The Uptown Theater

The Uptown in 1979

This story about the revival of independent movie theaters as a forum for civic and community engagement prompted me to recall the Uptown Theater.

For many years, the Uptown Theater was a staple of Louisville, Kentucky’s Highlands neighborhood. Opened in 1928 and for many years the only cinema in town that could boast of being equipped to show both silent films and talkies, by the time I started frequenting the place, the Uptown was a down in the heel, second run move theater that catered to the neighborhood. On humid July evenings, or frigid January nights people would convene outside the tiny box office, buy their tickets, and file into tiny cinema.

My underage friends and I saw many movies there, most notably Tron and any number of  Friday the 13th’s.  If we were trying to gain access to an R-rated entertainment, the owner would ask us if our “parents knew” that we were subjecting ourselves to a night of dismemberment or hi-fi dystopia. Although my friends and I appreciated the proximity of the theater, and it’s affordable $1 ticket price, our encounters were motivated by an illicit bootleggers mentality – the Uptown was a sanctuary for underage drinking. With a pint of Bacardi or Jim Beam in our pockets and a large concession soda, typically a Big Red, we’d sit down for the evening’s show, drinking the edges of the the evening’s entertainment. This was typical behavior in Louisville, and I still find it strange that many of my New York or Chicago friends find the idea of sneaking booze into a movie shocking or vulgar. Prudes.

Despite some community attempts to save the theater, the Uptown closed down in 1989, part of a wave of small theater shutterings caused in large part by the explosion of VCRs and cable TV – though perhaps these theaters’ attraction to rogue high-school musicians in search of an impromptu bar also contributed.  The Highlands would love to reclaim the theater, I’m sure. I can’t imagine that today the neighborhood would allow a locally owned, affordable theater to close. But, fuck and alas, it’s far too late to revive the Uptown.  The Schuster Building which housed the Uptown,  still squats at the corner of Bardstown Road and Eastern Parkway – busy crossroads in the city’s most vibrant neighborhood – but the current tenant is a Qdoba burrito joint. If you stand where the Uptown’s stage, screen, and small proscenium arch once was, you’ll be in a parking lot.

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5 Responses to The Uptown Theater

  1. Ben Thompson says:

    I loved that theater. My first movie there was Star Wars. I was 3 years old and my dad thought it was a movie we needed to see. They always had a kids movie playing on I think Saturday afternoons. Most of our parents let us walk up there by ourselves and see a movie. It was a theater full of kids. No supervision and no problems. But, fuck and alas, times have changed for the worse Mike.

    • mwashburn says:

      too true, Ben, too true. it was such a great local gem. i also went to the Uptown with my folks, but i can’t recall what we saw there. even before the days of deviance, i’d go up there and watch movies. you and i may have even gone there together some, but i don’t really recall. it’s too bad that the neighborhood let the theater slip away.

  2. chris clark says:

    Tron was an Uptown classic, but the quintessential Uptown film was Blade Runner, which I think we saw together and which played at the Uptown for approximately 17 years. I could’ve definitely used some of your bootleg spirits during Friday the 13th 3-D. It’s no surprise that an ectomorph like you would forget the Uptown’s best feature – 10 cent popcorn!

  3. chris clark says:

    Probably, and we probably snuck in through the exits in the alley, another much-lamented bygone of the Uptown.

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