Minnesota’s Majestic Theatres Survived the Polio Epidemic — Can They Outlast COVID?

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The words were ringing in my ears, a dire warning from Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter. He stated the theatre industry is:  “not going to recover fully until consumers are confident that they won’t die if they go to the movies. That means no return to normal until there is a vaccine widely available, likely not until April to July 2021.”

Wow, what a gut punch for avid theatre buffs! And the numbers support him. Domestic movie box office is on pace to attract $2.1 billion in ticket sales this year — down 90 percent or $9 billion from the last two years. And to add insult to injury, theaters have been starved of any meaningful content as blockbusters like Bond, Disney’s Black Widow and Pixar’s Soul have been moved or streamed out of the theater schedule for 2020.

And the latest Walz lockdown only served to heighten my anxiety and concern about the future of the State’s iconic theatres. From south Minneapolis to Duluth, from Canby to St. Paul- historic, beloved theatres lie in precarious hibernation. Follow me as I check in with the Norshor, Riverview, Highland, Sheldon and Canby theatres. Will the Minnesota Legislature’s $14 million theatre aid package be the life line that saves them? Like a bear, many are breathing, twitching, moving imperceptibly and conserving energy for the long COVID winter ahead.

Riverview Deja Vu

In south Minneapolis (38th St. and 42nd Avenue) the vintage Riverview Theatre is not showing films but treading water with several new tactics. A remarkable pristine creation of architects Liebenberg and Kaplan, the theatre is offering their famous popcorn for takeout sale Thursday through Sundays, online branded merchandise and an interesting concept called Virtual Cinema, where independent filmmakers can offer their product using the theatre’s web-site.

This isn’t the first pandemic rodeo for the Riverview. This grand iteration of the Riverview opened to national fanfare in April 1956. The Salk polio vaccine had only launched in limited batches in Minnesota and was in great demand when Picnic premiered on April 4th. Lines snaked around the corner to see William Holden and Kim Novak’s sizzling rom-com. Ben Marcus of Columbia Pictures called the Riverview: “the last word in beauty and comfort” while stars William Holden, Kim Novak and Rosalind Russell wired their congratulations to owners Sidney and William Volk. Eerily similar to today, the theatre industry was teetering on the brink during the panic of the polio epidemic. 

When I stopped by the popcorn sale over the Thanksgiving weekend, there was a regular stream of customers coming in for takeout. I asked the concession manager about the hopes for films in the future and he said warily: “It’s hard to tell….it’s hard to tell with the current lockdown.”

Across the river In St. Paul, two art deco icons sit idle as neighbors grow increasingly worried about their well-being. Family-owned Mann Theatres bravely reopened the Highland and Grandview Theatres in late June, only to fall back into hibernation last month. General Manager Michelle Mann told the Pioneer Press that ‘maybe Thanksgiving’ could be a restart date but that idea was squashed by the latest COVID-19 lockdown. The company did not respond to our questions about their plans.

The Norshor Reborn

In Duluth, the classic art deco Norshor Theatre has been completely refurbished and serves as the anchor of the city’s downtown entertainment district. The theatre benefitted from a unique $29 million partnership of the city and the Duluth Playhouse. As a result, the venue still shows classic films but its bread and butter has shifted to live theatre and music. The Norshor’s sold out premier over two years ago garnered rave reviews for the restored stunning architecture, state-of-the-art sound system, plush seats and spectacular sight lines.

In January, veteran director and actor Phillip Fazio was very excited to be named the new Artistic Director of the Norshor, seizing the position after a 5 month nationwide search. Two months later, the pandemic hit and the theatre world was turned on its head. Fazio has led an innovative response with the creation of virtual productions. The Tales from the Ghost Light Halloween play drew 2500 online viewers. Next up on the playbill is a holiday concert, Songs of the Season. Fazio said that: “Patrons who make a donation to the event (norshortheatre.com) will be e-mailed a link to watch the professionally filmed version of the show right from the safety and comfort of their homes.”

Fazio’s assessment of the theatre’s financial footing is comforting: “Thankfully, before the pandemic hit, we were in a very strong place financially. Not to say that this has been easy for us as an artistic institution in a pandemic, but thankfully, so far, we have been able to keep our heads above water. As we start to explore other online streaming performances and plan for a return to live (and of course, socially distanced) performances, we are hopeful that with the help of our patrons, volunteers, and donors… we will make it through this extremely difficult time.”

Out State Gems

Sheldon Theatre

On the other side of the state, the refreshed Canby classic theatre had been chugging along until the lockdown, showing a stream of current and second run films. Their Facebook site advises they will reopen after the lockdown period ends.

In Red Wing, the majestic Sheldon Theatre has been closed for many months. While the directors of the company did not respond to questions about their plans, it is important to note that similar to the Norshor, the Sheldon is buttressed by a city charitable trust and strong civic commitment. As a nonprofit performing arts organization, the Sheldon has reinvented itself, morphing from motion pictures to live performing arts.   
The theatre was created in 1904 from of a trust made by city council member Theodore Sheldon. That gift sustained the business for many decades. When the building needed refurbishment, the community has vigorously jumped in to raise money to support what it proudly calls the “jewel box’ of Red Wing. The most recent effort was a “once in a generation” capital improvement project in 2018. The Sheldon is a spectacular example of a grand Midwest opera house and a ‘must see’ on any trek into the Red Wing area.

Hope

I have to admit that I had chills running down my neck when I watched the world’s first COVID-19 vaccination in Great Britain. It brought me to a quote by Joseph Wirthlin:

“We are ever on the threshold of new journeys and new discoveries. Can you imagine the excitement of the Wright Brothers on the morning of that first flight? The anticipation of Jonas Salk as he analyzed the data that demonstrated a way to prevent polio?”

I think that the incredible rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccines represents just such a landmark achievement. As Salk’s vaccine ushered in the wonders of the Riverview, I am just as hopeful that the new vaccines will be the perfect tonic to awaken and revitalize these wondrous Minnesota theatres. And come spring, you may just get one last chance to experience their timeless settings. 

 

Photos by: By Dan, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33598605 — Tony Randgaard

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About Author

Tony Randgaard

Retired after more than 20 years in marketing with United and Northwest Airlines, Tony has been published by the Star and Tribune, Minnesota Monthly, MinnPost, Minnesota Connected, Air Cargo News, The Forward, CNS Air Cargo Focus and the TC Daily Planet. As a result, he has been a regular guest on the CBS-Entercom Radio ‘Jordana Green Show’ in the Midwest. His cold case mystery novel Unpremeditated: A Murderous Caribbean Travelogue — is available now on Amazon.

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