Magnificent buildings do not always enjoy long and magnificent lives, and therein lies the tale of the two greatest movie palaces ever built in the Twin Cities — the Minnesota Theater in Minneapolis and the Capitol Theatre in St. Paul.
Both were products of the 1920s, an age of grandiose dreams that ended by crashing into the hardest times the nation had ever known, and both were gone within 45 years.
The Minnesota (later known as Radio City), the largest movie theater ever built in the state, opened in 1928 at the northeast corner of 9th Street and LaSalle Avenue. It had 4,056 seats, a three-story lobby and a huge stage fronted by an elevating orchestra pit. Also rising from the depths was a mighty Wurlitzer organ reputed to have one pipe "as big as a streetcar."
Known to be the fifth-biggest theater in the country, it was built at a cost of $2 million by a group of investors led by Sumner T. McKnight, a lumberman and banker whose 1892 mansion still stands at 2200 Park Av. S.
McKnight began laying plans for the theater in 1926. He and his investors sold bonds to finance its construction and hired Chicago theater architects Anker Graven and Arthur Mayger to design it.
Everything about the Minnesota, which took its design cues from French and Italian Renaissance sources, was over the top in a Gatsby-esque sort of way.
The lobby, framed by colossal faux-marble columns, featured enormous crystal chandeliers hung from an ornate vaulted ceiling decorated in tones of blue, gold and rose. A sweeping marble staircase provided access to the upper sections of the auditorium, a vast space presided over by a central ceiling dome outfitted with hidden, multicolored lights.
Orchestra and organ concerts, a stage presentation and a movie starring St. Paul native Richard Dix formed the opening night program on March 23, 1928. A crowd of 4,000 invited guests were on hand for the event, guided to their seats by a staff of 55 spiffily attired, all-male ushers. Just before the theater opened, a reporter for the Minneapolis Journal wrote: "A new meteor will flash in the entertainment heavens tomorrow. Its name is Minnesota."
The meteor analogy proved prophetic.
The theater was a gaudy flash that had everything except a viable business plan. Once the Great Depression set in, it became the city's white elephant in residence, too costly to operate. (One worker supposedly devoted his entire day just to changing light bulbs.)
Closed for much of the 1930s, the Minnesota reopened in 1944 as the Radio City. It enjoyed a few good years right after World War II (when this north Minneapolis youngster saw movies there). The theater was finally shuttered for good in 1958, after which most of the building (except for a shop section along 9th Street) was torn down and replaced by the inevitable parking ramp.
Built by beer
St. Paul's movie palace, the Capitol (later the Paramount), was built in 1920 as part of the Hamm Building. It was the first true movie palace in the Twin Cities, where most theaters at the time were fairly small. With about 2,500 seats, the Capitol brought a new sense of grandeur to the moviegoing experience.
Brewing magnate William Hamm was the force behind both the building and the theater. He'd been involved in the theater business for years and in 1918 formed a partnership with the Finkelstein and Ruben theater circuit.
The Capitol was inserted into the north side of the Hamm Building along 7th Street (now 7th Place), its presence announced by an intricate terra-cotta facade in a style that can best be described as Spanish Baroque by way of Chicago.
Chicago was home base for the Capitol's architects, brothers Cornelius and George Rapp, who were among the nation's most outstanding theater designers. The Capitol wasn't quite as sumptuous as the Minnesota, but it was beautifully designed, with a richly decorated lobby that included a vaulted, coffered ceiling, travertine walls, spiral columns and custom crafted grillwork and railings.
The lushly decorated auditorium came equipped with a large, deep stage for theatrical and musical performances. But the theater, unlike its predecessors in the Twin Cities, was specifically designed to show movies, which were usually presented as part of a program that included live entertainment.
The Capitol's grand opening on Sept. 8, 1920, was a suitably festive occasion. There was an organ recital and a concert by the theater's in-house orchestra, followed by the world premiere of "The Branded Woman," a movie starring Norma Tallmadge. The cost for all of this amusement was a mere 50 cents.
Unlike the Minnesota, the Capitol had an all-female team of 16 ushers, who, according to a clearly smitten reporter, wore "black plush tams set at a rakish angle, black satin blouses ... and white satin pegged pantalettes." They also carried swagger sticks. It must have been quite a sight.
The Capitol, which became the Paramount under new ownership in 1929, fared better than the Minnesota during the Depression and remained a popular destination for St. Paul moviegoers into the 1950s.
But the theater eventually fell on hard times, like other downtown St. Paul movie houses, and closed in June 1965. Shortly thereafter, the Paramount was destroyed and a new, 800-seat theater called the Norstar was installed in its place. But the Norstar lasted only 13 years. Today, Park Square Theatre occupies a small portion of the cavernous space that used to be the Paramount.
Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author of 14 nonfiction books and eight mystery novels. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.