VOICES // Hennepin Theatre District

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July 18, 2011
By: Tom Hoch
Tom Hoch
Theatre reincarnations

A photo of a historic place that still exists today can open a fascinating window to the past. For me, it’s even more compelling if these locations or buildings are those I walk by daily or am closely connected to through life or work.

I’ve been fortunate to be actively involved in the reincarnation of a few local historic 1900s venues — theatres.  The State Theatre, for example, was at one point the Jesus People Church. The Orpheum Theatre, with ghosts and stories of its own, may be most famous because Bob Dylan and his brother once owned it. I’ve also avidly watched as the oldest theatre on Hennepin Avenue, the 1910 Shubert which was once the Alvin Burlesque Theatre and even a gospel church, undergoes its dramatic reinvention into The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts, uniting it with its historic neighbor, Hennepin Center for the Arts. We welcome its significant return to the Avenue’s other reincarnated historic theatres, the State, Orpheum and Pantages.

At one time, there were upwards of 30 show houses lining Hennepin Avenue, originally part of Minneapolis’ own “Theatre Row.” Today, only a handful still stand and most of these have gone through multiple incarnations. Thanks to the Minnesota Historical Society and other organizations who work to preserve our heritage, we’ve been able to access photos and additional information that captures the spirit of these earlier times.

This month, Hennepin Theatre Trust is preparing to establish the New Century Theatre inside City Center, which sits on the site of the former Century Theatre between 6th and 7th streets. As part of our research, one of the photos we’ve been able to find through the Historical Society is a 1948 image of 7th street, showing the Forum Theatre and the Century Theatre sandwiching a quaint Fanny Farmer store. While the New Century isn’t a renovation of an historic theatre, it honors the former Century Theatre and revives the memories of several venues that used to be on the same block, including the Strand Theatre (later the Forum) which faced 7th Street, and the Gopher Theatre and Aster Theatre which faced Hennepin Avenue.

The Century Theatre originally opened in 1908 as a 2,000-seat vaudeville house called the Miles and was re-built several times; it was renamed the Century Theatre in 1929. The building was transformed into the 1,145-seat Century Cinerama in the mid-1950s, becoming only the eleventh theater in the U.S. to feature Cinerama films. Combining ‘cinema’ with ‘panorama,’ Cinerama projected three synchronized films onto a curved widescreen, attempting to compete with television by treating movies as a theatrical event with reserved seating, programs and audiences dressed in their finest attire. Cleopatra, the 1963 cinema classic starring Elizabeth Taylor, played there for over a year and the theatre rivaled the State Fair as a tourist attraction, bringing millions to the Twin Cities economy during the 1950s. But success was fleeting. The Century was destroyed by a fire in 1964 and razed the next year.

Hennepin Theatre Trust will invoke the spirit of the Century (sans the fire) when it opens its new flexible use performance space. The New Century will host touring and local shows as well as the Trust’s numerous educational and community programs. The New Century, adjacent to the Trust’s City Center offices, will also be a key part of the Trust’s work in continuing to revitalize and reincarnate Hennepin Avenue.

History repeats itself and that can be a good thing. Minneapolis’ rich history — revisited through photographs, the stories, the people — should inspire us to greater achievements and help bridge the past and the present along Minnesota’s most famous of streets.

Tom Hoch is president and CEO of Hennepin Theatre Trust, owner of the historic State, Orpheum and Pantages Theatres, a nonprofit organization devoted to enriching the vibrant cultural atmosphere of the Twin Cities. Please visit HennepinTheatreTrust.org for more information.