Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Industry

Memories of a moviehouse

The Uptown Cinemas in Lower Queen Anne lie dark. The site’s 84-year history as a movie showcase came to an end Sunday evening, Nov. 28.

AMC, the national chain that had operated the theater in recent years, announced a few weeks back that its “Uptown 3 has been identified as a theatre that no longer competes effectively in the marketplace.” Who am I to argue? In this millennium I’ve gone to the Uptown mostly to attend advance screenings. Those were jampacked. On other, rare visits to catch a movie already in release, I pretty much had the place to myself.

That’s not how I remember it from my first days in Seattle. When I arrived in autumn 1965, the Uptown still had one screen. So did all the other theaters in the area, but the Uptown wasn’t just another moviehouse. It seemed uptown in the Manhattan sense (like the Beekman or 68th Street), classy and smart. What was on that single screen was usually distinctive, and audiences turned out for it.

At that time there were a handful of Seattle movie theaters with some claim to being called arthouses – theaters where foreign, independent or otherwise “niche” films were shown. Only the Ridgemont up on Greenwood was committed full time to this specialized market, especially subtitled foreign-language films, but the Uptown was among the hemi-semi-demi arthouses – to appropriate a nuance from “What’s New, Pussycat?,” a Woody Allen-scripted comedy of that era. So were the U District’s Varsity and Wallingford’s Guild 45th. More often than not, these places were showing something other than mainstream Hollywood releases.

For my grad-student money, the Uptown outpointed the others. It was then part of the vast Sterling Recreation Organization empire, the one where SRO would book the first runs of such English-language esoterica as The Knack … and How to Get It. The Knack was the brilliant, multiple-envelope-pushing farce Richard Lester had managed to knock off in between his Beatles films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!; it took the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, featuring Rod Steiger’s powerhouse performance (and some transgressive nudity), opened there and, if memory serves, was subsequently hailed by The Seattle Times’ John Hartl as best film of the year.

I believe The Collector made its local bow at the Uptown, and Roman Polanski’s English-language debut Repulsion. If What’s New, Pussycat? did or didn’t open there (that would have been just before my time), Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? certainly did. Nineteen sixty-eight brought Petulia, Lester’s sad, appalled satire on the contemporary American scene. That’s the last title I associate with the Uptown’s golden age, though don’t take that to the bank.

I’ve tried to Google up more history of the theater’s evolution, to nail down just when SRO sold the place, and when it was infected with the multiplex virus. (So far, the Uptown, unlike the Ridgemont, isn’t historic enough for Wikipedia.) For an interim of indefinite length, it appears that the once-singular theater did serve as just another among many movie emporia. True, in recent years there were signs of the old arthouse identity being reconstituted; but even when one or more of the three latterday screens were occupied by a foreign or otherwise arty, offbeat picture, it was rarely an exclusive booking. The Uptown’s days as a destination moviehouse were long past.

One thing you can find via Google is the cyber footsteps of a “New Uptown Cinema” movement. Some people are missing their neighborhood theater already, and dream of reviving and transforming it. We may yet see it light up again on the northwest corner of Queen Anne Ave and West Republican.

A final note, irrelevant and yet I can’t let it go. We rarely telephone movie theaters anymore because it’s easier to whistle up showtimes via the Internet and avoid those minutes-long multiplex recorded announcements. Back in Seattle’s single-screen era I used to phone all the time to check the schedule. I memorized the Uptown’s number early on and somehow have never forgot it. Then again, if I did, I had only to look in the phonebook: in 40some years it never changed. 285-1022. Goodbye, and thanks.

Copyright © 2011 Richard Jameson