A new message finally went up on the iconic theater marquee at the corner of Hennepin and Lagoon avenues in Minneapolis on Thursday morning.
"I assure you we're open," it read.
After a few years of that marquee saying the opposite — during COVID-19 lockdown, the tumult following George Floyd's murder and another year-plus of construction work — the Uptown Theater is indeed open again. But it's bigger and very different from the movie house it was for more than a century.
The same developer that converted the historic Armory in downtown Minneapolis into a popular concert and event facility, Swervo, has done the same to Uptown's 105-year-old namesake theater with help from an international talent booking partner, Live Nation.
Seats were removed from the ground floor to make it a large, open general admission area. A stage was built and P.A. speakers were hung where the screen used to be. Bars were added where popcorn and soda machines once stood. VIP booths were tacked onto the horseshoe-shaped balcony.
Also, two neighboring buildings were taken over and conjoined to make the theater even bigger — with room for around 2,500 people, according to initial city permits, though initial concerts there are being capped at under 1,700.
Assessing the results this week, Swervo's famously ambitious president Ned Abdul said, "Our overall vision for the new Uptown Theater was accomplished, and we believe audiences are going feel at home here again."
Upon first glance Thursday — when media members got the first look at the makeover before an invite-only VIP party — the theater's renovation not surprisingly resembled a smaller version of the remade Armory.
That comparison is just fine to business leaders who have been leading the charge for the Uptown district's revitalization.
"When I saw the Armory, I knew these guys knew what they were doing," said Natasha Greiling, president of the Uptown Association.
"They took another piece of iconic local history and reimagined it. I think what they did with it is a natural fit and will help bring back that classic Uptown vibe."
Twin Cities-based pop/rock band Yam Haus will headline the first public concert at the newly reopened theater on Saturday night, a low-buck ($5), teen-friendly (15 and older) gig that got postponed by one month while construction was completed.
Some of the national tours on the calendar through October include Parliament-Funkadelic, the Psychedelic Furs with Squeeze, the Mars Volta, Jai Wolf and Ruel. Minnesota stars Owl City and Prof also have dates booked there. The latter's June 23-24 shows are almost sold out.
Concerts will be the main stand-in for movies, attendance for which waned in recent years at the theater even after its longtime corporate operator, Landmark Theatres, remodeled it in 2012. During COVID lockdown, Landmark failed to pay $340,000 in rent and agreed to vacate.
"[If] mega entertainment groups like Landmark couldn't make a go of it, you try something else," Abdul said.
When the movie house's tall, vertical, neon-lit "Uptown" sign over the marquee went missing during construction, social media lit up.
Efforts to repair the letters hit a dead end. Since the 1916-dated façade — rebuilt following a fire in 1939 — has historic designation from the city, Swervo had to negotiate with the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission on creating new letters that closely resemble the old ones.
"No one will know the difference when we finally get [the letters] up again," pledged Mike Finkelstein, president of Swervo's broker partner Maven Commercial Real Estate — who put the construction price tag (all privately funded) at "well into seven figures."
Those old U-P-T-O-W-N letters aren't really missing, though: They now hang inside the theater on the north wall, which was expanded into what used to be a small storefront on the corner abutting Lagoon Avenue.
Swervo also expanded into the larger Legeros Building (in the past, a storefront and cafe) on the south side of the theater, where an open viewing area with a long bar behind it is now housed on the first floor — an elevated area for several hundred people to stand and watch shows to the side of viewers on the main floor. Two more elevated areas also are located behind the main floor.
Restrooms were expanded and remodeled behind the 185-seat balcony, where a VIP bar area and two general admission bars also are now housed. The same with restrooms in the basement, where new green rooms and production areas were constructed.
While some in the area have voiced concerns about available parking whenever there's a packed concert at the theater, Greiling pointed to two nearby ramps: MoZaic Art (next to the Lagoon Cinema) and Seven Points (next to the former Calhoun Square), plus several surface lots.
"I promise you there'll be plenty of parking," she said.
Local representatives from Live Nation — the $19 billion corporation that also owns Ticketmaster and built the Fillmore in Minneapolis' North Loop area in 2020 — were not on hand at Thursday's media tour. In a sign of the company's heavy involvement, though, the primary website for the Uptown is now part of livenation.com.
Josh Lacey, market president for Live Nation in the Twin Cities, later said via email, "Adding more venues contributes to the overall growth of a city's live music scene. The Uptown will fill a need in this area as a truly neighborhood venue, hosting a number of different types of functions."
Live Nation's primary competitor in the Twin Cities, homegrown independent company First Ave Productions, does not plan to book concerts at the Uptown as it sometimes does at the Armory. First Ave already manages the Palace Theatre in St. Paul that has regularly hosted 2,500 fans since its 2017 rebirth.
There are several other concert halls in town around that same size, including the Orpheum and State theaters, Northrop Auditorium and Live Nation's own 1,800-capacity Fillmore.
Abdul, however, believes the neighborhood that gave the Uptown Theater its name will also now help it stand apart from those other venues.
"This project was a labor of love," Abdul said. "This neighborhood has been through a lot. Uptown needed an entertainment destination, and we believe the reopening of this landmark venue will help to revitalize the neighborhood and the city of Minneapolis."
Opening party: 7:30 p.m. Sat. with Yam Haus, $5, 15 & older, ticketmaster.com.
Address: 2900 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.
Other concert info: livenation.com.