Local legend documents Dinkytown

Minnesota-born Al Milgrom, a cinema icon, is wrapping up his first feature-length film on the University neighborhood.

by Barry Lytton

When Al Milgrom arrived in Dinkytown in 1940, Simms Hardware was only halfway through its 115-year stint.

Now, the building that once housed Simms is the site of Espresso Royale, whose windows Milgrom, 92, faced Monday afternoon as he thumbed a scribbled-in legal pad and sipped a small McDonald’s coffee.

Before recounting his lifelong love for Minnesota and cinema, Milgrom unwound a red woolen scarf from his neck, but he kept his navy conductor cap on — one of many hats he’s worn over the years.

Milgrom has been a University of Minnesota student, a soldier, and an independent film director, and he founded the Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul.

“I’m very Minnesota-loyal,” he said of his half-century as a Minneapolitan.

The local cinema icon is putting together the final cut of his feature film, “The Dinkytown Uprising,” which condenses 40 years of footage into a 103-minute documentary about the Red Barn protests that took place in Dinkytown more than four decades ago.

He said he hopes to premiere the film  at the 2015 Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival before finishing two other ongoing projects.

“I’m lucky I have an experienced editor to assuage my insecurity,” Milgrom said, “which should not exist at the age of 92.”

‘The Dinkytown Uprising’

Despite his love affair with cinema, “The Dinkytown Uprising” will be Milgrom’s first feature-length documentary. The film is a culmination of his on-and-off shooting over the past 40 years, he said.

“All this footage was in my basement, in cans,” he said.

The documentary recounts a 40-day protest that took place in 1970 where Dinkytown’s post office now stands. About 300 students, neighborhood residents and others occupied a space that had been vacated for a Red Barn burger franchise.

Demonstrators were forcibly removed by police, and the site was bulldozed. But the protest against the corporate burger joint’s local presence didn’t end there, Milgrom said.

 “Dinkytown, in contrast to a lot of American cities in the anti-Vietnam era, was not a three-day demonstration,” he said.

After the bulldozers destroyed the shops, the protesters returned to the empty lot.

“These were student idealists — some of them claimed they were romantic revolutionaries,” he said.

In 1970, Milgrom was the man with the camera and 16-mm color film in hand. “The Dinkytown Uprising” follows six of the event’s main characters — including dissenters and the Red Barn burger franchise owner — over Milgrom’s switch from analog film to digital.

“I’m really interested in what time does to historic memory,” he said.

By reviving historic Dinkytown, Milgrom said, he wants the film to also serve as a reminder for current locals.

“You have the intellectual college professorship from the ’30s onward, even earlier, who shopped here, who lived here, who hung out here, who got drunk here,” he said.

Now, Milgrom said, Dinkytown a different scene.

“There is not enough hyperbole to describe it. I mean, it’s scandalous. It’s vulgar,” he said.

Kristen Eide-Tollefson, owner of the Book House in Dinkytown, said the film’s planned 2015 release is coming at a great time, as she and others in the area are working to combat the new corporate businesses that have flocked to the campus area.

From what she knows of Milgrom, she said, he’s dedicated to connecting people’s stories to a bigger picture.

“He’s passionate about the place,” Eide-Tollefson said. “He’s passionate about Dinkytown and history.”

From stills to screen

Sixty-six miles up Interstate 35 in the small town of Pine City, Minn. — approximately halfway between Minneapolis and Duluth — Milgrom was born to Russian and Polish immigrants in 1922.

At age 18, he left for the University of Minnesota to study journalism and feed his love for photography.

In 1943, Milgrom said, he was shipped off to Japan to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps in a photo lab unit. He was relieved from duty three years later, returned to the states and graduated from the University shortly thereafter.

Until the early 1960s, he wrote for a slew of national and state newspapers like the Washington Post, the Star Tribune and Stars and Stripes.

He founded the University Film Society in 1962 — now the Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul — while pursuing an advanced degree at the University.

With Milgrom at the helm, the society began screening international films at the Bell Museum of Natural History, which he said exposed the campus to titles outside of the usual Hollywood movie theater billings.

“We basically introduced Eastern European film, on block, to Minnesota,” he said.

Though he’s been producing his own still photographs and motion pictures for decades, Milgrom is best known as a cinephile and an avid film screener.

He was instrumental in creating Minneapolis’ cinema scene, said local film editor Dan Geiger, who is credited for his work in “Fargo,” Prince’s “Graffiti Bridge” and soon, “The Dinkytown Uprising.”

Milgrom estimated that the local cinema society he founded has screened 5,000 movies since its beginnings in the 1960s, exposing the Twin Cities to a global sphere of cinema.

“It was like an extension of film school,” Geiger said. “You could go there, and you could see stuff you’d never see in the movie theater.”

The society’s original home base was right in the University’s front yard, Milgrom said.

“How many millions of students have passed through the University in 50 years?” he asked. “A certain percentage of kids — [those] who were on the ball — caught a film at the Bell Museum.”

The site of the screenings has moved over the years. Once at the Oak Street Cinema, it’s now located at the St. Anthony Main Theater.

Although the location hasn’t been continual, the stream of films has been constant.

The screenings, along with Milgrom’s cajoling invitations, have attracted hundreds of filmmakers and theorists to Minneapolis. Among them are Milos Forman, Nikita Mikhalkov, Josef von Sternberg and Pauline Kael.

“[Milgrom] was just doing something he loved,” Geiger said.

He is well known across the state, Geiger said. A character in the Coen brothers’ recent movie, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is named Al Milgrom, and Geiger said he believes the pair of Minnesota-born filmmakers attended the early Bell Museum screenings.

Over the years, Geiger said, plenty of young movie buffs have enjoyed Milgrom’s labor of love.

“I know at least 10 people that became filmmakers here because of [the film society], probably more,” he said.