by Wendy Jacobson
When Ward Johnson and Eddie Landenberger met at a Twin Cities church several years ago, the two entrepreneurs didn’t imagine they would one day be co-owners of a historic theater. But today that’s exactly what they are.
Built in 1931, the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis is now just one of a handful of single-screen theaters left in the city. It has endured a long history, several owners, and various uses, some of which include showing pornographic movies, providing a stage for wrestling matches, and screening first-run movies and cult classics alike. When health issues forced the most recent owner to put the building—which houses the theater and next-door restaurant—on the market for sale, Johnson and Landenberger knew they had to make an offer.
“It’s kind of ironic,” says Landenberger. “I remember at one time Ward saying he wanted to buy a movie theater with me. So maybe it’s fate.”
It’s also a lot of work for the duo as they give the iconic theater its first extensive renovation in over 40 years. The goal, they say, is to restore the old theater to its former glory.
35mm Thursdays and Live Events
A key component in the renovation is refurbishing the theater’s 35-millimeter projector for “35 mm Thursdays.”
“Every Thursday, we’re going to show movies—classics and cult favorites—in their original 35-millimeter format. Original trailers, too,” says Johnson. “We want to bring a sense of nostalgia so people feel like they did when they first saw these movies in a theater years ago.”
They even hired the projectionist that has been with the Parkway for years.
On Fridays and Saturdays, the theater will host live music events, and the space will be available to rent for private events on Sundays through Wednesdays.
“We’re testing it out as we go,” says Landenberger. “Once we get up and running, we’ll tweak our schedule based on what people want.”
But restoring the 35-millimeter projector is just the beginning.
“We learned there are a lot of Art Deco elements throughout the building, especially on the walls and ceiling, so we really want to accentuate those,” says Johnson. “And we are really excited about the original terrazzo on the lobby floor.”
All of the original seats in the theater have been refurbished in red velvet upholstery, and while the number of seats has increased from 326 to 373, the aisles are a bit wider for more elbowroom.
Fresh Popcorn and Cocktails on Tap
The renovation, which began several months after Johnson and Landenberger took ownership in February 2018, also includes a completely upgraded HVAC system, two additional main-floor bathrooms, an upgraded sound system, and new stage lighting and sound.
They also are adding a full bar with two wells and installing a long banquette and high-top tables in the lobby.
The bar, with a full liquor license, is a key component of the duo’s goal to make the Parkway a destination. Johnson and Landenberger don’t want people to come, see a show, and leave. Rather, they want to create a welcome space where folks want to hang out before and after a show.
To help with crowd management and serve everyone drinks in a timely manner, they worked with local distillery Tattersall to concoct draft cocktails along with the six local beers on tap. “Who knew there was such a thing as cocktails on tap, but there is,” says Johnson.
The bar is not the only new element in the theater. They also are adding an 80s-style arcade with all the favorite video games from the era, including Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Donkey Kong.
But one thing they aren’t messing with is the theater’s popcorn machine.
“After we bought the theater and announced our plans, I can’t tell you how many people reached out to us and told us we better be keeping the popcorn machine as is,” says Landenberger.
Once they get through the initial reopening, Landenberger and Johnson will focus on phase two of the renovation, which will include redoing the outside façade and installing a greenroom for the live entertainment.
“For now, our greenroom is an Airstream in the back,” says Johnson.
The renovation has been much more arduous and cumbersome than Landenberger and Johnson initially intended. The work got delayed a few times, resulting in a reopening date later than they originally planned, but they say they understand that’s the nature of the beast with a project like this.
“We really want to honor the integrity of the building as well as the fan base of the Parkway,” says Landenberger. “At the same time, we look forward to bringing in a new base of fans who appreciate great movies and great music.”