jewel was the Hopkins, so naturally when an automobile dealer named Rudy Luther asked Harold if he’d be interested in selling his prime location on Fifth and Excelsior Avenue to him, the answer was a definite no. Absolutely not. Harold tells the story.

“The theater was doing very well. We had no thought of ever selling it. Then I got a phone call one day from Rudy Luther, and he wanted to buy the theater [property] and I said it’s not for sale. It’s been in the family, my father built it and it’s doing very well. But it got us thinking, and we sat down with the family and decided ‘Let’s go to our accountants and see what they think it would be worth.’ So we decided to come up with a figure and we called him back.

“I’ll never forget, he looked at me and he said, ‘Do you think you’re in Hollywood?’ I said, ‘Well, this isn’t just a piece of property. It’s a growing business that’s been in our family for umpteen years, it makes a profit. If you sold one of your car agencies with a big building on it and you were making money on it wouldn’t you ask a lot?’ He accepted our offer and he bought the theater from us and that was the end of it. I never got one phone call from the city, the chamber of commerce, another businessman, nobody saying ‘What can we do to keep you in Hopkins? Can we find you another location?’ I would have built again. Nobody showed any interest whatsoever.

“Then I get this call, this is how the city operated. I got a call from Rudy Luther’s general manager. ‘Would you come to a city planning meeting? They’re giving us a real hard time about giving us a license to run the car lot.’ So I sit in the back, the place is packed, and Luther’s people are making presentations. They showed pictures of this beautiful building and the shrubbery and the trees, the whole thing, and the city is saying ‘Oh, we don’t want another agency up there.’ Finally I raised my hand. A lady looked down and said, ‘I think Mr. Engler is in attendance. That’s him back there.’ So I stood up and I said, ‘Do you know, folks, you ought to be proud and excited to have a merchant like Rudy Luther, successful automobile agency, to want to build this beautiful building on the corner of Fifth and Excelsior Avenue. Because, the theater’s not going to be there anymore. It’s all over with.”

Leaflet from the ill-fated
"Save the Tower" campaign.
The last stand for the Hopkins Theater was on July 16, 1985. “GOODBYE HOPKINS. THE END IS TONIGHT” read the marquee. All 1,320 seats in the four theaters were packed with patrons who came from all over to see the grand cinema for the last time. The features shown that night were “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” “Emerald Forest,” “Fiddler On the Roof” and “Beverly Hills Cop.” When the night was over and the lights were shut off for good, a sign taped to the door informed passersby that the theater was closed and suggested they can see “The Gods Must Be Crazy” at Studio 97, another Engler theater.

Before the bulldozers came there was a frantic effort on the part of some area residents to “save the tower.” The idea behind the Save the Tower campaign was to raise enough money to dismantle the big Hopkins tower before the building was demolished, and then re-erect it somewhere in Hopkins as a local landmark. The group collected over 3,800 signatures on petitions during the 1985 Raspberry Festival (the town's big summer event) to convince the city this was a worthy endeavor and even Rudy Luther made a token contribution to the effort. The group tried to raise $7,000 by Monday, August 19, 1985.

The whole thing was an exercise in futility. Not only were they unable to raise the money, but, “we offered the City of Hopkins the tower for free,” Harold Engler says. “But the city wasn’t interested. They weren’t interested in keeping the theater either, by the way.”

It was around August 30, 1985 that a crowd gathered in the back parking lot of the theater and other strategic viewing locations around the block as a backhoe, starting on the east end where the auditorium was, smashed the building scoop by scoop, turning 44 years of memories into dust. The big tower continued to stand stoically on the other end as the backhoe slowly bulldozed its way toward it.


Souvenirs picked up inside the
Hopkins Theater days before it was demolished.
To prevent the 40-foot tower from falling into the street and on adjacent buildings, long cables were wrapped around it and attached to the bulldozer. The bulldozer pulled forward in the other direction and the mighty tower buckled, doubled over and came crashing down into the rubble.

Harold Engler was not among the crowd that came to watch the demolition. “I left town. I left town," he says. "I was gone for a week. I couldn’t be around. I couldn’t go past that corner for several years. I couldn’t go by until long after the new building was built.” Shortly thereafter, Harold sold off the rest of the theaters he owned and got out of the business.

Rudy Luther’s Hopkins Honda opened for business at the former theater location in early 1986, but it only operated until the mid 1990s. Meanwhile, for more than a decade the city of Hopkins had no movie theater. Then in 1997, in something of a turnabout, the historic Suburban Chevrolet dealership further down the main street was demolished so the city could build a new Hopkins Cinema 6, a six-screen second-run movie theater. Harold Engler had nothing to do with the building or operating of this newer theater.

Read a more in-depth version of the Hopkins Theater story in the Chronicles from the Analog Age book, published by Studio Z-7 Publishing.