The last vestige of the once-thriving north Minneapolis theater district wants to expand its cultural reach on a changing W. Broadway.

The Capri Theater has proposed building an addition to its existing structure across two adjacent city-owned lots left empty by the 2011 tornado that ripped through the neighborhood. The proposed $9.5 million addition, which would more than double the size of the 13,000-square-foot theater, includes a green room, rehearsal space, classroom and community hall.

The theater has so far raised $5.1 million solely on individual and foundation donations.

Capri leadership informally presented the plans to the city’s Planning Commission last week and is preparing to submit a formal application. Once approved, the expansion would be part of a larger-scale push for revitalization on W. Broadway with new business and public spaces, such as the recently opened Freedom Square plaza. Those who run the Capri call the expansion a necessary reclamation of cultural richness in a neighborhood too often regarded only for its crime rates.

“All these things that continue to perpetuate that we’re second-class citizens and we don’t deserve a good theater — they kind of get blown out of the water when we do the Capri,” said Anne Long, executive director of the Plymouth Christian Youth Center, which operates the theater.

The theater opened in 1927, as the Paradise Theater, and rebranded as the Capri in 1967.

In his research for the proposal, Capri Director James Scott discovered that north Minneapolis wasn’t always the theater desert it is today.

“At one point there were 13 theaters in this community,” he said. “And now we’re the only one.”

Which makes it even more important for the Capri to thrive, Scott said.

Birth of Prince’s career

Tucked into a lot near Logan Avenue, the modest brick theater would be easy for passersby to miss if not for a silver marquee with a digital ticker displaying coming events in its 250-seat auditorium.

Its greatest historical claim is documented inside the lobby. A series of black-and-white photographs depict a bare-chested young man with shaggy hair enchanting an electric guitar on stage. Nine months before releasing his self-titled album, a 20-year-old Prince Rogers Nelson played his first professional live show at the Capri. The performance was sullied by technical failures but helped start Prince’s career, and it has made the Capri a mandatory stop for those who travel to Minneapolis from all over the world to make the Prince pilgrimage.

“It’s in the Prince lore,” Long said. “Everybody that loves Prince knows about it.”

Today, the Capri serves as the neighborhood’s only movie theater, hosting screenings every Thursday in partnership with the MSP Film Society. This week, as Super Bowl Live gets underway on Nicollet Mall, a band has rented out the stage for rehearsal. Alongside the Prince gallery hang photos of high school teens who participate in the Capri’s after-school programs.

Long said she wants the theater to continue to be a source for helping young performers — from musicians to comedians and stage actors — foster their skills. But with the current theater size, they struggle to balance stage time for students with other uses.

Plans to upgrade the theater have been in the works for about 18 years. Seven years ago, the tornado brought a blessing in disguise by causing such severe water damage to the surrounding buildings that the city had no choice but to tear them down, creating empty lots around the Capri.

The current plan would add 18,800 square feet to the existing building and even allow the Capri to be a home to some of the Twin Cities’ roving theater companies. The expansion would also include a Best Buy-sponsored Teen Tech Center geared toward introducing technology to young people.

Incorporating feedback from the city’s Planning Commission, Scott and Long next will submit the application formally. If it passes the commission and City Council, the project will be officially underway.

If all goes well, Long is optimistic the theater will break ground on the expansion this fall. It will go dark for a year of construction and reopen in 2019.

“It’s symbolic that this is a real move forward,” said Long, a longtime north Minneapolis resident. “Saying yes, this is a safe place, and it’s the best theater that there is.”