Sentimental Journey

The Orpheum Theater, yesterday and today

THESE ARE STRANGE tools for building a map of a lost city: an abandoned, 1,700-seat theater; tough-looking women with crew cuts and black suits tap-dancing in swimmer's flippers; a hand-printed sign reading "Danger--wear no jewelry while operating switch panel"; a woman in combat boots singing along to a mournful piano melody.

The Memory Theater Project, which played the previous two weekends in the lobby and front entryway of the long-empty St. Paul Orpheum Theater is an anarchic assemblage. It is as though the second floor of the old theater had collapsed, depositing movie posters, broken projectors, and wax dummies of vaudevillians onto the floor below. Glancing into the roped-off auditorium of the theater heightens the sense of disrepair. The floor is covered with toxic chippings of lead-based paint and the air is stale with asbestos dust. If it weren't for a Little Rascals short that flickers silently on the screen, the theater would seem more ruined than abandoned. We can only imagine what it looked like before project director Suzanne Kosmalski and a group of volunteers went through the theater and cleared out hundreds of rat and pigeon carcasses.

Kosmalski's interest in this endeavor started a few years back when she videotaped a gallery that was then inside the lobby. "It got me thinking about memory, and vanishing community spaces," Kosmalski explains. "I didn't want to do the piece as a 'Save the Orpheum.' I just wanted to open the doors again, and get people into that space, and get them thinking about it."

Kosmalski has spent the past five years trying to gain access to the theater, over the objections of a series of owners. The 54-year-old artist specializes in creating installations in public spaces: Past exhibitions have taken place in swimming pools, cornfields, and sculpture gardens.

In its four-day run The Memory Theater Project attracted what Kosmalski calls "a real cross-section of people," some drawn by their own memories of the theater. The Palace was built in 1916 as a vaudeville theater and converted into an RKO movie house, the Orpheum, in the 1920s. During performances of the Memory Project dozens of people huddled in the lobby, where they listened to eight performers with ukuleles strum out a rendition of "Sweet Leilani." One audience member confessed that in the 1930s she had been a singer at Coleman's Nightclub on 7th and Wabasha. Upon hearing this, the Memory Project audience quickly hustled her to the front of the lobby where she was introduced by her stage name--Lee Winifred--and invited to warble out popular standards such as "Sentimental Journey" and "We'll Meet Again."

One man from the Memory Project audience asked to see the bathrooms; he had redone the plumbing in the 1950s and wanted to see if it was the same. He peered at the pipes in the women's bathroom and then nodded. "Same plumbing," he said.

This intersection of theoretically complex performance art and dewy-eyed nostalgia is typified in the performance of Elizabeth Hawes. Dressed in an alarming pink usherette outfit and coifed with mile-high blond hair, Hawes wanders around the lobby waving a flashlight and providing nonstop, nonsensical commentary. "Oh," she will groan between performances. "I think I'm getting a bunion!"

"She's Miss Hypertechnicolor," Kosmalski says, laughing. "I met her at my beauty shop. She asked what I wanted [for the performance], and I told her that I wanted to imagine that she had come to work at the theater the day it opened and had worked there until they began showing movies in color."

One woman who spoke with Kosmalski recalled working as a ticket seller at the Orpheum when she was young. Her ticket booth was visible from the street, and from the Capri Hotel across the street. One day she received a call from a man at the Capri who was watching her from a window and wanted to ask her out on a date. If this story were to finish as it should, that man would have wound up marrying her. Startlingly enough, that's exactly the way the story ends.

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