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A History of Minneapolis: an Overview by Staff at the Hennepin County Library

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Featuring historical photos and items from the collections of the Hennepin County Library, with contemporary photos from the Phototour of Minneapolis by Chris Gregerson.


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The first performance of legitimate theater in Minneapolis took place in 1867 at the Pence Opera House. Early legitimate theaters included the Academy of Music, Grand Opera House, Harrison Hall, and Metropolitan Theater. The Shubert Theater, built in 1910, brought in many stars as well as employing the resident Bainbridge Players (1918-1933).

Tom Mix and company on Hennepin Avenue, promoting a show at the Minnesota (now State) Theater, May 1929.
Minneapolis Collection, M2490

Early vaudeville entertainment in Minneapolis can be traced to the numerous minstrel troupes and circuses that came to town in the 1870s and 1880s. Variety theaters and variety saloons gained popularity in the 1880s and 1890s. When the Shubert Theater opened in 1910, there were roller-skating monkeys at the Miles Theater, and Gayetee Theater's presentation of "A Trip to the Moon" was described as 'a riot of song and dance and fun'. From 1900 until the 1920s when competition from the movie theaters overshadowed live performances, many of the biggest names in entertainment played on Minneapolis vaudeville stages, including Kate Smith, Fanny Brice, Jack Benny, and Carol Channing. Vaudeville houses included the Bijou Opera, Dewey, Theatre Comique, Miles (Garrick), Gaytee, Lyceum, and the Orpheum. The Orpheum opened in 1921 as one of the largest vaudeville theaters in the country. Its opening entertainment was the Marx Brothers.

By the 1920s, movie theaters began to dominate the scene formerly occupied by vaudeville. Most theaters converted so movies could also be shown. The Orpheum Theater adapted to become one of Minneapolis' major cinemas. It was the second cinema in Minneapolis to install sound (February 1928) and it remained a significant film venue until it closed for remodeling in 1992.

Restored lobby of the State Theater on Hennepin Avenue, February 2000.
Photo courtesy of Chris Gregerson

In 1988 the city of Minneapolis regained two significant Hennepin Avenue theaters, the Orpheum and the State. With the restoration by the city of the theaters, the State (completed in 1991) and the Orpheum (completed in 1993), the city of Minneapolis gave two Broadway quality facilities to the community to enhance its musical and theatrical tradition, offering programs by local performers and nationally touring theater groups and musicians. Minneapolis remains on the circuit for world famous performers and conductors, as well as nationally touring Broadway shows.

In February 1999, the City of Minneapolis contracted to have the Shubert Theater moved one and one-half blocks to make room for the Block E development project. It took 12 days to move the 5.8 million-pound building, making it at the time the heaviest building ever to have been moved on rubber-wheeled dollies. Artspace Projects Inc. is working to develop the theater for use as a performing arts center for local groups.

Although the nickelodeons and later the movies had a tremendous impact on the entertainment business, live theater did not die. In Minneapolis, live theater remains a strong art force. By 1997, Minneapolis had more than 200 theater companies, many of which have existed for twenty years or more.

Guthrie Theater at 725 Vineland Place in 1964, showing the original wooden façade.
Municipal Information Library, Slide Collection, MIL0226.

Actors from the Guthrie Theater perform during the Aquatennial Block Party on Nicollet Mall (July 1978).
Municipal Information Library, Slide Collection, MIL1790.

One of the leaders, the Tyrone Guthrie Repertory Theater, opened on May 7, 1963. Sir Tyrone Guthrie founded the theater company as a venue to showcase theatrical talent and produce works of great literary value, away from the commercial pressures of the Broadway stage. Minneapolis was selected for the new theater over several competing cities, including Chicago and San Francisco. The Guthrie has brought international attention to Minneapolis ever since. Work is underway on a new Guthrie complex to be designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, on the Mississippi riverfront in the historic Mill District.


  Artistic Directors of the Guthrie Theater
Guthrie, Sir Tyrone 1963-1966
Campbell, Douglas 1966-1967
Langham, Michael 1971-1977
Epstein, Alvin 1977-1978
Ciulei, Liviu 1980-1985
Wright, Garland 1986-1994
Dowling, Joe 1995-

Another leader is the Brave New Workshop, founded by Dudley Riggs in 1958. It is the longest running comedy playhouse in the United States.

Dudley Riggs' Brave New Workshop, Hennepin Ave. and 26th St., June 2000
Photo courtesy of Chris Gregerson

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