If you mention the Palace Theater, most people in the Twin Cities would assume you’re talking about the revamped 1916 theater in St. Paul. But Minneapolis had its own Palace (originally called the New Palace), one of the more intriguing, yet least known theaters, which stood for a mere 39 years at 4th Street and Hennepin Avenue S.
With 2,400 seats, the Palace was about the same size and every bit as lavish as the historic Orpheum and State theaters, which are still going strong.
But the Palace, built in 1914 as a vaudeville house, seems never to have been a great success. It was something of a dive by the time it succumbed to the wrecking ball in 1953. Before it fell on hard times, however, the Palace was considered one of the city’s most elegant theaters.
The theater was built on a piece of property, sometimes called Stewart Park, with its own fascinating history. In 1870 an eccentric lawyer named Levi Stewart acquired a large lot at the northwest corner of 4th and Hennepin and built a modest home in the center of it.
Not one to be molested by progress, Stewart remained in his house even as all the lots around him gave way to commercial development. By 1910, when Stewart died, his tree-filled property had the look of a park set amid Hennepin’s bustle.
The Palace went up on the south portion of Stewart’s old property. Not long afterward, a two-story commercial building (now home to the Gay 90’s nightclub) filled the rest of the site.
Built for the Finkelstein and Ruben movie circuit, which by 1914 operated at least a half-dozen theaters in the Twin Cities, the Palace cost about $600,000 and was designed by Chicago architect John Eberson, with the assistance of the St. Paul architectural firm of Buechner & Orth.
Eberson is best known today as the inventor of the so-called atmospheric theater, in which the auditorium gives the appearance of an outdoor courtyard beneath a night sky. More than 100 atmospheric theaters, including the Suburban World (originally Granada) in Minneapolis, were later built across the United States, mainly in the 1920s.
The Palace wasn’t an atmospheric theater, but it offered a sumptuous French Renaissance-style facade of Venetian red brick, complete with creamy terra-cotta trim and a mansard roof sporting ornate dormers.
Within, the lobby featured a sweeping marble staircase, arched ceilings, leaded glass windows and plenty of gilt plasterwork. The auditorium was also handsomely finished, with a particularly elaborate proscenium arch and what was described as “a beautifully equipped stage for its day.”
Although designed primarily for vaudeville performances, the Palace also showed films, and when the theater opened on Oct. 4, 1914, the audience saw a silent picture called “The Nightingale,” starring Ethel Barrymore. Among the live acts on opening night were “The Great Mizpah Selbini,” billed as “Vaudeville’s Most Versatile Actress,” and the ever-popular equine “Don Fulano,” known as “the horse with the human mind.”
Unfortunately, the happy days of watching a horse count to 10 did not last for long at the Palace, which by the early 1920s was competing against newer theaters like the State and Orpheum just a few blocks away.
In the mid-1920s the Mutual Burlesk Co. took over management of the Palace, presenting a mix of movies and stage shows. Despite the company’s name, however, the Palace didn’t offer the naughty version of burlesque with scantily clad dancers.
As the theater aged, its attractions grew ever gamier, and by the mid-1930s it had become a popular venue for wrestling. In what probably does not rank as one of civilization’s great moments, the theater in September 1938 offered “the first ice cream wrestling bout to be presented anywhere,” according to the Minneapolis Star.
This epic encounter pitted Roughhouse Ross against Jumping Joe Reno in “a side-boarded ring” filled with 250 gallons of ice cream. It’s not known what flavor of ice cream was used or who won the match, but a crew from Universal Newsreel was supposedly on hand to film the slippery action.
The Palace, which had several owners over the years, limped on through World War II and into the early 1950s as a second-run movie theater specializing in double features.
It closed for good on May 11, 1953. Minneapolis Tribune columnist George Grim offered his final farewell a month or so later, as the wrecking crew began reducing the Palace to rubble.
“It’s always sad when a theater goes down,” Grim wrote. “The music, the actors, even the ice cream wrestlers, provided an escape from reality. … The marble staircase that used to rise straight up from the center of the lobby was a touch of the Taj Mahal on Hennepin Avenue.”
Remnants of the Palace undoubtedly survive, since some of its fixtures and furnishings were salvaged and later sold to collectors, but where they reside today is anyone’s guess.
After the theater was gone, its site became a parking lot, which it still is today — one of many spots in downtown Minneapolis where the past was much more interesting than the present.
Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author of 14 nonfiction books and eight mystery novels. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.