PICTURE PALACE & HISTORICAL TOUCHSTONE— IT LASTED just 31 years—and was razed before most current Twin Citians were born. But during its run from the roaring twenties to the gray-flannel fifties, the Minnesota Theater was the architectural glory of Minneapolis and a touchstone for changing Twin Cities cultural life in the first half of the 20th century. Its history even comes with a few juicy footnotes fit for the tabloids, from booze to breakdowns to bankruptcy.
And the story of the Minnesota Theater (later the Radio City Theater) also comes with tantalizing kickers. Its lobby colonnade turns out to be less than many historical accounts have suggested. Its building, though largely razed in 1959, still exists, at least in part, in 2010. And a bit of sleuthing turns up its magnificent theater organ, not far from home and still making music today.
Our Storied Past: The Minnesota Theatre
by K.M. Tyler for Spy Twin Cities
Part 1: “The Theater Magnificent!”
“The Theater Magnificent!” trumpeted the Minnesota Theater’s full-page newspaper ad on its opening day. Built for a cool $2 million nearly on the cusp of the Great Depression, the Minnesota Theater was the country’s fifth largest theater when it opened its doors March 23, 1928, at 36-40 South 9th Street, between Hennepin and Nicollet.
Its colossal size, baroque swank, and grand entertainment ambitions had reporters and ad men tripping over their purple prose.
“A new meteor will flash in the entertainment heavens tomorrow … [tracing] its brilliant path across the celestial ways … tomorrow it will burst into flame …” was the lead-off for the Minneapolis Journal’s four pages of heavily starched gush. Declaring the Minnesota a “new wonder theater,” the paper left no detail uncelebrated. Behold the “oil paintings purchased in Europe”! The “attractive vistas” from the grand marble staircase”! The mezzanine seats “intimate and comfortable in the extreme”! The thoughtfully provided “cosmetics rooms” for women patrons, the the “new downward-feed ventilation system”!
In one of many advertisements placed by local firms to celebrate the Minnesota’s opening, the Foster & Waldo Piano Company (Fifth & Nicollet) settled for proclamation: “For sheer magnificence, it rivals the palace of an Eastern Potentate,” said the company’s ad announcing that its Knabe pianos had been selected for the new theater (because “the management of the New Minnesota has decreed that nothing less than the beauty and tonal glory of the great Knabe Piano is appropriate for this lavish setting”).
Architectural Back Story: In his excellent Lost Twin Cities, architectural historian Larry Millett notes that the Minnesota Theater’s construction was brought about by the grand ambitions of a group of businessmen led by lumber tycoon Sumner T. McKnight, who sold bonds “to build the greatest theater ever seen in the Twin Cities.”
The resulting theater, an ornate Italian and French Renaissance showplace style designed by Chicago architects Anker Sveele Graven and Arthur Guy Mayger, was, Millett writes, “a great monument to optimism and excess … Versailles in a brick box.”
Chicago architects Graven and Mayger had apprenticed with noted theater architects C.W. Rapp and G.L. Rapp, whose Chi-Town firm designed some 400 movie palaces across the country, starting in 1921 with the lavish French Baroque Chicago Theater (still a North Loop fixture, elegantly restored in 1986). Among their masterpieces is Minneapolis’s Orpheum Theater (1927, restored 2000-2001). Compared to Rapp & Rapp, the firm of Graven & Mayger was a flash in the pan. In a partnership spanning just 15 months in 1927-1928, the pair designed eight grand theaters across the country before, by one insider’s account, boozing their way to obscurity.
More on Graven and Mayger … In a 1983 interview cited in a February 2011 newsletter of the Detroit Theater Organ Society (as well as in the DetroitYes.com discussion forum), Charles N. Agree, an architect who consulted with Graven & Mayger on Detroit’s Hollywood Theatre, reportedly told the Detroit Free Press’s Greg Piazza that the duo’s partnership dissolved because “they turned out to be bums, drunkards, left their wives, just nothing … absolutely no good.”
Half of their creations are still standing, including Detroit’s 1928 Fisher Theater, a Mayan/Byzantine-style masterpiece complete with a pond and talking macaws (with its exterior saved but its grand interior lost to “simplifying” in 1961, it is today a premiere venue for touring shows), Birmingham’s 1927 Moorish-influenced Alabama Theatre (restored in 1998 as “the showplace of the South”), Knoxville’s 1928 Tennessee Theatre (elegantly restored as a performing arts center in 2005), and Lake Geneva’s 1928 Renaissance-Revival Geneva Theatre (now the Geneva 4, a multiplex cinema). They also designed several office buildings including Chicago’s Lawyers Building, a Loop landmark built in 1929.
Design Splendor: The Minnesota Theater was without any doubt an opulent palace—or, as journalist and history enthusiast James Lileks colorfully suggests on his Minneapolis site, “a gigantic gilded pile of stone and glass.”
It was said to be modeled after the 13th-century royal chapel at Versailles. Framed by 1300 tons of steel, the “massive structure of brick and buff terra cotta … strikes the eye first with its bigness,” said the Minneapolis Journal. Its exterior was crowned by a fancy wraparound marquee with a nearly 100-foot-high domed marquee tower reportedly lit by 10,000 lights—and sporting “decorative polychromed terra cotta floral patterns all the way down its side,” according to CinemaTreasures. Lileks offers a delightful animation on his website simulating the illuminated marquee.
The lobby was four stories tall, with eight marble columns (gilded at caps and bases) rising floor to cornice, resplendent crystal chandeliers, and ornamental plaster “inlaid with gold leaf, glazed and antique,” as the Journal duly detailed. The theater’s majestic marble staircase to the mezzanine was dubbed “the stairway to happiness,” Millett recalls.
John W. Geiger, a Minneapolis boy who grew up to be a Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice, was dazzled by the theater’s decor. Eight decades after visiting the Minnesota as a lad of eight, he still recalled its “real antiques with all the trimmings, including a gold leafed concert grand piano on the mezzanine.”
Local Contractors: The theater’s interior decorating contract was held by Minneapolis firm Harold Larsen Inc. (1005 W. Franklin Ave.), which also did Minneapolis’s 1921 State Theater (restored in 1989 and still thriving at 8th and Hennepin), its 1927 Municipal Auditorium, and St. Paul’s 1920 Capitol Theater (18-26 W. 7th, entirely gutted in 1965). Describing his work on the Minnesota, Harold Larsen told the Journal that “more than 1,000,000 leaves of gold and silver leaf were used in the decorations, enough so that laid end to end it would form a four and a half inch band 4,500,00 inches long.”
A few of the many other local contractors who helped build or decorate the theater: Gamble & Ludwig Paint Co. (9th & Hennepin; supplied all of the paint for the interior—oil-based colors made by Masury Paint of Baltimore); Otto S. Johnson (4152 Park Avenue; plastering); Grazzini Bros. (terrazzo floors in the men’s lounge), Minneapolis Steel & Machinery (steel framing); Thorp Fire-Proof Door Co. (1610 Central Avenue; interior doors); and C.J. Hibbard Commercial Photography (412 Nicollet; official photography).
The auditorium, suffused with mulberry-and-gold hues from its brocade draperies to its silk damask wall panels, featured an arched proscenium stage 60 feet wide. It seated 4,056 people on three levels. The seats themselves were velvet (at least the best ones were), and patrons were guided to their rows by “Army-trained college boy ushers” (as theater ads boasted) in snappy uniforms and white gloves.”
On the ceiling was an immense dome (“colored with silver lead blended with beautiful blues, greens, and gold, giving an opal effect,” as the Journal wrote) was also Millett describes the auditorium’s “spectacular ceiling dome that took on various colors with the aid of hidden lights.” In June 1930, a state-of-the-art cooling system was installed in the house, the event publicized (as Motion Picture Times reported) with a display of General Electric refrigerators on the theater’s mezzanine.
Notes Geiger in a 2009 online memoir, “This was the depression, and to be king for a day at the Minnesota was heaven.”
The legendary politician Hubert Humphrey also pays homage to the Minnesota Theater (and what he calls its “Prairie Baroque” elegance) in his 1991 autobiography: “As often as I could, I’d go to the Minnesota Theater, an elegant, overdone building of massive chandeliers, a huge central staircase, velvet drapes, and thick rugs. … The palaces of the Medici could not have been more awe-inspiring to a Florentine peasant than the Minnesota Theater was to me.”
But as for that marble … Historical descriptions of the Minnesota make a big deal of the marbled grandeur of its lobby. But in fact the Minnesota Theater’s lobby was a triumph of imitation marble, manufactured by a Chicago plastering company whose specialty was such faux grandeur. This was, it must be said, no secret: The firm’s newspaper ads celebrating the Minnesota’s opening proudly stated that “the imitation marble columns and plasters in the grand lobby were made at Dinkelbery Plastering, Plain & Ornamental Experts in Imitation Marble.”
Opening Night: “Hail the Minnesota!” proclaimed full-page newspapers ads on opening day. The colossus trumpeted as “Bringing Broadway to the the Northwest,” opened in what a front-page day-after story in the Minneapolis Tribune story called “a carnival atmosphere.” Mayor George Leach dedicated the showhouse. Attending, wrote Graydon Royce in a 2008 StarTribune feature story, were “the rich, famous, politically important and show-business connected,” all treated to a special program for grandees only.
Real people lined up the next night for, as Millett chronicles, “a program that included orchestra and organ concerts, a stage spectacle called ‘Treasure Ships,’ a newsreel, a cartoon, and, finally, Minnesota-born Richard Dix starring in the featured film, Sporting Goods” (the film being, as the Minneapolis Journal described it, the story of “a golfsuit salesman who falls in love and trouble”).
Dix, by the way, was a tall and athletic St. Paul native (born Ernst Carlton Brimmer) whose determination to be a stage star caused him to drop out of the University of Minnesota after just one year. Starting out in silent westerns, he transitioned to talkies with great success, reaping a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Cimmaron, (the Best Picture winner for 1931) and acting in some 80 movies altogether.
A night at the Minnesota: Admission to shows at the Minnesota was 65 cents (50 cents for matinees). A full concert orchestra played each night—for the first two weeks under the baton of guest conductor Oscar F. Baum, on loan from the Capitol City theater in St. Paul, and then under the direction of Lou Breese. From opening night on, shows opened with an entertaining organ recital on a tremendous Romanesque Wurlitzer pipe organ.
Initially the Minnesota’s organ featured the famed composer and organist Eddie Dunstedter, who had been at the State Theater. Dundstedter went on to be both a staff organist at WCCO-AM and a nationally popular conductor and recording artist known as “Mr. Pipe Organ”). He stayed at the Minnesota less than a year; his successors at the Wurlitzer included Eloise Rowman and Stan Malotte.
Listen to a clip of Dunstedter at the great Wurlitzer of the Minnesota Theater in 1929: Dunstedter – Parade of the Wooden Soldiers (clip courtesy of “The Virtual Radiogram–Sounds of American Organs.”
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