Tom Letness could cease his never-ending renovation of the Heights Theatre, in Columbia Heights, and it would remain the finest movie house in the Twin Cities, bar none. Yet he keeps fiddling with it. He knows its history inside and out—from a bombing back in the late twenties at the hands of a disgruntled former projectionist, to its dark days as an ugly second-run theater. As the theater’s current owner, operator, and sometimes beleaguered caretaker, he’s also familiar with all its quirks and charms in its present-day incarnation. Letness didn’t have to dig out the orchestra pit or hire an organist, but he did. He didn’t have to put 152 hand-painted reproduction Edison Mazda bulbs in the chandeliers, but he did. Bringing in the Wurlitzer organ and finding someone to play the thing wasn’t easy, but he did it.
Letness, who bears a striking resemblance to a young John Malkovich, is often fused to his cell phone, trying to set up appointments with inspectors or scheduling future events, sometimes involving vintage films and even, on occasion, an appearance by an aging star. Letness speaks of the Heights with the weary pride of someone who loves what he’s doing but has long since lost his naiveté. “This is a lot easier to talk about now that most of the renovation’s done and we’re headed in the right direction,” he said with a sigh. He shook his head. “Strangers often come up to me and say they have this dream to open a movie theater and what advice can I give them. I tell them the truth. And the truth is, it’s not easy.”
Letness typically works twelve-hour days, seven days a week. He lives in a tasteful, relatively sound-proof apartment above the theater that gives him a bird’s-eye view of his renovated Dairy Queen next door. He begins each morning with a quick walk with the dog, then coffee at a local café, often in the company of a publicist, a journalist, or someone else vital to spreading the gospel of the theater.
Around 10:00 a.m., he’ll meet with Chuck Merrell, a maintenance man, to go over projects—the old theater requires a tremendous amount of upkeep. Letness also tinkers around the theater himself, climbing scaffolds for ceiling repairs, cleaning up from the previous night’s screenings, in addition to conducting all of the business work—and also scurrying next door to handle the occasional ice cream crisis.
He also consolidates the multiple reels of a new film into one giant reel and threads it into the projector, which he maintains. “I handle the pictures with kid gloves, unlike other places,” he scoffed. “You get a quality print at the Heights.” Around 3:00 p.m., he’ll prep for the first show of the night, throw open the doors, sell tickets, and personally start the picture about 5:00 p.m. “My employee,” Letness said, stressing the singular as if to drive home his lonely venture, “arrives around 6:00, and I help him get ready for the next show.” At times, he can become irritable about some patrons. “Oh, I’ve thrown people out. I look at it like you’re in my house. Don’t talk during the movie. Turn your cell phone off. Pick up your garbage. We have this lovely little announcement beforehand, with a mother telling her kids to be polite, and yet people still are rude. Do I have to go up there myself and ask them to be quiet during the show?”
For the most part, though, Letness loves his audience and it loves him. “For me, it’s the little things—like when that curtain rises before a film, there’s a wonderful feeling. And I remember one kid before a Harry Potter film seeing those curtains and asking me, ‘Is this the play or the movie?’” Letness rolled his eyes, and despite his obvious pleasure at pleasing the kiddies, the skeptic momentarily displaced the romantic. “Yeah, kid,” he growled sarcastically, “it’s the play.”
The Heights could screen the typical Cineplex garbage, but instead, Letness insists on bringing in what he believes is quality Hollywood fare and, every now and then, classics like Oklahoma! or White Christmas (this year he has already lined up Bing Crosby’s widow to croon beforehand). And sometimes he’ll indulge his taste for films like It Started With Eve, an old and virtually forgotten Deanna Durbin flick from 1941. “One of my favorites,” he admitted. “That’s one of the joys of the Heights—I know that if I didn’t show that film, no one else would.”
This article originally appeared in The Rake magazine.