Worst in show: Twin Cities venues due for a makeover

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 8, 2010 - 8:34 AM

Here are a dozen venues where the space can be a distraction from the main attraction.

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The cavernous Roy Wilkins Auditorium packs ’em in for big names like Megadeth, above, and Bob Dylan, but the acoustics are horrendous.

Photo: Brendan Sullivan, Star Tribune file

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Once it was known as the Carnegie Hall of the Midwest. It played host to the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, Marian Anderson, Aretha Franklin, Vladimir Horowitz, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Robin Williams, Robert Frost -- the list goes on and on.

But now Northrop Auditorium has a different reputation: It's one of the Twin Cities' worst venues for live entertainment. The University of Minnesota's Board of Regents is considering an $80 million facelift that would close the 81-year-old edifice for a couple of years and downsize its cavernous auditorium to create a multi-use complex. Its final scheduled event was last week.

A redo is long overdue. Four decades ago, the Minnesota Orchestra -- which called Northrop home for 43 years -- got so fed up with the dull, booming acoustics and outsized space that it built Orchestra Hall. Even people familiar with the U campus enter the massive building and wonder: Where is the will-call window? (Surprise: It's on the second-level stairway landing.) Sightlines, acoustics and legroom are lousy. Lobbies and restrooms are cramped. Temperature control is a seasonal challenge. And have you noticed how the balcony bounces when concertgoers dance at a rock show? (We do love the ushers' bow ties, though.)

Inspired by Northrop's pending renovation, our staff picked a dozen local venues also due for a makeover.

12 The O'Shaughnessy. Another campus institution (at St. Catherine University in St. Paul), it's very good for music and excellent for dance, but with no center aisle it's architecturally dysfunctional. Moreover, the narrow lobby is Brutalism at its worst, the wait for restrooms is unreasonable and parking is challenging.

11 Mixed Blood Theater. It's appealingly diverse and smartly programmed, but for a theater that seats 200 people, this Minneapolis West Bank venue has the world's smallest lobby. Pray they don't serve spillable treats at opening-night parties because you're likely to get a sweater full of gazpacho. Bathrooms are the kind of closet biffies you might have off your kitchen.

10 Burnsville Performing Arts Center. The splashy, two-year-old complex has a wonderful, wide stage, impressive fly space, state-of-the-art technology and a massive, free parking ramp. The only thing wrong with this $20 million palace is that no one is sitting in the seats -- though that seems to be changing for the better. Book more worthwhile events, please.

9 Guthrie Theater. The plays are the thing at the winning Wurtele Thrust Stage. When it comes to concerts, though, we pine for the old Guthrie. The Wurtele has neither the sound nor the warmth of the demolished space it was modeled on. As for the McGuire Proscenium Stage, it could have used more legroom and a more effective layout. The stage feels distant. And if you're sitting down front on the side, you'll need a chiropractor to work on your neck afterward. There's a reason theater rows are set in an arc. Someone should have tipped off architect Jean Nouvel.

8 Cedar Cultural Center. Whenever there's a concert at this homey, musically eclectic West Bank institution, we wonder: Got chairs? Sometimes. If not, sightlines are dicey. Got a functioning thermostat? Whether in summer or winter, the place is too hot when crowded.

7 Minneapolis Theatre Garage. Despite its often cutting-edge content, this is a venue where plays go to faint, if not die. It's not just the wooden floors or the cheap curtains or the fact that you hear cars whizzing by outside. It's that the energy onstage usually dies before it reaches you, even though the room is fairly intimate.

6 Nye's. Esquire magazine anointed the Polonaise Room in this northeast Minneapolis club as the best bar in America. No complaints there. But if you venture into the hip next-door hangout known as the "Old Side" -- where the World's Most Dangerous Polka Band plays on weekends -- you can't see the band unless you're literally face-to-face with the musicians in this narrow, sardine-can room. Maybe that's what they mean by dangerous.

5 Orchestra Hall. While we love the acoustics for symphonic concerts, shows with singers and bands don't get a fair hearing. At last month's Idina Menzel gig, her big Broadway voice was strangely under-amplified. As for sightlines, bring your binoculars -- sorry, opera glasses -- to see the performers in this long, tall theater. Thankfully the lobby is scheduled for an expansion in 2012-13 -- it becomes gridlocked with beautiful people trying to dig and be dug.

4 Fine Line Music Cafe. This Minneapolis nightclub is a great place to see a concert if you're within 15 feet of the stage. Otherwise, the sightlines and sound are problematic -- especially under the balcony, which covers much of the main floor. Worst of all are the myriad yakkers by the bar whose conversations are often louder than the music. Is this a pickup bar or a listening room?

3 Epic. Like its predecessors in this Warehouse District space (Glam Slam and the Quest), Epic functions best as a big dance club. But if you go there to see live music, the only decent spots are on the dance floor. Good luck seeing -- or hearing -- if you're in the balcony or standing off to the side; those pillars surrounding the dance floor are super-annoying.

2 The Metrodome. Its reputation as a concert site never recovered from the debacle of Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead there in 1986. And there's good reason: the acoustics are awful. Thankfully, there hasn't been a show at the Dome since 'N Sync in 2001.

1 Its official title is the Legendary Roy Wilkins Auditorium but what's legendary about the Roy is its horrendous sound. Built in 1932 as an all-purpose auditorium -- sports, graduations, etc. -- the brick building feels like an airplane hangar even after a 2005 upgrade. In essence, the Roy swallows up the music. On top of that, the concourses in the balcony are claustrophobic and the restrooms inadequate. What's especially sad is that, because of its capacity of 5,500, it's the right fit for many rock giants, including David Bowie, R.E.M., Bob Dylan, Nirvana, Sting and Green Day. Their reputations didn't suffer -- but the Roy's did.

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719

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