For more than a century, palatial theaters throughout the Twin Cities beckoned moviegoers with the whiff of buttered popcorn, velvet recline and blessed escape.
But with the advent of television, thousands of movie theaters went dark across the country, and many were torn down or awkwardly repurposed. Now, a handful of these once-forlorn odeums in Minnesota may become beacons of economic revitalization in several neighborhoods, though in vastly different ways.
A local businessman is buying the Hollywood Theater in northeast Minneapolis with plans to retool it into creative office space, while a Florida developer is seeking approvals from the city to turn Uptown’s Suburban World Theater into a retail store.
Across the river in St. Paul, the Frogtown Neighborhood Association is spearheading plans to renovate the former Victoria Theater into artistic space, and city officials are hoping to attract a younger crowd to downtown at the Palace Theater. In Duluth, veteran Minneapolis developer George Sherman is tackling the NorShor Theater, which will become the home of the Duluth Playhouse, as well as other performing arts and entertainment ensembles.
“These theaters were integral parts of their neighborhoods and can still be very effective economic drivers,” said Rick Fosbrink, executive director of the Theatre Historical Society of America.
In Minneapolis, for example, the renovation of the State, Orpheum and Pantages theaters have helped turn Hennepin Avenue into the city’s entertainment district.
“There are tons of stories all over the country, but there’s not enough hard data to indicate that if you invest this much money and do these things, you’ll get this return,” he said.
In short, there’s no foolproof blueprint for these ambitious projects. Most of the current projects locally are cobbling together funds from a patchwork of local, state, federal, private and nonprofit sources.
Evident, but dusty
Andrew Volna’s plan for the Hollywood Theater — turning the Kasota stone-encased Art Moderne structure into hip office space — is partly related to his successful rehab of the historic Rayvic gas station on E. Hennepin Avenue into headquarters for the tech/strategy firm Clockwork Active Media.
Volna grew up not far from the Hollywood, and recalls seeing one of the last movies screened there — “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
Much of the theater’s original features are still evident, although a bit dusty. The terrazzo tile floors and fountain in the lobby are largely intact, as well as the Heywood-Wakefield designed seating end caps and giant porthole-style windows. The projection room looks exactly as it did in the mid-’80s — it’s as though the projectionist went out for lunch and never returned.
Plans call for the lobby to be fully restored, while the seats in the interior will be removed to make way for office space on several levels. Once Volna secures a tenant, the space will be fully built out depending on their needs.
Volna says the project will cost between $1 million to $2 million, and he thinks it would be the perfect spot for a creative business looking for some snazzy space. “There’s a tremendous wow factor here,” he noted.
The theater, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is about a half block away from the Johnson Avenue commercial cluster in the city’s Audubon neighborhood. While the area isn’t in economic distress, Volna says an office presence (and its employees) could be the “missing link for the neighborhood” and its businesses.
Likewise, the Suburban World Theater (formerly the Granada Theater) in Uptown is already located in a popular area, but it has been a confounding and struggling vacancy on the Hennepin Avenue shopping strip.
Florida-based Elion Acquisitions purchased the landmark for $750,000 earlier this year, and plans to upgrade both the interior and exterior of the 87-year-old structure, according to city documents. The theater, whose Moorish architectural style is described as “Spanish Churrigueresque Revival,” is not in dire condition structurally, but changes are needed to adapt it for retail use.
The city report notes that the switch “could arguably be perceived that the structure loses some of its historical significance or integrity.” However, all of the changes suggested are reversible and the “primary character-defining features” will be maintained, it said.
The report gives no hint as to what type of retailer may inhabit the space, however, and officials from Elion did not respond to phone calls last week.
The economic stakes for other local theater projects are far higher.
The Victoria Theater on University Avenue in St. Paul was recently purchased for $275,000 by the Twin Cities Community Land Bank, a nonprofit group that will hold it for a period of time while community groups craft a business plan and raise about $1 million to buy and renovate the Beaux Arts structure.
Preliminary plans call for “multigenre performance and arts space” that celebrates Frogtown’s considerable arts community, said Sam Buffington, director of organizing for the Frogtown Neighborhood Association. Beyond that, the group is discussing basing a neighborhood radio station there, similar to KFAI, and perhaps a cafe and wine bar.
“We believe it can be a catalyst for the neighborhood” and a cultural hub, Buffington said.
The long-vacant theater has a colorful, albeit brief, history. During Prohibition, the movie house became a speakeasy that was raided by federal agents a number of times. And its house band, the Victoria Cafe Orchestra, recorded “Moonshiner’s Dance” in 1927, a tune that was featured on the culturally important Anthology of American Folk Music.
But for most of its life, the Victoria was a lighting store.
New life for St. Paul’s Palace
St. Paul officials are also betting that the Palace Theater, a former vaudeville house, can lure 20- and 30-somethings to downtown St. Paul. The $12 million renovation, which received $5 million in state bonding funds, involves removing the seats on the first floor and turning the 98-year-old theater into a concert venue for hip-hop, comedy and rock shows.
“The Palace is a great historic asset that is sitting smack-dab in the middle of the central business district,” said Joe Spencer, St. Paul’s director of arts and culture. “It’s too important to ignore any longer.”
With room for up to 3,000 patrons, Spencer notes, “if you bring a couple thousand people downtown, it will have a tremendous economic impact in the neighborhood.” He also predicts the Palace’s renovation will spur reinvestment into the southern stretch of downtown, now much sleepier than bustling Lowertown.
In the same way, the $24 million renovation of the NorShor Theatre in Duluth, which was a strip club in its most recent incarnation, is seen as critical to the continued revitalization of the lakeside city’s commercial strip. Legislators apparently agreed — the theater attracted $6.9 million in state bonding dollars this year.
Developer Sherman, who has extensive experience in Duluth — including the Sheraton Hotel and the Graysolon apartments — said he was attracted to the theater project because the Duluth Playhouse signed on as the major tenant. The venue could also be used for the opera, ballet, symphony and traveling shows, he added.
“I don’t think theaters, on their own, can overturn an array of economic obstacles,” Sherman said. “You need a very good operator to make a project like this successful. If you have that, a theater can have a phenomenal impact.”