There’s a lot going on near this intersection, which I’ve become even more familiar with since moving to Japantown in 2010. Sutter is one of my main routes downtown on my walking commute to and from work. My krav maga school is a block away and depending on the class and the instructor’s whims, we may be sent running through the streets as part of our warm up exercises. Just a block away is the now-trendy twenty-something party zone known as Polk Gulch and now cast of MTV’s The Real World has set up house here. If you venture down these streets on a weekend night you’ll dodge hordes of bros awash in testosterone and strong cologne and stumble-drunk girls in spandex mini dresses.
When I was in junior high school this corner housed two movie theaters that fell into the parental OK’d safety zone—at least during daylight hours. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s the stretch Polk Street down the block from the movie houses was a different kind of party zone with lots of gay bars and discos. Seedy elements of the Tenderloin tended to be more noticeable on Polk and Van Ness past Sutter so this was the border of acceptable territory for going out with friends unsupervised.
The Regency was—and still is—an impressive four-story building built in 1911 as a Scottish Rite temple. By the time I was buying my popcorn and Junior Mints, it housed two theaters. The Regency I faced Van Ness and was for the big first-run movies. It was one of the last remaining grand movie halls with opulent décor and huge chandelier that you hoped you wouldn’t be sitting under if a quake hit. The Regency II along Sutter was for the movies that wouldn’t fill the grand room. It was one of those stark, bowling alley-style theaters but once the lights went down and you were engrossed in Time Bandits or The Golden Child did that really matter?
As if having two theaters on one corner wasn’t enough, in 1984 the Galaxy theater opened directly the street. It was the height of modern design for the time a multi-tiered glass monstrosity, resembling a neon-accented phone booth. It was one of the city’s first multiplex theaters that would end up cannibalizing the single-screen neighborhood movie houses. (Ironically, the Galaxy itself eventually succumbed as well.)
One of the first films to show at the Galaxy was Purple Rain—Prince’s semi-autobiographical tale of a diminutive Minnesota musician’s rise to stardom. Reading the description of what gave this movie an R rating seems incredibly tame by current standards but at the time it was hailed as a raunchy movie that barely dodged an X rating. When my mother overheard me making plans with friends to go see the movie with friends, she forbade me to go. I mulled this over and realized that I could just say we’d decided to go see a different movie at the multiplex, conveniently making this only a partial fib.
I don’t recall if we got someone’s older sibling to buy our tickets or if they just didn’t care we were underage for an R-rated movie but we got in somehow. I remember totally loving the movie, and I’m sure the titillation of the sex and relatively minimal violence was enhanced by this being explicitly forbidden cinematic fruit. When we left the theater, I was mortified to discover my mom waiting for me outside the doors. HELLA BUSTED! I was grounded for a week—no phone privileges and no social activities, which for the girl who never got in trouble was a big deal. I’m sure I played my cassette of the soundtrack many times during this week, my devotion intensified now that I’d been punished for my Prince obsession.
Several years ago I re-watched Purple Rain as a midnight movie at another now-defunct theater, the Bridge. While the songs stand the test of time, the movie itself does not. It was painful to watch, even with drag queens dressed like the characters encouraging audience participation through sing-alongs and peanut gallery comments. But though the movie didn’t live up to the importance I assigned it in my early adolescent years, it marks a time when I was starting to navigate the city with my friends and develop my own interests. Even if I wasn’t riding a purple motorcycle to the shores of Lake Minnetonka, I was starting to get a taste of independence.