Collecting the theaters’ stories

As many Journal readers may know, Hennepin Theatre Trust, where I work, operates three historic theatres on Hennepin Avenue: the Orpheum, the State and the Pantages.  Over the years, these magnificent buildings have hosted the likes of Fanny Brice, the Marx Brothers, George Burns, numerous film premiers, Broadway touring productions and contemporary musicians from Sting to Antony and the Johnsons.

However, what has happened on stage is just a part of the story of these majestic structures.

These theatres were among more than 40 that dotted the Hennepin Avenue area in the ’20s and ’30s and comprised Minneapolis’ Great White Way or Theatre Row. The venues provided the centerpiece of a vital Downtown to thousands of people, just as they do today. When the Orpheum opened in 1921 it was billed as the largest vaudeville house in the country, while the State was dubbed by a Minneapolis newspaper columnist, “a gilded pleasure palace, dedicated to the Hollywood dreams that captured America’s heart in the roaring ’20s.”

Over the years, many people have shared experiences with me that permanently connect them to these theatres: a first date, an engagement, an entire family escaping the summer heat by heading to the theatre (kids got in for 9 cents and adults for a mere 47 cents!), or someone who worked as an usher, which can come with its own level of drama. It seems that folks throughout the state have stories binding them to these theatres. I relish these varied, interesting and humorous tales and it occurred to me that others might also enjoy them.

So at the Trust, we’d like to provide a forum for sharing these experiences and have been exploring ways to capture these theatre tales and share them throughout our community to help preserve this oral history for future generations. Because these stories are such an important part of these buildings’ legacy, we want to make sure they are never lost.  

We envision creating an engaging video or film to collect and record these anecdotes. We want to put out a call throughout our community to invite people to come to theatres and share their experiences. We’d assemble these stories in a format that could run on our lobby movie screens, on our website or in other locations. Copies could be provided to patrons when they visit the theatre.

While we’re still in the process of officially launching this project, we’re starting to solicit stories. So if you, or someone you know, have a favorite experience connected to the State, Orpheum or Pantages theatres, we would love to hear it. It would be an invaluable part of capturing a vital part of Minnesota’s theatre history. If you would like to e-mail a story or talk further about our efforts to preserve the essence of these fabulous historic venues, please contact us at [email protected]

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.