Highland and Grandview reopen with safeguards, classic movies

Editor’s note: Mann Theatres reportedly announced after this story had gone to press that its Highland and Grandview locations were temporarily closed again due to poor attendance. They are expected to reopen in August.

By Frank Jossi

Movies at the Highland and Grandview theaters attracted a trickle of customers during the first weekend they were open since being forced to close nearly four months ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Owned by Mann Theatres, the Highland and Grandview offered a lineup of classic films when they reopened on June 26. The theaters, whose four screens constitute the last two movie houses in St. Paul, have taken several precautions to ensure the safety of customers. Managers at both locations said patrons played by the rules by social distancing and wearing masks.

Tammy Lohmann was one of the first patrons to return to the Highland Theatre when it reopened on June 26. General manager Alex Malare is shown admitting her for a matinee showing of American Graffiti. Photos by Brad Stauffer

With the pipeline to new movie releases shuttered by the pandemic for now, the Highland was showing the 1973 coming-of-age story American Graffiti and the more recent comic murder mystery Knives Out. The Grandview screened Twister, a 1996 thriller about storm chasers in Oklahoma, and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, a 1971 musical starring Gene Wilder.

The first weekend was “pretty slow,” said Alex Malave, general manager at the Highland. But the modest turnout allowed his staff to practice how to serve customers in a new environment.

“It made it easy to open that way, and nearly 100 percent of the people were wearing masks,” Malave said. “It’s been interesting to adjust to the new normal, but I think we’re doing it.”

 

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Both theaters have adopted many safeguards recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. Theater personnel suggest that patrons wear masks in the lobby, though they can take them off during the movies because they are seated far from one another, Malave said.

In the theaters, every other row is roped off to maintain social distancing. Groups or families are allowed to sit together, but they must stay at least three seats from the next set of patrons.

The Highland and Grandview, which were both built in the 1930s, have a maximum occupancy of 632 and 487 people, respectively, on their two levels.

Grandview Theatre manager Henry Paddock wore COVID-19 protection as he manned the concession counter on June 26.

“It made it easy to open that way, and nearly 100 percent of the people were wearing masks,” Malave said. “It’s been interesting to adjust to the new normal, but I think we’re doing it.”

Theater staff are disinfecting seats between films and cleaning bathrooms every 30 minutes, Malave said. Bathroom access is controlled to avoid crowding. Concessions remain open, but no refills are allowed. Hand sanitizer stations and disinfectant wipes are provided on request.

Mann Theatres requires employees to wear masks and gloves. Plexiglass partitions separate workers at the box office and at concessions. The theaters also have visual reminders about social distancing.

The story at the Grandview was similar to the Highland. Assistant manager Jennifer Yeung described the first weekend as “slow” in part because few people knew the theater had reopened.

A floor marker at the Grandview reminding patrons to practice safe social distancing.

Customers seemed pleased with the experience, according to her. “I’ve worked the two days and I’ve had no customers come to me with concerns,” Yeung said. “We do check the theater often to make sure people are spread out and that people are being careful.”

Malave said Mann Theatres is currently focusing on running older films, a common practice as theaters reopen around the country. The movies include Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, Dirty Dancing, The Greatest Showman and The Goonies.

Steven Spielberg either directed, wrote or produced many of the films now showing at theaters. Spielberg was associated with five of the Top 10 grossing films in late June, with Jurassic Park on top for the first time since 1993.

“Spielberg is to summer movies what the Beach Boys are to summer songs,” said National Public Radio film critic Bob Mondello. “No one is better at making audiences sweat and feel good at the same time, which is why people craving escape from a pandemic and social turmoil naturally gravitate to his movies.”

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