Mar 172010

Spy Twin Cities - - Historic Theatres - Minnesota TheaterPICTURE 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”).

Spy Twin Cities - Alabama Theatre by Graven and Mayger

A Glimpse of What Was: The restored Alabama Theatre shows the ornate splendor of Graven & Mayger's work. Lib. of Congress.

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 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. - Minnesota Theater Lobby

Lobby of the Minnesota Theater (Radio City Theater) in 1957 -- just two years before much of the theater was razed.

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).

Spy Twin Cities Minnesota Theater Minneapolis opening ad

Full-page ad in the Minneapolis Journal, March 23, 1928.

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.” Minneapolis History - Minnesota Theater program

The Minnesota Theater's opening-night lineup (detail from Minneapolis Journal ad, 3/23/28).

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.

Spy Twin Cities - Richard Dix in Sporting Goods

Poster for the Richard Dix film Sporting Goods screened on opening night.

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.”

Continue reading on next page»

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  13 Responses to “Our Storied Past: The Minnesota Theater”

  1. I’m certainly old enough to remember that building—I was 14 when it was demolished—but I’m afraid I don’t. In the true spirit of the post-war (WWII) years, we suburbanites rarely went into the city. I thought of Minneapolis as “over there,” and St. Paul as another country—until I was finally able to drive and began exploring the wonders of our cities. The first time I remember fully appreciating the magnitude of the destruction was in the mid-60s, as I watched with horror from the University-bound bus the demolition of the magnificent Minneapolis train depot.

    Today, I often imagine the city that Minneapolis would be and could have been if our city forefathers had been more prescient. Think of the Gateway, the Metropolitan Building, all of the lost architectural treasures and neighborhood business nodes that predate us and that now fill the pages of Lost Twin Cities.

    My fear is that names that some of us know so well will one day be truly lost, as we’re left with nothing but CVS and Walmart and CostCo. (Businesses don’t even have real names any more …) So many names are already lost in the dust of Twin Cities history. But we also, fortunately, have digitally inclined historians like you to preserve it all in cyberspace.

    By the way, I’d love to see a history of the area around Loring Park and the Walker—the once lovely, tree-lined avenues of brownstones that we razed in the 1960 (?) for the freeway. How terribly shortsighted that was! And then, of course, there’s Uptown …

  2. I am the son of Anker Sveere Graven the co-architect of the Minnesota Theater. I am interested in correcting the very incorrect info put forth by Charles N. Agee to the Detroit Free Press. The statement that they were “drunkards and bums and left their wives absolutely nothing” is absolutely wrong.
    My father died in a duck hunting accident near Minneapolis in 1932 (I have the death certificate) . My mother was well taken care of and funds for my college education put away. I suspect that Mayger may have been a problem as my mother liked Vaughan Mayger, felt sorry for her but never had any further contact. My father went on to design several more noted structures until his death – no further references are made about Mayger after break-up of the firm in 1928. My father was a fine man, respected by everyone who knew him, and does not deserve this rotten propaganda by an ill-informed source.

  3. Thank You for recording this history and the memories of this great structure, it’s history and those involved with the creation and operation. What a great loss: Finances dictated the demise, and I believe the structure remained as the WCCO studios for a number of years, cut up and subdivided, the grandeur lost to the ages.

    During demolition, my father gathered a “Chandelier Cover” from the Minnesota Theater and gave it to me to save, honor and revere as he did. Instead of gathering a “Brick,” Aubrey DeNoma was able to take this beautiful piece of glass which I have to this day. I’ve observed a photo of the atrium and located where the glass fit into the ceiling of the ornate beauty of the design. I’d like it to go to the Minnesota History Center or someone who would display it with love and care.

    My immediate family is not “into” historical architecture as I am, and the love and interest that I have does not appear to be there to protect this artifact.

    It has and will always hold a dear and special place in my heart. A real piece of the Minnesota Theater……….WOW!


  4. When did an “Evening with Harry Belafonte” appear on stage at the Radio City Theater in Minneapolis – it probably was sometime in the late 1950’s or early 1960s? Dave. 3.4.2012

  5. Where do you find the Stage Show history for the Minneapolis Radio City Theater: Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Mills Bros., Johnnie Ray, Harry Belafonte? I remember seeing all these shows. dgl.

  6. My wife is Lou Breese’ grand daughter. We found several pictures of the outside of the theater in his personal things. See them at Minnesota Theater

  7. I remember how beautiful the theater was, especially the chandelier and the grand staircase.
    I took my younger sister to see Martin and Lewis when I was 13.
    It was a memorable occasion. I feel fortunate to have been in that historic building.

  8. I have a lamp that my 83 year old mother said her brother took from the Radio City Theater before it was demolished. Anyone know where I could find any photos to compare my lamp with? It would be neat to know it really came from this beautiful place! It is a very large, extremely heavy floor lamp and is clearly very old.



  11. I lived in a small town about 80 miles from Minneapolis. Ws had a family shopping trip
    to the City about once per month, and my younger brother and I would always walk from the Dayton
    Store to the Radio City (Minnesota) for an afternoon matinee. I was always impressed with the
    ornate interior, and especially the organ interludes. This was in the 1940’s.

  12. The Radio City was a fabulous place when I was in my early teens. When they were razing it, my cousin and I entered the unsecured building with a flash light and roamed around in dispair — very sad that it was being taken down. I’m sure we could have gotten hurt in there, but we crawled around undetected for hours. The show houses of today are nothing. They are only boxes. You might as well be watching a movie in your garage. So sad.

  13. I remember my first concert starring Johnny Ray. I was dazzled, not so much by Mr. Ray, but by his backup singers-

    The Four Lads. What year was that concert?

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