Mar 172010
 
Spy Twin Cities - Minnesota Theater auditorium 1928

The auditorium of the Minnesota (from the Minneapolis Journal).

Elaborate Shows: Former Minnesota Gov. Elmer L. Andersen recalled in his 2000 autobiography that, “A big treat in downtown Minneapolis was a night at the Minnesota Theater. The Minnesota Theater was the entertainment center downtown. It had wonderful entertainment, first-run movies, newsreels, and speical events. But what really made it secial was the stage show. It featured music by Lou Breese [sic] and his orchestra, Gertrude Lutzi, a marvelous soprano who also sang on WCCO radio, and Eddie Dunstedter at the tremendous Wurlitzer theater organ.”

Theaters in the 1920s and thirties were part of large chains called “circuits” that owned theaters (or their booking contracts) and provided stage and film productions for their stages. The Minnesota Theater was operated by the Publix circuit, the booking-and-exhibition arm of Paramount Pictures and by 1929 “the most powerful theatre organization in U.S. film history,” according to Douglas Gomery in a 1979 piece in Cinema Journal.

Publix ran the Minnesota in a partnership with the Finkelstein & Ruben outfit, which dominated showhouses in the Twin Cities into the 1930s. Its shows included the likes of Duke Ellington, Will Rogers, and Amos & Andy.

In an article in the May 11, 1929, Movie Age, the Minnesota Theatre was mentioned in describing the standard practice of “Publix stars appearing in a well-drilled snappy unit show, [moving[ about the cricuit from week to week.” It also described the opportunities posed by the advent of talking pictures, which might mean more elaborate stage productions.

Spy Twin Cities - Entertainment acts at the Minnesota Theater, 1928

Early acts at the Minnesota: A dance group for the show "Havana" and Charles Bennington, "the peg-leg dancer."

The Minnesota Theater’s second show (following its opening-week program) gives a good sense of what an evening’s entertainment held for theater-goers. It featured a Publix production called “The Blue Plate,” produced by well-known New York theater director John Murray Anderson, who went on to produce the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, among many other accomplishments.

“Extremely lavish both in scene and costume,” according to the Minneapolis Journal, it featured “a galaxy of stage notables including Lorrain Tumler, vocalist; the Forster girls, dancers; Koehler and Edith, sensational roller-skaters; and Myers and Hanford, comedy musicians.” The movie on the bill was the dramatic “Divine Woman,” a now lost film (save for one nine-minute reel) starring the inimitable Greta Garbo.

The next show after that featured a production called “Steps and Steppers,” staged by Jack Parkington. The Minneapolis Journal reported that the production featured “Homy Bailey, Charles Huey, and Glenn Jenkins.” Information on Huey is hard to come by, but the other references were almost certainly to the band vocalist Ilomay Bailey (best-known as part of Sims & Bailey, with pianist and spouse Lee Sims) and to the African American comic dancers known as Glenn & Jenkins (who had appeared in a Broadway musical called Africana that made the great Ethel Waters a star, per Bernard L. Peterson’s 1993 A Century of Musicals in Black and White).

On the screen in short order were The Big City starring Lon Chaney, a 1928 film now lost, and Feel My Pulse with Bebe Daniels.

More Entertainment Details: Louis Armstrong played the Minnesota Theater between June 23 and 29, 1928 (source: Bix: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend, Jean Pierre Lion), as did Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra, with legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. Also in 1928 was a show by Less Klicks called “Enchanted Forest,” featuring illuminated marionettes (per an account by TCPuppeteers).

The following year’s acts included Tom Mix (and his horse Tony), per the Minneapolis Tribune, as well as return appearance by Whiteman and his orchestra, whose three-night stand in June also featured the three popular jazz singers known as the Rhythm Boys—one of whom was the young Bing Crosby. The orchestra’s four appearances daily were a smash hit—”the greatest business in the history of the city,” according to Malcolm Macfarlane’s 2001 biography of Crosby.

In July 1929, Vess Ossman and Rex Schepp, “the crack banjo team,” appeared at the Minnesota as “part of “a busy summer on the Publix circuit,” according to a piece in the Music Trade Review. The article also noted that they “are using new No. 6 Ne Plus Ultra model Silver Bell banjos purchased before their recent New England trip, and are scoring triumphs wherever they appear.”

Movie Age regularly tracked the films appearing at major theaters in a short feature titled “What the Picture Did First Run.” The May 11 issue noted that for the week ending May 4, 1929, the Minnesota Theatre had screened the Paramount film Nothing But the Truth, another vehicle starring Minnesota native Richard Dix. “Business: Good. Summary: Dix’s first appearance in a comedy role. Went good. Entertainment Merits: 85 per cent. Short Subjects: Publix unit.”

For September 21, 1929, it was noted that the Minnesota had shown the Paramount film Illusion, featuring Buddy Rogers and Nancy Carroll. “Business: Good. Summary: Not as good as Close Harmony, but a good program picture. Entertainment Meris” 85 per cent. Short Subjects: Paramount sound news and Publix unit.

In mid-1931 Howard Thurston presented a magic show at the Minnesota as part of his Publix tour of presentation houses. In 1932, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde graced the Minnesota’s screen for a week (taking in $13,000 at the box office, per a mention in a film history by Gary Don Rhodes).

Highlights of 1932 at the Minnesota included, in March, the national premiere of the now-classic film Tarzan the Ape Man, with stars Johnny Weissmuller and Minnesota native Maureen O’Sullivan on hand. As an interesting bit of film trivia with a Minnesota angle, the film’s Tarzan yell that may have been constructed, at least in part, with a yodel by a Minneapolis schoolboy (later opera singer) named Lloyd Thomas Leech, as recounted in a 1987 interview.

From May 27 to June 2, 1932, Bing Crosby came to town “in a cine-variety show at the Minnesota Theater in Minneapolis for the week,” according to Malcolm Macfarlane’s 2001 biography of Crosby.

Breakdowns, Bankruptcies, Revivals, Demolishment

If the theater’s architects indeed boozed and womanized their way to ruin, theirs was not the only tabloid tale involving the Minnesota Theater.

Barely a year after the Minnesota opened, it had driven its general manager to collapse. Here’s a dishy squib in the May 11, 1929, Movie Age: “Murray Pennock, manager of the Minnesota Theatre in Minneapolis resigned last week and left for the West Coast. Mr. Pennock recently suffered a nervous breakdown due to overwork at the Minneapolis house and was forced to terminate his work here. Ed Smith, head of the Publix interests here, is overseeing the workings of the house until a new manager is appointed.”

The theater itself was also soon on the skids. It was, writes Millett in Lost Twin Cities, “doomed from the start by its size and overhead (it required up to 300 people to run the place, one of whom did nothing but change lightbulbs).”

With the Depression under way, the theater was doomed. Observes a general overview in Surviving the Great Depression – The Exhibition Market, The Recovery, The Paramount Case:

“By 1932, all of show business was a shambles. Motion-picture attendance dropped another 15 million to 55 million a week. On Broadway, two-thirds of the playhouses had been shuttered, throwing the Shubert theater organization into receivership, leaving producers stranded, and forcing actors into penury. The road for touring legitimate theater virtually ceased to exist. Vaudeville was on its last legs; troupers, extras, stagehands, and musicians were especially hard hit.”

Just four years after its grand opening, the Minnesota Theater—”the Theater Magnificent”—was shuttered. Between 1932 and 1942, it reopened and closed five times for short-lived revivals as a vaudeville and film house.

Then came its last chapter: rebirth as a radio studio and movie house called The Radio City Theater, owned and operated by radio broadcaster KSTP.

[Please bear with me as I edit the last installment on the Minnesota Theater … to be posted eventually (sorry, that’s the best I can promise). It will cover the theater’s last chapter as Radio City Theater, its sad end, and a few interesting historical twists! ]

©2014 SpyTC.com. Citation OK with attribution (please include a credit and link to SpyTwinCities.com).

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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!

    John

  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.

  9. HARRY BELAFONTE AND HIS GREAT SONG “DAY OH” WAS IN 1956 OR 1957? I WAS JUST STARTING TO WORK A FULL TIME JOB DOWNTOWN ON 19TH AND NICOLLET AVENUE AND ABLE TO BUY TICKETS FOR A FRONT ROW SEAT FOR MY YOUNGER SISTER JANET AND MYSELF. IT WAS WONDERFUL AND THE LAST TIME WE WERE EVER IN THAT GREAT RADIO CITY THEATRE,
    IT WAS SO SAD TO SEE IT GO. WCCO NOW OWNS THE BLDG AND I
    OFTEN TELL VISITORS, THAT WAS THE SITE OF THE RADIO CITY THEATRE. IT WAS SO BEAUTIFUL,SO MANY NICE MEMORIES OF THOSE DAYS..

  10. WHILE I’M HERE, I HAVE A QUESTION:
    WHERE IS THE GREAT ORGAN NOW? LAST I HEARD IT WAS AT THE MINNEAPOLIS AUDITORIUM DOWNTOWN??

  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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