The Mighty Wurlitzer

Every now and then I am surprised by the new and different things I stumble upon.  I’ve lived in the Twin Cities since 1980 and while I would never presume to know all there is to know about Minneapolis/St. Paul, I like to think I’m in the know on a lot of what is here.

In August a friend/neighbor asked me to teach him how to make pesto.  Kind of a tempest in a teapot – a quick internet search will show you dozens of recipes and “how to” videos – but it wasn’t an imposition, so I went up and showed him how.  As a thank you he asked if I had ever been to the Heights Theatre and when I said “no”, he insisted that we go to one of their special shows.  Apparently every month they do a screening of a vintage movie on their big screen which is preceded by the playing of their “Mighty Wurlitzer”. 

The vintage movie on Monday night was Singin’ in the Rain.  My friend has been to the theatre many times, so bowing to his experience we sat in the front row, just off to the right.  It turns out that this is the best vantage point to watch the Wurlitzer player (and not a bad seat for the movie itself).  In addition, my friend knows everyone who works there, so I got a great tutorial about the organ from one of the engineers, including all kinds of photos of the pipes and instruments behind the scenes.  Suffice it to say I had no clue about how extensive a set-up a big Wurlitzer has.

I’ve never seen Singin in the Rain on the big screen and it was amazing. It made me a little sad to think about how thoroughly our society has taken to the small screen – phones, tv, ipads, laptops.  Even most movie theatres have cut down screen size to make room for more.  Made me think back to when I saw Star Trek: Wrath of Khan on the massive screen at the now-defunct Cooper.  The opening shot of stars and space took my breath away.  Even without the Wurlitzer experience, I may have to keep going to the Heights to enjoy films on a really big screen!

What’s the last thing you saw on a big screen?

54 thoughts on “The Mighty Wurlitzer”

  1. Has it really been that long ago?!
    Dunkirk. Released in 2017 seen at a theater in 2018.
    Having an HBO subscription put me in a wait-for-it mode.
    The Fargo Theater had (has?) Silent Movie Night with the Mighty Wurlitzer. That was always a treat.

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  2. I might once have been a person who could enjoy special movies that took advantage of their big screen presentation. But note that I’m not sure I ever was that person. Star Wars, for example, bored me. What I enjoy are personal films, films dealing with the difficulties of life for a single person or a couple, and those films live quite nicely on the screens of my computer or living room TV.

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    1. Star Wars was a game changer for me. I saw it when it came to the Grand Theater in Northfield when it came out. I went back the next three nights dragging other friends of mine as well. So solid four nights in a row.

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  3. Last movie we saw in a theater was before the pandemic. It was Harriet, at the Riverview, another big screen venue.

    We’ve been to the Heights for Wurlitzer night several times. Last one, I think, was a Hitchcock film—Vertigo, I think.

    My daughter went there for a showing of Wizard of Oz. They featured an appearance by one of the (maybe the only) surviving Munchkins. She brought me an autographed photo.

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  4. That is so cool, VS – I wonder how long they’ve been doing the Wurlitzer – I went to The Heights decades ago and wasn’t aware of it, but if it’s just monthly…One of the things I like about south Minneapolis’ Riverview Theater – they never chopped it into small screens.

    I think it may have been Black Panther with Chadwick Boseman. Boy, that’s been a while!

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  5. The Palace Theater in Luverne is an old vaudeville and silent movie theater that was transformed into a modern movie theater, and still shows movies on the big screen every week, as well as serving as the home of a theater company that puts on plays and musicals. It is a beautiful space that has been lovingly restored. I haven’t seen a movie there for more than 40 years. I remember seeing a re-release of Gone With The Wind there when I was in high school.

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    1. Used to be two drive-in’s in Rochester. The South closed first, maybe in the ’70’s? Then the North closed in 1986. Last movie it showed was ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and our friend Diane took her boyfriend Tom in order to dump him. They’ve been married 33 years now.

      The drive in is also where I went with my older cousin and his friends. One drank to the point of passing out in the bathroom. I remember dragging him out and other people telling us to “keep him awake!” We dumped him in the backseat of a car, drove him home, snuck into the house where someone (might have been me) turned on a light. Everyone panicked, dropped him in the hall about the same time his parents came out to see what was going on. We all ran for it.
      I learned a lot from my older cousin David…

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  6. We see a few movies each year at our local 10-screen theater. I doubt its screens are “big” like VS is asking about. Otherwise, the last IMAX movie I watched was probably 7-8 years ago with my then-Little Brother. IMAXes are always a neat experience.

    Chris in O-town

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  7. The last movie on the big screen I remember seeing was “Seabiscuit” but my most vivid memory is of “Out of Africa” when I was in danger of losing my farm in a divorce and Karen Blixen did lose hers which made me weep. literally. Not something I do very often watching a movie.

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      1. I remember seeing Marley & Me with YA on Christmas once. Of course it’s a tearjerker dog movie and I think toward the end everyone in the theater was crying. However the woman behind us was completely losing it and was almost hysterical. YA looked at me and rolled her eyes in the biggest way possible.

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  8. I’m trying to remember. Didn’t the Science Museum used to feature BIG films on its Omnimax Theater? Now, those were films that had impact when the screen was huge and wrapped around you. I loved a film about gliders that was shown there, plus a wonderful film about Madagascar. The last one of those I saw was a messy thing about the aftermath of Katrina.

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      1. Oh yes, that was one of the things I did regularly with Ken. Some of those films are spectacular. I must have seen at least twenty of them over the years.

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        1. There are way more than that. I remember the first one I saw there was Genesis, back when the Science Museum first opened. I might have a hard time coming up with the titles of them all, but here are some of the subject matters I’ve seen: The migration of Monarch butterflies, storm chasers, the Ring of Fire, alpine skiing, the Shackelton expedition, the Mir Space Station, Jane Goodall’s wild chimpanzees, Everest, India: Kingdom of the Tiger, Wolves, Bugs! A Rainforest Adventure, wildfires, the eruption of Mt. Saint Helen. As I said, some of them are more memorable that others, but these are a sampling of the ones I recall off the top of my head. I know there are lots more.

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        2. I saw quite a few of these one why I was younger. We had a membership for a few years. I have to say though that these IMAX screens and especially what they normally film for IMAX showings make me dizzy.

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        3. I’ve heard others say that’s how it affects them, too. Guess I’m lucky that I don’t react that way.

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        4. my daughter just proclaimed ari and denver ready for the imax at the science museum. will become a regular option along with zoo and indoor park that have memberships (cpu efficiencies)

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  9. RIse and Go to the Movies, Baboons,

    I have been wracking my brain to remember the movie I saw at AMC 2 years ago, and I cannot come up with it. A few years ago we saw LA LA Land here in AZ because I wanted to see the opening dance scene on the LA freeways. It was really fun to watch. And the rest of that movie I did not like at all.

    THere are some movies that I love seeing on the big screen. Right now I cannot come up with the name of one. The pandemic ate my memory. Plus it is early here and I have not yet exercised which always wakes me up.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Re: Blevins’ Book Club—VS, I think you are a week off. This coming Sunday is Nov 7 and the end of Daylight Savings Time. We have 10 days until November 14 which might give us time to read and catch up.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. what are the books
          i doubt i’ll make it but i can read the books

          If you’ll post what books are chosen after the get together on the 14th but I can read them and try and make it to the January meeting

          Liked by 1 person

  10. No idea, but so long ago that I have never been in a theater with the modern recliner seats. They do not make movies for me any more. And movie theaters can be very trying for me, loud sounds and lights and fibromyalgia being the issue.
    Phoenix had, maybe still has, a place that sells pizza after which you go in and listen to a performance like that. No movie just the huge organ rising up out of the pit. Monstrously loud, at times accompanied by light show. I am occasionally in fight-or-fight. I was very quickly in FLIGHT. Friends we were visiting were upset with me for it, even though she has FM.
    The pizza was mediocre. The organ was the star. Not the food.

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    1. My daughter and family are devoted to the comic book movies, superheroes and such. Terrible for me and everything I dislike in a theater and a movie. My wife often went with them.
      A rubric I learned in college: stories can usually be catorized into one of four categories
      Extraordinary people involved in extraordinary events. Almost all movies today it seems, extradordinary people here meaning superbeings. I do understand the appeal, just not my cup of film.
      Extraordinary people involved in ordinary events. Not common. Best Years of Our Lives is one, and one of my favorite movies. About people who have lived through a war (extraordinary people to me) and now must readjust to normal life.
      Ordinary people involved in extraordinary events. Hitchcock’s metier. Rear Window being an excellent example. But on the whole not my favorite sort of story, especially as I age. Children in jeopardy–not watching that!
      Ordinary people involved in ordinary events. My preferred story, people just living through life. Often wondered if Ordinary People gets the name from this common rubric. Are such movies made any more? A few in Netflix and Prime.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Hey, Clyde—I love this taxonomy. Here is another: Schindler’s List—an ordinary person involved in extraordinary times. He did little else with his life after rescuing and protecting the people in his factory.

        Liked by 3 people

  11. I went to the Met in HD opera movie just a couple weeks ago; And the last movie I saw in 2020 was another Met in HD movie. It’s all about the popcorn. I buy a large, dump the extra in a bag, get the refill, put them in quart bags and save in the freezer. Makes for a yummy cold snack later next week. and not it’s not mushy.

    I remember back in about 1986, out in Boston, going with my friend Keith to see ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ and it was in this little tiny theater; like they had split the balcony into a separate screen. Sure enjoyed the movie though.

    That pipe organ looks pretty cool! I’d love to see a movie with one of them.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. On the large tub there is! And last week, the refill was done by giving me a plastic bag of popcorn, slightly bigger than the tub. I joke: if it doesn’t matter the time between refills, can I just stand there at the counter, pour the first popcorn into a bag and get a refill? Or do I have to walk out behind so they don’t see me dump it in a bag?
        Play the game, you know.

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  12. Our late friend, Jon K, loved going to the special screenings at the Heights Theatre; we went along a couple of times, years ago. I recall the Wurlitzer rising out of the pit, but have no clue what films we saw.

    The Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul also has a mighty Wurlitzer. I’ve seen that in action a couple of times as well.

    Last film I’ve seen on a big screen was no doubt at the Science Museum’s Omnitheater, probably three years ago. Once a year the museum has an Omnifest where they bring in a whole series of favorite Imax films from the past. It’s an opportunity to see films that you might have missed during their previous runs. They are spectacular, though some are more memorable than others. Because I make a point of seeing as many as I can during Omnifest, I couldn’t tell you which one was the last one. Through these films I’ve been in space, explored the depths of our oceans and observed mountain gorillas, lions and elephants in their native habitat. I’ve been to Antarctica, on Mount Everest, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Serengeti. You get the idea, I love these films, armchair traveling at it’s finest.

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  13. OT, but big to me. Finally got big picture numbers on Sandy. I. An afford to stay in the apartment. Yet waiting for information on an unrelated issue.

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    1. Such good news Clyde. I’m glad on top of everything else you don’t have to figure out a new living situation right now.

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  14. It was so long ago. I cannot remember seeing Galaxy Quest in a regular theater. I finally saw it in one of those eat-in places. Considering the cheapness of the theater, I’m placing my viewing at three years after theatrical release. Now a film in my top 5 all time. No food required.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I saw Galaxy Quest twice at the Roseville Theater, which was a second-run theater that charged a buck for admission at the time. Or maybe the normal admission was two bucks, but they reduced it to a buck on Tuesdays. I’m a little uncertain about that. I saw Galaxy Quest once and had a fun time, and then a week or two later another friend wanted to see it, so I went back again. I was surprised at how much I loved it the second time – the characters all seemed like old friends that I was delighted to see again.

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  15. The last movie I saw in a theater might have been RBG, which was about three years ago at the Landmark in Edina. But that’s a theater with several screens, so they are probably not considered big screens. A true big screen? Can’t remember, really. Might have been Florence Foster Jenkins. Or maybe one of the Harry Potter or Star Wars movies. Movies used to be much more important to me, but I don’t really follow what the new releases are these days.

    Liked by 5 people

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