How to fill an empty historic theater?

It's a question dogging city leaders and real estate agents on two corners of Minneapolis, where movie houses of yesteryear are sitting unused. The first, the Suburban World theater in Uptown, has been empty for about a year. The Hollywood Theater in Northeast, meanwhile, may have a new tenant a quarter century after the screen went dark.

The Suburban World theater's vacancy is somewhat baffling, since commercial activity in Uptown is booming. The 85-year-old historic landmark on Hennepin Avenue between Lake Street and 31st Street is one of the last relics of old Uptown and exemplifies the exotic revival style popular in the 1920s. It was originally known as the Granada Theater.

Business -- largely in the form of retail chains -- is thriving all around the Suburban World. CB2 recently moved in across the street, H&M will open next week, and the Apple Store, Urban Outfitters, Columbia and North Face are just steps away.

But the historic nature of the theater may be scaring away buyers. Realtor Jesse Olson says he gets calls about it every day, he shows the property about three or four times a week, and two people have entered into purchase agreements -- only to back out.

There are "several people hovering around it," Olson said. "But the cliffhanger is it's [historic] and not everybody knows that. So once they dig into talking to the city about it, they don't even come close to touching it."

Renovating a historic building can be tricky, since it is often more expensive and requires approvals from city preservationists. The current asking price is about $850,000. Ideas for the location include a church, a theater, a bar, a nightclub and even a yoga studio.

"Everybody's got a concept for that place," Olson said.

About a decade ago, the theater was converted from regular seating into something akin to a multi-level restaurant. In addition to films, owners offered brunch and lunch on the weekends, accompanied by vintage cartoons.

The Suburban World isn't the only exotic revival theater in Minneapolis that is struggling. The El Lago, also built in 1927, has sat empty in the LynLake neighborhood for years.

Hollywood Theater next act?

The Hollywood Theater at 2815 Johnson St. NE. is owned by the city of Minneapolis, which thinks it may finally have a taker.

The City Council will soon vote on whether to give local developer Andrew Volna exclusive development rights to the city-owned art deco landmark near Audubon Park. The city bought the 77-year-old building in 1993 and hasn't been able to find a private use for it, despite hundreds of thousands of dollars spent fixing the place up.

Volna hasn't bought the property yet, though the city is considering giving it to him for $1 because of the costs associated with retrofitting a historic building. The initial plan is to convert the space into an "office/commercial use," but not in a way that would prevent restoration back into a theater (a use that has so far "not proven to be viable," according to city staffers).

Volna, who lives a short walk from the theater, said in an interview that while he doesn't have an exact tenant in mind, it would likely be someone in the creative industry. There were proposals in 1999 to turn it into a comedy club or housing.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732

Twitter: @StribRoper