The legendary Al Milgrom, known as the Godfather of the Twin Cities’ film scene, died peacefully, surrounded by his family, on December 20, 2020, at the age of 98.
Al founded what is today the MSP Film Society, in 1962, as the U Film Society. He became artistic director of the MSP International Film Festival in the mid-eighties. For more than 50 years he introduced countless Minnesotans of all stripes to the best (and most original) of international cinema, and to the concept of film as an important art form. He was an influencer long before that term became part of the standard lexicon.
Al’s impressive ability to recall details about films and filmmakers, from directors to actors to dates, shots, lines, and lengths, was enlightening and inspirational. Many local cinephiles can trace their love of film to Al’s relentless enthusiasm and tenacity to deliver remarkable film programming to this community. This not only during the annual MSPIFF, but throughout the year with screenings of hidden treasures he would discover from around the world. Al approached programming as an art form and with a driven artistic fervor, outdone only by his dedication to sharing these cinematic stories with his fellow Minnesotans.
After stepping away from ‘active duty’ at the Film Society in his mid-eighties, Al became an ardent attendee at our films, finally allowing himself to sit through those of which he approved from start to finish, always taking copious notes on his yellow legal pad. Inspired, and with extra time on his hands, he decided it was time to become a filmmaker. Referring to himself as the Oldest Emerging Filmmaker, he was always juggling new film projects. A few of them were completed including: Rediscovering John Berryman (2014), The Dinkytown Uprising (2015), and Singing in the Grain (2019). He was completing a documentary about his trip to Russia in the 1950s when he passed away.
Whether you knew Al as a colleague, student, teacher, friend, filmgoer, linguist, reader, theater-goer, cinephile, or other, you understood the extent of his passion and influence. With the endorsement of the Milgrom family and estate, we affirm our commitment to upholding the legacy of our founder and friend, Al Milgrom. Please direct questions about Al’s work or estate to: EstateOfAlMilgrom@gmail.com.
We want to hear your stories and reflections about Al. Read others’ memories and share your story here.
Please read these thoughtful and insightful articles as well:
Godfather of the Minnesota film scene, Al Milgrom dies at 98 — Star Tribune
University Film Society Director Al Milgrom, Remembered — MSP Magazine
Elegy for Al Milgrom, the Soul of Minnesota Cinema — Ira Brooker
photos of Al Milgrom: Click on each to open the gallery.
Al never forgot my birthday. Except on his last year.
Al crossed boundaries. Given his importance within the world of independent film, I was surprised the first time I saw that it was him raising his hand to ask a question after a photo lecture. It was at least 15 years ago, but I still remember him asking a complex question about the relationship between the camera technology and the meaning of the photos that had been shown, then following up with a couple more questions that took the conversation deeper. He was obviously a person whose curiosity was boundless.
And what a gift we have from him—ongoing and I hope permanent—in the Film Society. Thanks to all who keep it lively. We are so lucky.
I was lucky enough to have taken an extra-curricular summer class Al Milgrom taught for high school students at Marshall University High School in Dinky Town. This must have been 1967, and I was 15 or 16.
In this class, we watched films and we made films.
The films he brought, I might have seen some later time. But this was the right time for me- formative years and the beginning of the monumental changes coming in the late 60’s and 70’s. Al seemed to be ahead of it all and yet in the middle of it all.
Al divided our little class into film making crews of 3 or 4.
My group made a film shot on the banks of the Mississippi. Not much of a script. We used images of trash and plastic washed up on the shoreline. We used Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” as the soundtrack.
Decades and decades later- this was 6 or 7 years ago- I saw Al in the lobby of St. Anthony Main Theater after a Film Society screening. A rare opportunity; I hadn’t talked to him in all those years. He seemed free, and I took the opening, introducing myself, knowing he wouldn’t remember me. I mentioned the film class and the film we’d made over half a century ago. I knew he wouldn’t remember that either.
Not only did he remember it, he named some of the students who had written and shot that film with me and asked me if I was in touch with any of them. And then he gazed off and said, “I know I’ve seen that 8 mm film in my basement recently.”
Al enjoying an evening in Tuscany Italy
Al speaking at a benefit for him.
Al Milgrom and Tim Grady. The Founders.
In 1968-69 Rudy Caringi, a Voice Coach at the Guthrie Theatre, decided he wanted to make a film based on Frank Wedekind’s Play “Spring Awakening”. His idea was to shoot the film in selected Twin Cites venues in period costume and use non-professional adolescents as actors.
He enlisted only two Actor’s Equity Actors for the two male leads. They and all other actors were drawn from the Usher Staff and Costume Department of the Guthrie Theatre. The one adult character, Wendla’s Mother was portrayed By Sage Cowles, a friend of the Guthrie The Mother of one of the Usher’s made the costumes. As I was a friend of Rudy’s and worked, at the time in the Guthrie Costume Department, I was allotted the role of “Ina”. One of the “Boys” later became a prominent Minneapolis Attorney, another, a fine Architect. I don’t know if Al knew about the film at this point. Rudy went back to NYC with his film, edited it, dubbed it (my
Voice is the original voice as it was cheaper to have me come to NYC than to hire an Actor to dub) and decided subsequently to enter it in various film Festivals. In order to accomplish this
he had to convert the film to 35mm from the 16 mm in which it had been originally been filmed. By this time Rudy was out of money. Al had seen the film in Minneapolis when Rudy brought it back to show it to all the actors who lived here. Rudy approached Al for the funds to do this and Al found a way. He would do so if Rudy would give him a copy of the film to be used in classes at the University as an example of a film made of a Play. I don’t know where that copy now resides but the film was shown at several Festivals and finally chosen to be shown 10/26/70 at:
French Film Critics’ Week, known in France as La Semaine Internationale de la Critique Fran^aise, will take place for the first time in this country from October 15 to October 27 under the auspices of The Museum of Modern Art. Since 1962, this event has been held annually in Cannes, and represents the outstanding new works of young talent, selected by the French film critics.
Production still from Spring Awakening with Rudi Caringi
See two attachments
Once you met Al Milgrom, he never forgot you. I attended my first U Film Society showing about 1963. Al would go to the front of the Bell Museum lecture hall and introduce the evening’s offerings. Unlike Al, I don’t remember exactly which film he ran, probably a Stan Brakhage, however I do remember that when it was over I knew for sure was that we had arrived at the other side of the moon and the 1950’s were history.
Al always had something to report whenever you ran into him, and wherever! One of my last conversations with Al, about four years ago happened on Lyndale Ave. when we recognized each other from opposite sides of the street. When we met in the middle Al stopped. With so much to catch up on he chatted away unfazed by the fact that we were standing right there, on the centerline, as traffic whizzing past us.
With gratitude and love to Al and his memory, and to the difference he made in countless lives as the messenger of tidings from the four corners of the mind.
I worked at the film society right out of college, first as an intern and then as the Box Office manager for the two theaters on the UM campus. Al was a part of my daily life and the man was a dynamo. I’ve got loads of stories but my favorite is one that happened before I started working there.
Of course it’s no secret that he wasn’t easy to work with all the time. The man had a temper and the turnover in the office was quite high. as people who loved film as much as him could only take being screamed at so much.
One of the women who worked under him, Vicky was her name (I think), told Al he needed to stop getting angry all the time or they’d never be able to keep good people staffing the joint, as the money certainly wasn’t much.
Al tried. He controlled his temper for more than a week but, lo and behold, he started developing an ulcer. After that, he decided to let Al be Al. The screaming returned, the ulcer vanished, and the film society ran strong for another two decades.
He was a force of nature. A legend.
Michael Harris Cohen
Here is my recollection of Al Milgrom. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions.
I worked for Al at the U Film Society in the mid-1980s and remember him as brilliant, disheveled, difficult, passionate, and driven. He went to extreme lengths to achieve his goal—of introducing Minnesotans to the ideas and art in international film. Those who worked under him were enthusiastic but harried supporters of those efforts. Tasks I remember include schlepping films from our office (in a U of M building with the sketchy-sounding address “Temporary North of Appleby”) to the Bell Museum Auditorium, sometimes minutes before their screening; writing summary descriptions of films for the calendar, continually amending the text in response to last-minute changes in bookings; creating ads and delivering them to the Star Tribune; driving cartons of the upcoming season’s calendars back to the Cities from the printer in Forest Lake, the smell of ink filling the car.
It was another era. Those were the days when creating a newspaper ad involved cutting out pieces of paper with the text and design on them, applying wax to the back, and positioning them on a grid. The wax had to be heated; I can still call to mind the smell of it warming. On one occasion I laid out an ad for a film, applying my own emerging aesthetic to the task—giving featured text and images some “white space” to set them off—and took the finished ad down to the Star Tribune. I was intercepted there by Al, who arrived with tiny waxed snippets of additional descriptive text in hand to fill the open space in the ad—space that, it was clear, I had wasted!
Al was famous for adding such notes to ads, in 6 or 8 point type: tabloid-style exclamations intended to stir up broader interest than there otherwise might have been in films made halfway across the world, on small budgets, in styles very different from what local filmgoers were used to. At the time, I found his idiosyncratic and dominating style a bit maddening. Looking back, I feel tremendous admiration. He was a force of nature—and he made a lasting impact on the cultural scene in the Twin Cities.
Martha Davis Beck
It was during my college years in the 50’s, that I became a devoted fan of international films. It was Al that did it for me.
I had other, official areas of study at the University, but quietly and privately I thought of myself as a student of film via the University Film Society. Al Milgrom was an enlightened, dedicated servant of the community, a hero and a star.
This is an Al Milgrom interview from 2006. Sorry it’s low res.
I was in his film class at the U in the early 70’s. My friends and I gave him the nick name of “jump cut Al”.
All the best,
I’m saddened to hear of the passing of Al Albert Milgrom at age 98, a pioneer in our local film community. He was quite a character in so many ways. And his direct and often blunt delivery of feedback usually rung true. He taught us not to let our pride or egos get in the way of doing the best with our films, our art, even if it wasn’t the easiest way. Once he got something in his head, he wasn’t quick to change his mind, yet he was open to a healthy exchange of ideas, touting himself as the oldest emerging filmmaker. He reminds me it’s never too late, or one is never too old to keep getting our work out there.
He was a fixture in our film community at events, screenings, festivals, Docuclub, and he even attended my script reading by actors at the Screenwriters’ Workshop & Twin Cities Film Fest of my feature screenplay, “Summer of ‘79”. I remember him giving feedback during the Q & A, questioning whether one of my characters would actually change. When he left the gathering, he smiled at me and said, “I didn’t know you could do this.” I felt he meant from all those meetings when we gathered and I hosted Docuclub, as a documentary filmmaker, he didn’t know I could also write an award-winning fiction script. I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment, like a daughter being praised by their dad (or grandfather). I was on Al’s speed-dial for a while and expected him to show up wherever I went to be with other creatives. He’s a one-of-a-kind indelible person who will be greatly missed. RIP Al!
udley invited Al to show his early films on the pink wall at Dudley’s first Workshop location, on Hennepin near to Kramarczuk’s Deli. Two creative giants of the TC with simple beginnings!
Al and Dudley had similar office habits. Perhaps creativity thrives in disorder.
Dr. Pauline Boss, Professor Emeritus and Dudley Riggs’ wife
I was once volunteering at the Danish Booth at the Festival of Nations, on a VERY busy Saturday afternoon. Al saw me, marched up to the front of the long line, slammed down a bunch of movie posters from his International Film Fest, and began blasting me with his upcoming season offerings, totally oblivious to the line of hungry customers waiting not-so-patiently behind him for a Danish pastry.
I finally had to say, “Al, thank you for your info, but could you possibly come back at the end of the day, please?”
Bless him for his persistence and dedication!
Thanks so much for soliciting remembrances of Al. I started working as a writer and office admin at University Film Society in 1998 and continued to write catalog copy for MSPIFF through the 2000s. I consider Al a mentor who taught me a lot of things I wouldn’t have had a chance to learn anywhere else. I wrote a brief essay yesterday about my experiences working for Al. You have all permissions to use it any way you wish if it’s of interest.
You will probably receive countless stories, many more full of his creativity and foresight. This story is about his dedication and tenacity.
About 10-15 years ago I must have signed a list of people interested in attending a special showing of a German film, I think it was Heimat. So on Wednesday,as I recall before Thanksgiving, I get a call from Al saying he had the movie, but only for the next few days, so come on over! There was no time to publicize it, but he got on the phone and called everyone who might be interested at their home numbers, no e-mail being used! A real one-act showman he was!
I remember Al introducing the Dardenne Brother’s “Rosetta” to a nearly sold out audience during the film festival in 1999. He asked the sold-out auditorium, “Why are all you people here to watch a depressing Belgian film on a nice spring day?”
I was so impressed by “Rosetta” that I watched it two more times when the U Film Society played it for a week after the festival. Al noticed that I kept returning to see the film and asked me why. I explained that I was trying to diminish the emotional impact of the film so that I could study it with more detachment. He said, “Well, you don’t have to do that, I can tell you how the movie works. It’s the handheld camera that’s like a point of view shot, except the character is also in the shot, it’s always shot over the shoulder of the character; first person and third person at the same time. Like Truffaut said about “Lady in the Lake” (a famous Hollywood experiment shot continuously from the eyes of the main character), it’s not a point of view shot that creates empathy, it’s identifying with a character that we see in the shot. “Rosetta” has it both ways.”
Al consumed films constantly, investigating them with a keen awareness of what they were attempting aesthetically and from what sources they derived historically. He had educated himself by sheer compulsive persistence and he, in turn, had inspired a few generations of film enthusiasts in Minnesota, myself included.
so sad to hear about Al. He was one of a kind and will be missed.
I met him during my two visits to MSPIFF and he made a lasting impression on me. Always passionate and opinionated about films. Always curious on the filmmaking process, trying to pick up ideas and tricks for his own film work.
I remember when he took us for a sightseeing trip with his car in the Twin City area, a ride which we barely survived. He was more interested in telling his Swedish guests great stories than in keeping his eyes on the traffic. And cool for us Dylan fans to hear about his encounters with the young Dylan: ”He was a snotty kid.”
Al was a generous soul and I’m happy I had the chance to meet him.
All the best from Malmö, Sweden. Stay safe!
I only worked for Al for about 1/2 year back in the early 90s, but that experience was a full one-full of adventure, intrigue, camaraderie, learning by doing, risk-taking, helping others and mentorship like no other. I ran into Al recently at the YWCA and he remembered me and asked me about my method of practicing balance on a bosu. He looked great. I told him I was a teacher, and he asked for my school address so he could mail me flyers to give my students to bring to their families.
Godspeed, Al, into the next film festival in the sky. Let us know if you need help writing the blurbs, but we know you’ll still rewrite ours to make them better, with a shrug and a twinkle in your eye after remarking, “What kinda blurbs are these? You gotta get an audience here!”
Ann Browning Zerby
One day about 4 years ago, Al asked me at one of our meetings for Docuclub if I had a camera stabilizer. I said yes and asked if I could help. He immediately said no thank you, but he would like to borrow it and could I teach him how to use it. He showed up at my house a few days later and I gave him a quick run down on how to use it and walk with it for a smooth shot. Al was around 94 years old at the time! That was Al. Full of brim and vigor. Miss you, Al!
Andrés A. Parra
VenUS Directions, Inc.
Thanks for letting me know about Al, a true Twin Cities legend. Please keep me posted about further remembrances of him.
Jeanne Grimm (formerly Clark)
A dear man.
Over the years, he brushed off my assertions that my compatriots didn’t go to movies. He persisted. Never failed to push me to do more to bring’em to see what he thought was a gem made for them.
Minnesota without Al? Unthinkable
Esam M. Aal
I met Al a few — very few, actually — times during the Film Society festival events, but I was always a fan of his and of his selections for the annual festival. He will be sorely missed. His wit and wisdom and knowledge of film will also be missed.
Thank you so much for this info – I always went to the very first films he brought to the Bell.
What an incredible person!!!!!!
We loved the typewritten notes – with the “o’s” missing the centers, shown before films at the Bell Museum.
I knew Al for years just by telephone. Had no idea he was that much of an elder statesman. RIP Al.
Peter M. Hargrove
Hargrove Entertainment Inc.
Hello and thank you for doing this. It is so healing to put memories of Al into words.
One of my jobs while I was at the U from 1970-1975, I worked at the U Film Society at the old Bell Museum. I didn’t actually get paid, but earned a free ticket to see a film after working so many hours. I believe I got my foot in the door because I was referred by Tim and Tom Grady and Tom Dwyer . There my memory of Al running up and down the steep aisles to write by hand on an overhead projector listing some upcoming films prior to the showing that night.
I continued to volunteer with the Film festival for many years. I am so happy that I chatted with Al the last time I saw him at St Anthony Main working on the last festival. I told him how much he meant to me and my introduction to film because of him.
Sharee Marcus , RYT
Al was our friend and neighbor for 20+ years. He provided wonderful movies and even planted our piano harp in his backyard. He was great fun and never seemed old.
I’d be happy to contribute to an Al Milgrom Oscar-Palm d’OR-inspired MSPIFF Award.
What a cool guy. I started going to the Film Society in the late 70s. On summer nights I biked from home in St. Paul for the early movie and could get home before dark. Al’s previews and notes were priceless. Good as the film were, the notes were the best. I remember a Romanian film showing and Livei Cuili, the Guthrie director orig. from Romania was there. Also memorable: Cinema Paradiso, a metaphor for the Film Society. Al brought wonder, joy, tragedy, and life from all over the world to MSP. I felt very fortunate to have access to all of it, thanks to Al and those who supported and continue to support the Society. I’m glad the Society carries on. You’ll be long remembered, Al!