Perking up the Parkway
Two University of Minnesota grads bring new life to an old city theater.
When Ward Johnson and Eddie Landenberger bought the Parkway Theater on 48th and Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis last year, they were filled with romantic visions of showing old movies in a prewar theater. “I fantasized that it would be a fun, low-stress business,” remembers Johnson, a former pet food company owner.
They never imagined scrambling to find a Blue-ray version of ET in order to avoid disappointing an auditorium full of kids settled in with their popcorn. But that’s what happened last fall when, minutes before showtime, Johnson realized the digital file sent by the studio was locked, and thus unusable.
Luckily, reaching out to a nearby cinephile worked. “Once that friend of Eddie’s walked up to the theater with a Blu-ray copy of ET in his pocket, I went into my office to cry,” says Johnson. “Now every time I start a film, I have PTSD, and when I press play, my heart goes up to 160 beats a minute.”
Then there was the December day when a second-floor sink was plugged with its faucet left running, creating a waterfall in the lobby just before a Moth Radio Hour live performance. Between booking acts, overseeing events, and endless troubleshooting, “I haven’t worked less than 12 hours a day since we announced our opening,” says Johnson. “It’s like throwing a party every day.”
So, a low-stress business? Not exactly. But running the restored Parkway Theater, an Art Deco beauty that opened in 1930 and reopened in September, has definitely been a rewarding one, say Johnson (B.S. ’94) and Landenberger (B.E. ’00). The Parkway alternates between featuring classic movies, musical acts, comedians, and spoken-word performances. It also boasts an old-fashioned arcade, a snack bar, and a classic bar, complete with cocktails created by local distillery Tattersall.
The duo purchased the theater in early 2018 together with an adjacent restaurant, formerly known as Pepito’s. A fixture of South Minneapolis for 46 years, Pepito’s closed due to financial difficulties and the owner’s declining health. The restaurant is a sentimental spot for Johnson, who had his first date with and proposed to his wife, Maggie, there. Now it is an outpost of El Burrito, another family-owned local business, which shares a symbiotic relationship with the Parkway. “If they do well, we do well, and vice versa,” says Johnson.
Renovating the 90-year-old theater wasn’t easy. Even Landenberger, a commercial realtor and developer well aware of potential pitfalls, has been surprised by the project’s scope. Among other unexpected challenges, “this winter’s polar vortex has shown us every vulnerability of the building.”
The Parkway was in tough shape to start with, says Johnson. The HVAC was virtually nonexistent, the lobby sported scary old couches, the seats were ancient and tightly packed together, the plaster was crumbling, and there was no ADA-compliant bathroom on the first floor. But designer Anna Lundberg, who had worked on the South Minneapolis restaurant Book Club, looked past the mess and saw the original terrazzo floor, curved staircase, and Deco door handles in the lobby and the coved ceiling and Deco columns inside the theater.
She uncovered and restored the former and lit up the latter, adding decorative copper panels to the ceiling and golden metal palm trees, statement wallpaper, and a banquette to the lobby. The theater seats were recovered with classic red plush and moved farther apart to provide plenty of legroom. “Most people want to gut a building and make it modern, but we saw such good Art Deco DNA and wanted to honor that,” says Landenberger. “There’s a patina here that you really feel.”
Running the Parkway, which sits just three blocks from Johnson’s home, is a family affair. Wife Maggie helped with the opening and still helps with staffing, sister Jessica Paxton (B.A. ’87) is the booking and marketing specialist, and his 15-year-old daughter sells popcorn on the weekends.
Both Landenberger and Johnson view the project as not just restoring a theater but investing in a neighborhood. They hope the upgraded Parkway will strengthen an already palpable sense of place at 48th and Chicago, becoming a hub of local activity. So far, the signs are good.
At the end of each movie (shows have included crowd pleasers like Jaws, Harold and Maude, and Taxi Driver), the audience applauds—something unlikely to happen at your average multiplex. “When they clap, I feel like it’s them saying thank you for doing this; we had fun,” says Johnson.
Then there are the live musical performances, cozy because the theater seats just 365, quietly respectful because the seating is concert style rather than bar-table fashion. “Jeremy Messersmith, David Huckfelt, Farewell Milwaukee—these shows have been magical,” says Johnson. “The crowds have been riveted, and the vibe is so warm and intimate. There’s no other venue quite like it in town.” The performers have enjoyed the space, too, including the Parkway’s unique Green Room—a 1970 Airstream.
When it comes to programming, Johnson and Landenberger have compromised their original vision. “Initially, we had a very specific idea of the kinds of movies and acts we would have,” says Johnson. “We saw the Parkway as kind of a cross between the Walker and the Dakota—interesting and challenging. But we soon came to realize that sticking to that programming would mean taking a long time to build an audience. You have to show The Sound of Music and Raiders of the Lost Ark, too, if you want to fill the theater. We can still have edgy content, just not every day.”
Their University of Minnesota years are far behind both men, of course, yet they still draw from those days. Any engineering student learns project management, says Landenberger, a skill that has proved invaluable in coordinating the Parkway’s rehab and operations. As for Johnson, his time at the U taught him his work ethic “and how to juggle 19 things at once—which is paying off lately,” he laughs. “Oh, and how to read a balance sheet. All those accounting classes are really coming in handy now.”
Lynette Lamb (M.A. ’84), a lover of old-fashioned movie theaters, frequented the Parkway long before it was remodeled.