There is plenty of chipped paint on the walls and a giant movie poster from another era in the lobby. Seats have been removed from the main floor, and spiffy bars and restrooms have been built, including in the balcony, of all places.
The 101-year-old, partly renovated, partly deteriorated Palace Theatre reopened Friday in downtown St. Paul with local hip-hop favorite Atmosphere on the stage and newly installed heat lamps under the brightly lit front awning.
Dormant for a decade and spruced up to the tune of $15 million by the city of St. Paul, the new music venue received rave reviews from everyone from concertgoers and musicians to St. Paul officials.
“This is like being at First Avenue on the first night,” gushed Becky Goldberg of Minneapolis as opening act Dem Atlas was rapping, “It’s gonna be the best day ever.”
There were opening-night logjams at the front door at showtime and at restrooms during intermissions. But the lines at the bars were moving fairly quickly for a sold-out show. Anyway, this night wasn’t about waiting, it was about a new music destination and a possible turning point for downtown St. Paul.
No one was happier than the guitar- and bagpipe-playing mayor of the Capitol City.
“This is everything I’d hoped for and more,” said Chris Coleman. “This is going to be the premier concert venue in the Midwest.”
Chuck Anderson, a longtime Minneapolis ad man who attends about 75 concerts a year, called the Palace “a hybrid between a theater and a rock club.”
Like a theater, the Palace has 725 reupholstered seats in the balcony. Like a rock club, it has standing room for nearly 2,000 people on four tiers on the main floor.
“The Orpheum and State are nice rooms, but they’re not really made for rock shows,” Anderson said. “The sound system here seems good. And there’s a chance to sit down, which is good for someone my age.”
Capacity is 2,800, which makes it nearly twice the size of First Avenue and comparable to seated-venues Northrop auditorium and the Orpheum Theatre.
First Avenue, the landmark Minneapolis nightclub, and Jam Productions, the veteran promoters from Chicago, have signed a 15-year deal to operate the city-owned Palace. They expect to book up to 75 concerts per year. Already announced for 2017 are Bryan Ferry, Belle and Sebastian, Jason Isbell and Regina Spektor. Shows continue this opening weekend with local Americana heroes the Jayhawks on Saturday and sold-out New York electro-rockers Phantogram on Sunday.
“This weekend is a real test and a reward,” said First Avenue owner Dayna Frank.
“This is way better than I thought it would be. It feels like a rock club. We just can’t paint everything black here like at First Avenue.”
Atmosphere fan Kea Lien of Minneapolis was bummed because he and his friend Betsy Snyder weren’t able to get close to the stage.
“It’s our fault for not waiting in line to get here sooner,” Lien said. “This is like a bigger First Avenue. It’s a little crowded.”
The Palace started out as a vaudeville and movie house presenting the likes of the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin.
Then it became primarily a movie theater, known as the Orpheum, before shutting down in the early 1980s. “A Prairie Home Companion” used the theater for part of its 1983-84 season when its downtown St. Paul building had roofing issues. Brave New Workshop took over the Palace lobby as a performance space for four years, ending in 2005.
Will draw 150,000 people
Located between Lowertown and the W. 7th Street hub near Xcel Energy Center, the Palace could help build an entertainment destination in the central part of downtown St. Paul.
The Amsterdam Bar & Hall, which has an eclectic music schedule, is one block away, and Vieux Carre, the Dakota Jazz Club’s sister club, is a few doors down from the Palace. So, too, is Park Square Theatre, a drama house.
“The Palace will bring in a crowd that has been sorely lacking in St. Paul — 20- and 30-somethings,” said Tom Whaley, co-owner of the St. Paul Saints, who play baseball at CHS Field in Lowertown. “St. Paul is still finding its place. It’s not quite there yet. The Palace is central to the middle part of downtown St. Paul.”
Whaley went on a tour of the Palace two or three years ago and found it scary. “To come back and see the exposed plaster, there’s nothing like it. It’s a beautiful music venue,” he said.
Twin Cities rocker Curtiss A, who has performed in just about every venue in town, praised the “massive New York feel” of the Palace.
However, his guitarist, Sprague Hollander who played at the Palace’s invite-only soft opening on Thursday, said the sound was “booming” on the stage, which is easily three stories tall and nearly twice as big as the stage at First Avenue.
A custom sound system will be installed later, First Avenue officials said.
Jam Productions co-founder Jerry Mickelson, who operates three similar vintage theaters-turned-music venues in Chicago, is pleased so far with the Palace.
“It’s going to be a good venue,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll have some kinks to work out.”
One is the possibility of parking food trucks outside the Palace, which is on pedestrians-only W. 7th Place. Coleman said he should be able to address that situation.
He’s excited about what the Palace will mean to downtown St. Paul, bringing 150,000 people there each year, creating possibilities for new restaurants and becoming “a training ground for music audiences who will go to the Ordway and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra 20 years from now.”