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.
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! ]
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