Southern centennial

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March 1, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// The Southern Theater celebrates its 100th birthday //

Although the college kids swarming the bars at Seven Corners might not realize it, hoards of young Swedish men and women were doing the same thing, at the same spots, one hundred years earlier.

Not sucking down fishbowls at Preston’s Urban Pub, per se. But preening and profiling, flirting and fighting, and of course, drinking — lots and lots of drinking. At the turn of the 20th century, Minneapolis was the most densely Swedish city in the United States, and the Cedar Riverside area was where the Swedes came to party.

From about 1880 to 1916, a carnival of social clubs, saloons and pool halls electrified the intersection of Cedar and Washington avenues. According to Nina Clark, director of programs and exhibits at the Minneapolis-based American Swedish Institute, the nightlife was so lively that a certain expression began buzzing throughout the immigrant community: “Att gå på Cedar.”

It’s Swedish for “Let’s go down to Cedar.” But it was code for “Let’s go get drunk.”

One arts institution anchored the district, holding the revelry in orbit with a potpourri of professional vaudeville, variety shows and live drama. The Southern Theater, at 1420 Washington Ave. S., has been a cultural hub since 1910. Back then, its stage served as both an incubator and a springboard, nurturing Minneapolis artists and then launching them to national prominence.

On March 6, the theater celebrates its 100th birthday. As the current directors plan the grand centennial cabaret, it’s apparent that some things haven’t changed.

‘Snoose Boulevard’

To get a sense of the role the Southern played in the Swedish immigrant community, Clark says, you have to take a closer look at who made up this community.

According to Clark, Washington Avenue South was full of rooming houses that catered specifically to single men, young Swedes who needed a temporary place to stay while they worked seasonal jobs in the lumber and farming industry.  

But the neighborhood also experienced an influx of young, single women, girls who escaped the farms in Sweden to work as domestic help in the large houses south of Downtown. Both the men and the women were young, in search of economic opportunity and craving an urban bustle more stimulating than what rural life could offer them. They needed a place to play and to meet one another. And “Snoose Boulevard,” a nickname for the West Bank derived from the Swedish term for chewing tobacco, was it.

“You had a lot of bars, you had a lot of prostitution, you had a lot of snoose,” said Clark, “and the Southern was right in the thick of it.”

But the wild behavior in the neighborhood often belied the serious work going on in the theater. Designed by noted architect Charles S. Sedgwick, who also designed Downtown’s Westminster Presbyterian Church, the Southern was intended as a serious cultural institution from the start. It established close ties with Stockholm’s Södra Teatern (Southern Theater), and an exchange program allowed actors from one Southern to travel to the other and perform.

“My sense is that it was quite a reputable theater,” said Clark. “They hosted everything from pretty serious drama — the plays of August Strindberg (Sweden’s father of literature) and Bjornstjerne Bjornenson (winner of the 1903 Nobel Prize for Literature) — to professional-grade vaudeville.”

One local vaudeville group, helmed by a performer known as Ollie i Skratthult (loosely translated as “Ollie in Laughterville”), used the Southern to launch a robust national career. After experimenting with, refining and opening their acts on the Minneapolis stage, the Ollie i Skratthult troupe would take their productions to sold-out rooms in New York and Boston. In the early 1900s, they were one of the best-known comedy groups of the time. A recording of their comedy hit “Nikolina,” recorded in 1915, went on to sell 100,000 copies before the Great Depression.  

The success of such local acts galvanized the burgeoning Swedish community, Clark said, becoming a strong source of pride and unity.

“Basically before TV, the importance of getting together for theater was huge,” said Clark. “There was a lot of nostalgia. These people still longed for their homeland.”

Southern Exposure

Though the Southern Theater’s history is rooted deeply in the past, its creative vision is fixed firmly forward. Today, the theater prides itself on a vanguard, gut-driven approach to programming that aims to book tomorrow’s innovators today.

Since its rebirth as an independent theater in 1981, the Southern has earned bragging rights for hosting major artists before they became so major. Dominique Serrand, of Jeune Lune fame, showed early works there, as did playwright John Pielmeier, who went on to write “Agnes of God.”  

In recent years, the musical programming especially has been hyper contemporary, from the Twin Cities debut in 2007 of Phillip Glass protégé Nico Muhly to the recent performance by the Clogs, a side project from acclaimed indie rockers The National. Local acts that the theater has championed — dance companies like the BodyCartography Project and Zenon — have earned national attention for their appetite for experimentation.

“I like to think of us as being at the pointy end of the ship, if the ship is all the theaters in Minneapolis and all the theaters in the nation,” says Jon Ferguson, theater programming director at the Southern.

The modern Southern honors the old Southern, then, not in looking backward but moving ceaselessly forward. It’s the same incubator/springboard model from 1910 — give acts the freedom to experiment and then watch them go on to do great things.

In fact, for a theater so old, the staff is practically brand new. The Southern’s new executive director Gary Peterson just started Jan. 1. And its current season is the first one programmed under the new, three-curator model. Ferguson spearheads the theater programming, Kate Nordstrum takes charge of music and Laurie Van Wieren does dance. Van Wieren just came on staff last September.

The plans for the Southern Exposure centennial cabaret, then, fold a good deal of contemporary performance into its historic homage. One of the headliners is the young singer, pianist and composer Gabriel Kahane, who will come to Minneapolis immediately after his debut at New York’s Lincoln Center. Sally Rouse, a longtime fixture of the local dance scene, will perform a new ballet set to the music of Patti Smith. Special performances by local troupe Four Humors Theater are also planned.

Tying it all together will be master of ceremonies Luverne Seifert, director of theater performance at the University of Minnesota. Siefert will play different characters from the Snoose Boulevard era — a genius Swedish playwright, a projectionist and later as a mechanic — and a comedic monologue from each character will weave together the acts.

Finally, a cakewalk contest and a live auction will cap off the event. Auction prizes include a walk-on part in one of Ferguson’s plays and an opportunity to commission Nico Muhly to write a personal piece of music. Afterward, a dance party helmed by DJ Greg Waletski will take over the space.

And arching over all of the activity will be the Southern’s famed proscenium, which retains much of its original ornate decorative plaster molding and trim. It’s a physical reminder of the theater’s history — and a visual motivator to keep quality high.

“You really have to build your work up to the beauty of the building,” said Ferguson. “There’s always a risk that the theater itself might upstage you.”