Reel Tradition, Real Trouble:Oak Street Cinema’s AL MILGROM


As financial woes threaten Oak Street Cinema, film lover Al Milgrom reflects on its heritage — and the future.

Al Milgrom embodies an era he hopes hasn’t passed.

As the embattled Oak Street Cinema faces financial insecurity, Milgrom is left to reflect on its rich past and uncertain future.

Al Milgrom of the Minnesota Film Arts lines his office with file cabinets containing thousands of films in alphabetical order.
He spends his days in the offices of the Minnesota Film Arts, the Oak Street’s parent organization, where he said he is largely left to himself and his plans for the theater.

“We’re just trying to get back on track here,” Milgrom said, sitting in his office cluttered with film history. “It’s lost a lot of money.”

As the organization’s festival program director, he is supposed to spend his time planning events like the annual International Film Festival. But with the recent departure of several staffers, he instead finds himself brainstorming ways to energize a tradition begun in part by his efforts four decades ago.

Milgrom, 83, opens a few drawers of the half-dozen green metal filing cabinets that line the room. The cabinets contain some 5,000 titles — every film ever shown at the Bell Auditorium, the Oak Street’s sister theater under the Minnesota Film Arts umbrella.

In each drawer and each phrase, Milgrom is steeped in film lore and can trace the Oak Street Cinema back to the days before it held that name.

Milgrom is inextricably linked to the theater’s past. It was he who founded the University Film Society in 1962 as an idealistic graduate student. The group wanted to show enough art house films to finance independent filmmaking. The feeling then was that anyone with a 16 millimeter camera could make a feature film. It was part of a revolution.

“The whole idea of cinema was in revolt against what the French called the ‘cinema of papa,’ ” he explained, contrasting the new wave against Hollywood’s golden age.

Milgrom was an international journalist before foraying into film, and his travels led to an appreciation of foreign film. Other journalists were interested too, “so we formed this society to fill the gaps,” he said. Films were soon shown in the Bell, just as they are today.

“We didn’t want to have to go to New York or San Francisco to see some of these great titles, so the idea was to bring them here.”

Film societies were springing up everywhere, but before long the proliferation of TV and home video took its toll. The University Film Society continued, but theaters like the Oak Street sold to theater chains like Mann Theatres, which sold the cinema in the 1980s.

The Oak Street space was empty for a time. When it turned back into an art house in 1992, it faced competition from the Landmark cinema chain. (Landmark owns the Edina, Lagoon and Uptown cinemas.)

In 2002, Oak Street Arts merged with the University Film Society to form Minnesota Film Arts. But theater attendance has dwindled in recent years, here and around the country. The existing disinterest was likely not helped by the advent of the DVD and home theater systems.

Milgrom is perplexed. He’s part of an earlier generation that experienced the theater and wonders what is happening to a once grand medium.

“There’s something to be said about the theatrical experience, about what cinema means as an experience,” he said. “Where’s this new generation going? They were never shown what cinema means.”

Some patrons of the Oak echoed his sentiments. Patrick Schilling, who attends films there once a week, has noticed the crowds thinning. For him, Oak Street offers a chance to see classics on the big screen — the way they were meant to be seen — instead of on television.

An actual theater provides a social aspect to it, especially today, when you can get everything at home,” said Schilling, a continuing education student.

Joan Dauphinee, an occasional attendee of Oak Street, comes to the theater to break from the mainstream.

“I come here to see political programming because I don’t know where else to see it,” she said.

Milgrom agreed with the patrons, but worried aloud that much of the moviegoing public doesn’t see it that way.

“When shove comes to push, people have to come in and see the movies,” he said. “It’s not that I’m trying to beat up on the audience — they’re just missing an enriching experience.”

Milgrom and the dwindling staff at Minnesota Film Arts are now trying to rebuild that following at the Oak Street, he explains.

He hopes a promotion grid of showtimes will help. He finished drafting the copy Friday afternoon — not on the Apple computer that sits idly on his desk, but on the 30-year-old typewriter he still uses, even for a simple office task like this one.

It’s a perfect, melancholy metaphor for a man striving to reconcile with a new generation of moviegoers.

“In Milwaukee we had two theaters in range of a busy campus. It was frustrating to not get the college audience in the numbers that I would have liked. I know the Oak Street has the same problem.

“I wish people would give films they haven’t heard of a chance – that they wouldn’t just wait for things they’ve seen advertised on television. People are blessed with so many good venues and so many good films in town. They should take advantage of that.”
Hugh Wronski, senior regional publicist for Landmark Theatres

“The Oak Street keeps alive a tradition of filmgoing that in many countries, such as the one I was brought up in, is considered a valuable resource. They’ve done some of the most important retrospectives in cinema.

“As far as I’m concerned, Hollywood is a waste of time. Nothing new has been coming out of Hollywood in the last 15 years. If a student wants to be educated into ways of filmmaking that don’t just reproduce what they already know, then that’s what Oak Street offers.”
Keya Ganguly, cultural studies professor

“I have traveled to dozens of cities in my pursuit of cinema, and without question, Oak Street is home to the bravest, most daring and diverse schedule of any venue I have found. To lose it would be a devastating blow to the Twin Cities arts community and the ‘U’ as well.

“That’s why the University, in addition to Oak Street patrons and MFA members, must rally to the cause; the ‘U’s administration should consider making a donation to keep it from sinking. $130,000 – MFA’s deficit –is a small price to pay to keep it on campus.”
Steve Snyder, former Daily employee and University student