Behind the scenes of Hennepin’s majestic theatres

Christopher Yaeger during a Vaudeville Tour. Credit: Photo by Mark Vancleave

They’ve all stood on the Pantages stage: Marcel Marceau, Carol Channing, Grace Jones, Shakira, Zach Galifianakis, and “the world’s only roller skating bear.” Now, so can you.

Twice monthly the Hennepin Theatre Trust opens all the doors to their theaters—Pantages, State, and Orpheum—showing off more than the ornate designs of the main room, but also the dressing rooms, pinboards, orchestra pits, balconies, and everything in between. It’s a chance to go behind the scenes, whether to learn about the building’s architecture and history, the stage gossip, or to piece together how it all works between lighting and mechanical to stage direction and props. Tours are $5 per ticket, touring a single theater which is determined based on performance schedules that month.

Christopher Yaeger has been hosting tours for 12 years and doubles as an usher on show nights. For him, the tours depend on the crowd. Some want the juicy nuggets and outrageous stories, he says, others want history, and there’s always a fine balance between giving the good stuff and presenting too much information—something Yaeger is capable of, as he’s a walking encyclopedia on the West Downtown Theatre Row.

“You really get the magic of how these four walls can transform wherever is here,” he says, walking through the aisles of the Pantages Theatre during one of this tours. It’s nestled tightly into downtown, with bustling traffic lights and business folk outside. Inside, the gilded molds and open mezzanine take an audience to a new world of fantasy. “Then you open the door, boom, back in the real world.”

Tours are family friendly and open to all ages. They get all manner of groups from elementary schools to retirement communities. They also give private tours to corporations, theatre groups, schools, and more. It’s a mixture of people interested in the industry, vocational searches to showcase the variety of work available, and tourism and history buffs from in town and beyond.

Minneapolis has a renowned theatre scene, typically landing touring acts that skip other similar-sized cities. That’s not just the present day, though, as there were once over 70 theaters through the downtown strip, though Yaeger notes that figure includes name-changes, meaning there are duplicates among the 70. “We’re so lucky to have these theaters, the history behind them, and the fact that we’re keeping them current,” he says of the three historic buildings that offer tours.

All three are still in operation, now under the umbrella of Hennepin Theatre Trust, who own and operate the theatres and recently launched the WeDo marketing campaign to help invigorate the neighborhood’s cultural footprint. Yaeger notes the demolition of Radio City Theater in 1959 as a turning point when people came together to save and restore the city’s theatres, starting with the State, which is the central meeting point for tours due to its open and climate controlled lobby.

While the Trust gives tours of all three and tickets can be purchased in advance at any time via their website, the destination of each tour is not announced until about two weeks beforehand due to the varied schedules and productions that take place. If a performance is on the second Saturday or last Monday of the month, a tour will not go through the room so preparations remain uninterrupted. After all, these are working theatres and not museums, which is why the tours are popular.

“We get onstage and go in the dressing rooms,” Yaeger says, in some of the most famous stages in the state. “It’s a big deal,” he says. “At the Orpheum when we get on that stage I still get goose bumps.” The ghost light that burns through the night and the quiet spotlight and empty stage, walked on by the touring bodies, offer a unique perspective that brings fans to the front of the room.

>>>

FYI: For more information about Hennepin Theatre tours, go to www.hennepintheatretrust.org/our-theatres/theatre-tours