Curtain Call in the Theater District

          It was something of a battle of the titans at the Minneapolis City Council last week--two big developers fighting over the right to turn a chunk of downtown into an "urban entertainment center" with bells, whistles, and lots of theme restaurants. Brookfield LePage, a veteran of the development craze of the late 1980s, was proposing a one-and-a-half-block remake of Hennepin Avenue between Sixth and Eighth Streets; the plan included a hotel, an office tower, a multiplex cinema, and a food court. Loon State Ventures, a partnership that includes Valleyfair designer David Sherman, had grand plans for a three-block megacenter on the order of L.A.'s Citywalk, complete with a "tower of lights" and a three-story electronic billboard.

          What neither of the developers--or, for that matter, the City Council members charged with choosing a plan--talked about much was some historic real estate sitting in the way of their projects. To officials, the Shubert and the Mann Theaters are essentially headaches, and it appears that only one of them, at best, will be saved. The result is a bitter behind-the-scenes battle between two more groups of developers, this time over the right to revamp and refigure history.

          Along with the Orpheum and the State Theaters, the Shubert and the Mann are the last of what remains of an earlier "urban entertainment center." In the 1920s, Hennepin Avenue had something like 25 playhouses, featuring vaudeville shows, musicals, sequins, and bare legs. Then the Depression hit, and the war; by the time most people could afford to go out again, suburban drive-ins were the big attraction. A few of the Hennepin Avenue theaters added projection booths and hung on for a while. By the 1980s they were all closed, and many had been demolished.

          The Orpheum and the State were the lucky ones; they've been restored at a cost of more than $20 million, and over the past few years have featured attractions like Miss Saigon, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and the Chippendale dancers. Last year saw the addition of Hey City Stage, which the city lured to the former Hirshfield's building in a desperate bid to keep an adult-entertainment entrepreneur at bay.

          Three theaters, of course, don't make much of a district, especially when they're perched precariously on the edge of what downtown promoters have referred to as the "invisible fence" between the "good" side of downtown (Target Center and the nearby ring of trendy bars and restaurants) and the grittier reaches of Hennepin Avenue. So, David Ulrich and Ron Tolliver figured what was good for the Orpheum, the State, and Hey City should be good for the Shubert. Calling themselves RoDa Productions, they have been pushing a plan to turn the oldest remaining playhouse into the avenue's next attraction--a cross between an oversized community theater and a full-fledged professional stage.

          There's one big problem, though: The Shubert is the only building on an otherwise empty Block E, and the developers the city is angling for don't like to work around old structures. Loon State Ventures has expressed some interest in saving the Shubert, but has been careful not to make any commitments. And on Brookfield LePage's plans, the Shubert figures only as decoration: Its facade might be moved to dress up the project's Hennepin Avenue side.

          Brookfield's plans, however, aren't entirely devoid of theater options. The company so far does not propose to demolish the Mann, half a block over from the Shubert. Originally built as the Pantages Theater in 1916, the Mann has been closed since 1983 and looks decidedly uninspiring. (Its front door is the long storefront on the Hennepin Ave. side of the block that contains the First Avenue club.) An owner seeking a more "modern" look in the 1960s put a false ceiling over the elaborate plasterwork, covered the bird's-eye maple paneling with drywall, and painted a 20-by-30-foot stained-glass skylight black. But, says Fred Krohn, all that could be undone with relative ease.

          Krohn has a claim to some expertise when it comes to old theaters. He's the president of Heritage Theatre Group (HTG), the for-profit company the city has hired to operate the State and Orpheum theaters. He also heads Theatre Live!, a nonprofit that books Broadway shows on the two stages. Over the past few years, Krohn has built his position into a powerful one at the nexus of theater, business, and downtown boosterism. Among his associates are Lee Lynch of Carmichael Lynch Advertising, who sits on the boards of HTG and Theatre Live! and also owns substantial chunks of real estate in the theater district. Another is James Binger, the super-rich local executive who runs Jujamcyn Theaters.

          Not all Krohn's theater business dealings have gone smoothly. Early during his tenure managing the State and the Orpheum, a state investigation revealed that he'd overpaid himself almost $90,000 in fees drawn from theater accounts; officials also noted that he had not been keeping a general ledger and was commingling funds from various accounts. Krohn--who once worked in the state auditor's office--protested that too many accounting rules would "strangle theater"; he did pay back the money, though, and officials say his bookkeeping has not been a cause for concern recently.  

          Still, Krohn's practices remain a frequent target of criticism, mostly from competitors in the theater world. They question whether Krohn the promoter gets a special deal from Krohn the theater manager, and whether for-profit Jujamcyn gets an unfair advantage by teaming up with nonprofit Theatre Live!, thus avoiding sales taxes. City officials so far haven't paid much attention to those charges, in part, critics say, because of their own cozy relationships with Krohn. His domestic partner, Tom Hoch, once worked as the MCDA staffer supervising the Orpheum and State, a relationship that would have been classified as a conflict of interest had the two been married. (Hoch went on to be deputy director of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, a position he recently left to work for Historic Theatre Group.) And not long before the city awarded Krohn and Theatre Live! the booking contract for the State and Orpheum--a contract previously held by St. Paul's Ordway--Krohn gave Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton her single largest individual campaign contribution ($2,990, just under the legal limit of $3,000).

          At one point, Krohn's latest proposal held the potential for a conflict of interest to dwarf the previous complaints: He reportedly wanted to buy the Mann himself, renovate it (possibly with city subsidies), and run it in competition with the other theaters he managed. Krohn now says the Mann should be owned by the city, just like the Orpheum and the State. The theater's medium size, Krohn argues, makes it the perfect companion to the other two; he says it would host pre-Broadway productions, locally produced musicals, and the occasional show grown too big for another venue. Penumbra Theater, he adds, has expressed an interest in bringing its hugely successful Black Nativity to a renovated Mann.

          On principle, of course, none of this would interfere with Ulrich and Tolliver's proposal. Both Krohn and RoDa claim that the Shubert and the Mann, as proposed, would fill separate niches, and that local and regional audiences could support them both. But that's a theoretical possibility; in practice, most everyone assumes that one theater must come down so that the other can be saved.

          Objectively speaking, says Bob Roscoe of the Minneapolis Historic Preservation Commission, there's no question that the Shubert is "far and away the better theater." Yes, he says, a lot of the plaster has crumbled, "but with a theater, that's not necessarily what counts. The space is important. And people who are experts in this have told us that the Shubert is probably the best-built theater in Minneapolis in terms of its acoustic and other properties." But, Roscoe adds, he can see how the Mann would make a better first impression, especially if you like the "sort of gaudy" interior likely to emerge from a restoration.

          But the main reason why odds for the Mann seem overwhelming is still Krohn's connections and his track record. While council members interviewed for this story could barely place the name RoDa Productions, they inevitably said they were "very aware" of Krohn's proposal. Officials publicly say they don't care to sink any more taxpayer money into theaters--the Hey City project already broke rules by dipping into a fund normally reserved for neighborhoods--but they also like the idea of more neon lights along the avenue. "We've taken the stance that we're not interested in being the owner or operator of either [theater]," says Phil Handy, project coordinator at the MCDA. "But we're willing to look at proposals to restore or reuse either of them." Any such proposals, he adds, "must be in the context of some master plan for the whole block."

          In other words: Whoever develops Block E (and, possibly, its neighbors D and F) gets to say what happens to the theaters. Last week, the City Council voted to hand exclusive development rights for nine months to Brookfield LePage, whose plans obliterate the Shubert, leave the Mann in place, and don't give a lot of specifics beyond that. Officials now expect Brookfield and Krohn to hook up--they've already had preliminary discussions--and concoct a plan that lets the city save face and tear down the Shubert without too much of a fight from preservationists. Maybe, Krohn speculates, they could even save the Shubert's facade and stick it on the Mann.

          To Roscoe, it all looks like business as usual. "Not long ago, before the Mann came up, the buzz from the city was, 'The Shubert is the next theater we're going after.' Now the Mann is the hot venue. Frankly, I can't see in terms of planning why they couldn't both remain and the rest of the development could happen around them. Hennepin Avenue has already lost most of its turn-of-the-century buildings. [Keeping the theaters] is not the easiest thing, but as we proved with the State, it's doable." As for Krohn's have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too idea, Roscoe scoffs, "I think it's frankly ludicrous to say 'let's save the stones from the front of the Shubert, and we'll glue them into place somewhere else. That's really false history."

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