Theater of the Absurd

When the Shubert inched down Hennepin Avenue a year ago, Minneapolis politicos promised a bright future for the historic theater. They didn't mention stingy legislators, taxpayer bailouts, or the specter of the wrecking ball.

On a chilly afternoon twelve months ago, with a huddle of dignitaries and assorted gawkers in attendance, Minneapolis City Council president Jackie Cherryhomes blessed the Shubert Theater's one-block slog down Hennepin Avenue with a bottle of frozen Champagne. The superstitious might have taken it as an inauspicious sign that the bottle did not break on the first, or even the second, hurl. When Cherryhomes did finally manage to shatter it, a small cheer went up from the shivering crowd. The long-derelict Shubert had taken its first plodding step to new life, Block E was cleared for a long-awaited retail development, and the city was writing itself into The Guinness Book of World Records for moving the heaviest building ever (5.8 million pounds, to be precise) on rubber tires. It was a moment of civic pride, and, not coincidentally, a fabulous photo opportunity.

Still, there were those who questioned the efficacy of the Shubert move. With a price tag of $5 million and no guarantee that the theater would ever open its doors to the public, the endeavor looked to Cherryhomes herself like a "leap of faith." The city's finance officer, John Moir, advised in a memo to the city council that "from a purely economic perspective, the Shubert Theater Project is not viable."

The crux of Moir's apprehension was this: Artspace Projects Inc., the developer picked to renovate the Shubert, had three years to raise the approximately $22.5 million required to complete the remodeling. "If fundraising is unsuccessful," warned Moir, "Artspace is obligated to demolish the theater. Demolishing the Shubert, after spending $4.7 million to move it, would probably make the demolition the most expensive such event per square foot in the history of Western civilization."

Despite Moir's reservations, city politicos were convinced that Artspace could come up with the requisite cash. After all, the group had promised that once the city financed the move, it wouldn't need to spend another dime. Instead, Artspace's fundraising experts would recruit philanthropists, the State of Minnesota, and local foundations to underwrite the project. If luck held, Minneapolis would soon have a revitalized entertainment district featuring a glamorous new multiplex-and-retail development on Block E, plenty of themed restaurants, and another historic venue to round out its theater corridor.

A year later Block E still lies fallow. The squat and boarded Shubert is now moored adjacent to the Hennepin Center for the Arts on the opposite side of Sixth Street. Artspace has raised only $2 million in private donations to date; and, at the capitol, the project's biggest hope for a cash infusion--$8 million in state bonding money--is considered a long shot at best. To some city officials, Moir's original objections now seem less like naysaying than augury.

"It's a tremendous amount of money," says Tenth Ward council member Lisa McDonald, who cast the swing vote in the council's 7-6 decision to move the theater. In her view, there are three possibilities for the Shubert's future. Artspace could fail to raise the $6 million required to purchase the parcel where the theater now sits; that, explains McDonald, would trigger demolition. Or the group could fall short of its $22.5 million goal and, McDonald says, the city will be expected to pitch in. "Third," she prognosticates, "we'll end up owning the damn thing. And I, for one, really don't want to own another theater--especially one that needs shoring up."

When the Shubert opened its doors in 1910, Minneapolis's theater district was enjoying its first boom. Hennepin Avenue was lined with more than two dozen stages offering mostly vaudeville and burlesque diversion to the city's burgeoning middle class. Strolling southwest from the river in the Twenties, through an impossible traffic snarl of trolley cars, wide-eyed farm boys just off the train from North Dakota, workers from the milling district and the rail yards, street preachers, smartly dressed ladies out for the evening, and cops walking the beat, you'd pass first by the Antique Theater. You'd come next to the Great Northern Market on the corner of Sixth and Hennepin, where Al and Harry Shinder, the streetwise newspaper boys who would eventually found a Minneapolis institution on the same spot, hawked the day's headlines.

The Shubert would have been on your right, its Classical Revival façade dominating the architectural jumble around it. Past the Pantages Theater and the Walter Short Owl Cigar Store, past the low-rent residential hotels and restaurants and speakeasies buried away from the street, you'd come to the State and Orpheum theaters--where, if you were fortunate, Mae West or the Marx Brothers or Sarah Bernhardt might be gracing the stage.

If you'd walked the same route a few decades later, you'd have seen the grand old houses fading into disrepair. The Depression hit the downtown business district hard, and Minneapolis's Great White Way dimmed considerably. After a second boom in the postwar years, the area became a shabby playground for the city's seedier element. By 1987, according to Minneapolis Police Department statistics, 25 percent of all downtown crime took place on what is now Block E.

Perplexed city officials dealt with the blight as they had with that of the Gateway District a decade earlier: At a cost of $9 million, the businesses on Block E were relocated and the buildings razed. Only the Shubert, which had closed its doors in 1983 after a stint as the Academy movie theater, was left unmolested. The city's vision for the site included a retail and entertainment complex not unlike City Center on the other side of the avenue.

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