Columbia Heights, Minnesota

I. Roman Scandals (1933)

Back in June I watched an old movie at the Heights Theater in Columbia Heights, Minnesota (map). In the film, a man gets bonked on the head and wakes up in ancient Rome…”Roman Scandals“…

Starring Eddie Cantor, the film features “toe-tapping songs and crazy choreography by none other than Busby Berkeley.” (source)

The write-up by the well-intentioned theater staff sounded interesting, but I thought the film was pretty terrible. Eddie Cantor’s officious screen presence poisoned the film for me. But “Roman Scandals” is memorable for a few reasons: Lucille Ball apparently makes her film debut in the “Slave Market” scene, though I don’t recall spotting her. And then there’s the blackface scene. It’s offensive, sure, but it’s also puzzling. Did people actually enjoy watching blackface?

Here’s a video:

See more pictures:

II. Columbia Heights

What is Columbia Heights? It’s a suburb of Minneapolis, just north of the city. Were it not for the Heights Theaters, I never would have heard of it. It’s just a few miles far Downtown Minneapolis, but it feels like deep midwest up here. Wide roads, modest houses. A nearby rail yard (map).

Let’s zoom in on those rail yards:

Did I mention I love trains?

But this isn’t about trains, it’s about cars.

I was reminded of Columbia Heights by an article on

Places like Columbia Heights, an older suburb north of Minneapolis, lie at the focal point of conflict over development and gentrification. Can these places support a 21st-century urbanism?

The article mentions the aforementioned Heights Theater, describing it as “a retro 1920s moviehouse on Central Avenue, the town’s main street, draws customers from all over the Twin Cities with its combination of classic cinema and live organ music.”

It’s a good article, and I suggest you read it before finishing my pithy post. But on case you’re lazy or can’t follow directions, here are some highlights:

  • “the suburb’s southern border sits right alongside Northeast Minneapolis, a once-dilapidated neighborhood that has come alive in recent years as an arts district…many locals believe it is only a matter of time before the phenomenon spreads farther north into Columbia Heights.”
  • “Central Avenue has long been known all over the Twin Cities as an automotive strip — garages, gas stations, used car dealerships and auto parts stores…In the span of barely a mile, there are 22 car-related businesses.”
  • “there have been rumblings of discontent about the contradiction between what the place is now and what many of its residents would like it to become.”

As a fan of walkable cities and towns, the most interesting passage is:

“Not only that, but the town would have to change quite a bit physically in order to realize its upscale potential. Sprinkled with drive-up businesses and constant curb cuts, Central Avenue is virtually unwalkable. Pedestrians who wish to stroll down the busiest mile-long strip have to cross the wide street over and over again to find sidewalk space. Could this be fixed? Sure. Is that something the town and its business owners would want to pay for? That remains to be seen.”

From what I recall, this rings true. Here is a tweet of mine from several months ago. There’s an anonymous beauty about this place. Sunny skies, American flag, brick buildings. It has everything a place could want except for people. Cars, though, are not hard to spot.

III. Heights Theater

The exterior and interior of the Heights Theater:





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