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Dale Connelly, Resident Tourist, visits Trylon Microcinema, the biggest little theater in town

Legendary folk musician Spider John Koerner sits across the room from a movie theater entrance. His voice rings off the painted cinder block walls and his impossibly skinny legs pound the cement floor to provide percussion for a rousing version of "Acres of Clams." A group of 50 filmgoers gather around to listen but give Koerner plenty of space to work. There is an ominous presence hovering over Koerner's right shoulder: a seven-foot-tall baboon in bunny ears. It glowers at the crowd, which has just finished screening a documentary about Koerner at the Trylon Microcinema in South Minneapolis.
The Trylon is an oddity among movie theaters. Tucked into a warehouse on the city's south side, it has no sprawling parking lot, just a picturesque tree-lined street. There's  no mammoth marquee, just a modestly glowing, narrow band of a sign over a doorway that leads into XYandZ, an art and marketing consultancy and gallery. (The gallery doubles as the Trylon's lobby.) The stern baboon is a painted denizen of the gallery, keeping company with colorful companions: a bear in a dumpster, a man wielding a chain saw, an ancient Chinese warrior, and several flying saucers--all part of an installation titled "When Trust is the New Money" by an art collaborative called Broken Crow.
One other thing the Trylon has just 50 seats.

"If You Put 25 People in 50 Seats, It's Like, a Carnival"
Barry Kryshka is the theater's guiding light and chief volunteer. He and a group of like-minded friends formed Take-Up Productions and launched the theater in the summer of 2009 in a warehouse space attached to the workplace for Kryshka's real job, running the audiovisual firm AV Solutions, Inc. The size of the theater was dictated by its location and some awkwardly placed building supports, but its small footprint defines the Trylon experience. 
"If you put 25 people in 300 seats it's a very eerie feeling for them," Kryshka says.  "It doesn't feel like they were part of a success. If you put 25 people in 50 seats, it's like, a carnival. Everyone is happy to be there."
That proved true for me at a recent Friday night screening of Charlie Chaplin's The Circus.  In this 1928 effort, Chaplain's "Little Tramp" becomes the unwitting star of a pathetic traveling show. There is a lot of falling down, usually because someone got pushed or kicked in the seat of the pants. Audience reaction is key. Slapstick suffers if there is silence. Fortunately, at the Trylon, it took just 30 filmgoers to make Chaplin's pratfalls hilarious.
The Little Theater That Could 

Kryshka's programming vision grows out of a decade he spent as a volunteer for Minnesota Film Arts at the Oak Street Cinema, a venue showing a mixture of classics and overlooked or disregarded films that deserved a wider audience.  When MFA shifted focus and moved its main showplace to St. Anthony Main, Kryshka and friends wanted to maintain the original Oak Street approach. Their earliest efforts involved renting space in other rejuvenated single-screen movie houses, like the Parkway and the Riverview in Minneapolis, and the Heights in Columbia Heights. In warm weather, Take-Up Productions took its mission outdoors.
"We started off doing screenings in alleyways and parks and stuff, kind of guerrilla style--a video projector connected to a marine battery with a transformer," Kryshka recalls. "We raised enough money doing festivals that we rented the Parkway Theater on Monday nights."
But the goal was always to have control of a theater--a place to make an investment in technology and comfort.  Toward that end, Kryshka and volunteers scavenged 50 high-back rocker seats from the Waconia 6 movie theaters --plush, bouncy chairs that had been reupholstered by convicts at the state prison in St. Cloud. The price was right, but installation was a learning experience.
"When we first were putting them in, my girlfriend looked at the room from the front and was like, 'That first row you put in looks like needs some sort of orthodontia.'  Every seat back was crooked in a different way."

One year after its launch, the Trylon has become a sought-after venue for others doing what Kryshka and company did pre-2009: renting available space on a weekly or monthly basis to show their special flavor of underappreciated film. Rick Hansen is director of Sound Unseen, a group that runs a successful multi-screen annual festival of films about music--and that's the festival that brought Spider John Koerner to the Trylon. At the post-documentary concert he was giving away free beer samples--just the kind of pleasant surprise that keeps customers coming back.
"We couldn't be more pleased with the size and the style of the venue," Hansen said. "It works out perfectly for what we're trying to do."
Small Can Feel Big

I wondered how anyone trying to make money could be pleased when the maximum sales for any one show is still only 50 tickets. Hansen echoed Kryshka's point about the importance of putting on events that leave audiences feeling an upbeat energy.  
"I don't know if you've been to a movie lately on any night besides Friday or a Saturday. But any time you walk into any one of those theaters you're going to see a smaller number of people in a large theater, and sometimes that can feel a little less than exciting."
This "small-can-feel-big" philosophy is not the same as saying "big is bad," and Kryshka hesitates to make 50 seats part of the mission of Take-up Productions.
"In spirit we'd like to think we're closer to things like The Film Forum in New York, the Brattle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Castro in San Fransisco. Those are all full-sized theaters doing similar programming. I'm not ruling out getting bigger. I could see a 120-seat theater. This could turn out to be the training session for how we build a bigger thing." 
For Kryshka, the number of seats is less important than creating a place where filmgoers can gather for an evening out.
"I don't really see larger mainstream theaters as our competition. I see home video as our competition. While people are now capable of watching films in their homes that look about as good as a film in a theater, you can drink alone at home too but the bars aren't really worried about it. And so I tend to [connect it] with that experience, and talk about the appeal of watching a film with a room of strangers. I think there's a great deal of value to that."

Dale Connelly  was the co-host of The Morning Show on Minnesota Public Radio. With sidekick Jim Ed Poole (aka Prairie Home Companion sound-effects man Tom Keith), Connelly played an eclectic mix of folk and novelty music, interlarded with comedy. Highlights of the much-missed show can be heard here. Today, Connelly writes, does voice work, and blogs.

Photos, top to bottom:

The Trylon's ultra-red interior includes fifty high-back plush rocker seats refurbished in a prison.
Native New Yorker Barry Kryshka is the Trylon's leading light.

The Trylon's entrance also leads into the XYandZ art gallery.

The theater's vintage projectors are movie classics in their own right.

Classics in their film cans

All photos by Bill Kelley


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