Add another well-known venue to First Avenue’s growing list of businesses: The legendary Minneapolis rock club announced a deal Wednesday to buy St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater from Minnesota Public Radio, which has owned it since 1980.
Long the home base for “A Prairie Home Companion,” the theater became less useful to MPR following the show’s transformation into “Live From Here” with new, non-Minnesotan host Chris Thile.
Only two episodes of the current season were booked at “the Fitz,” which opened at 10 E. Exchange St. in downtown St. Paul in 1910 as the Sam S. Shubert Theater and then became the World Theater in 1933. MPR changed its name in 1994 to honor St. Paul’s most famous literary son, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
As for Minneapolis’ most famous rock ’n’ roll hub, First Avenue has been rapidly expanding its foothold as an independently owned concert promotions and venue management company.
“Our goal is to bring together people with diverse interests and backgrounds, and part of that is expanding the First Avenue family to include other venues throughout the Twin Cities,” owner Dayna Frank said in a news release about the agreement, which is still being finalized.
“We’re excited about the opportunities for more events and performances in another iconic space in this community.”
Frank’s team bought a smaller downtown Minneapolis rock venue, the Fine Line Music Cafe, just last month and purchased St. Paul’s Turf Club in 2013. They also were recruited to manage another downtown St. Paul theater, the city-owned Palace Theatre, when it reopened as a concert venue last year.
The Palace deal led to First Ave buying the bar next door, Wild Tymes, which it plans to reopen next year as a preshow food and drink hangout for customers of the Palace and other downtown venues.
First Avenue is also behind a proposed 10,000-person amphitheater along the Mississippi River north of downtown Minneapolis, which is still pending city approval.
Rebound from bankruptcy
The deal comes 14 years after the club shut down for several weeks in a bankruptcy battle.
While admitting “we’ve got a lot on our plate right now,” First Ave general manager Nate Kranz said, “honestly, we wouldn’t be taking on [the Fitzgerald] if we didn’t know we can handle it.
“We already have the staff and resources to manage and operate a venue like this. It’s more our specialty, and not MPR’s.”
The Fitzgerald’s 1,050-seat capacity provides a smaller theater space for First Avenue-branded shows compared to the Palace’s capacity of 2,400, while also offering a fancier seated alternative to First Ave’s rock-club space.
Kranz said ticket buyers can expect “business as usual, just more of it” at the Fitzgerald once the theater officially changes hands.
Acoustic concerts, comedy shows and speaking events are the norm there now — actress Sally Field was on stage there Tuesday, touting her new memoir — but the louder rock gigs that are First Ave’s mainstay “definitely aren’t off the table,” he said.
MPR wants flexibility
In a statement, MPR President Jon McTaggart said his crew still intends to host regular events at the Fitzgerald but “will have even more flexibility” now in deciding which events to host and where.
“We were excited to find that First Avenue leaders share our vision to serve many more people,” McTaggart said. “We’re pleased the theater will be in good hands.”
The planned sale marks another deviation from the era when Garrison Keillor ruled the roost at MPR. The “Prairie Home” host and creator was particularly fond of the theater, which used to be owned by the father of Keillor’s longtime bandleader, Rich Dworsky. The Fitz typically hosted a dozen or so “Prairie Home” broadcasts each season during the Keillor years. The 2006 “Prairie Home” movie directed by Robert Altman was also filmed there.
Dave Kansas, MPR’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, said the sale of the Fitz has been in the works for several years, after MPR ordered a historic structure report on the theater — well before the changeover from “Prairie Home” to “Live from Here” played out. That report did not indicate a need for the kind of major renovations MPR faced in the mid-1980s, when it spent $3.5 million to refurbish the theater, but it did hint at what upkeep and operation costs would be like in coming years.
“We decided the best thing for us and for the theater going forward was to let somebody who runs theaters and venues like this take it over, and we would focus our energy on what we do best,” Kansas said. “We already have a great working relationship with First Avenue. We know they’ll take great care of it.”
The deal should be completed by early next year. As for other possible deals on the horizon for First Ave’s ever-expanding footprint in the Twin Cities, Kranz said, “I can say with 100 percent honesty, we aren’t looking at buying anything else.”