Abandoned Theaters, or Losing our Cultural History

Earlier today on Twitter someone posted a link to a buzzfeed article about abandoned theaters around the country. The combination of theatre + history + photography immediately grabbed me.

Abandoned Grand Theater, Long Shot - Alton, Illinois - 4/26/09

Grand Theater, Alton, IL. (copyright: CherryRodeo)

It’s a pretty cool collection of images of old vaudeville houses, movie houses and actual theatre theaters. Some have falling plaster, some are filled with broken seats, other are nearly empty vessels where you can almost hear the chatter and laughter of a crowd, the ghostly seats—or what’s left of them—sitting eerily quiet and empty.

I was immediately struck with sadness. These great architectural and design feats, parts of our collective history and cornerstones of a local community, being left to decay. Society’s moved on without them because they’re no longer needed or no longer viable to sustain. The economy of the arts often sits on a precarious cliff, and renovating or maintaining buildings like these is an expensive undertaking.

As I looked at the pictures, questions ran through my head about how it is people could let places like this deteriorate and fall to dust? How sad. Naively I didn’t realize how close to home this really is.

Here in Minneapolis there are a number of old abandoned-and-at-one-time theaters. Some have been repurposed as other things, like an antique store on Lyndale Ave and a gospel mission/church on E. Lake St. They have ornate fronts and shade-making marquees, wide glass door fronts that invite in large audiences. People walk past them every day and probably don’t even notice.

Abandoned theatre, Hudson Valley

abandoned theater, Hudson Valley NY (copyright: Timothy Neesam)

I walk past and picture a theatre’s logo and name hanging on the facade and a “now playing” announcement spelled out on the marquee. I want to see small cafe tables out front for patrons to gather at intermission.

If I were to win the lottery I’d buy one and renovate it back to its glory. Then again, that’s what I think with every orphaned brick building erected before 1950.

This list of 75 abandoned theaters includes Minneapolis, but ironically it’s the Shubert, a 1910 classic theater which was moved (literally) in the mid 1990’s about a block and a half down the street (to make room for a downtown suburban mall of all things.) There it sat until last year when enough money was finally raised to start the actual renovation and turn it into the Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts. So in this case: NOT so abandoned after all. Good job Minneapolis!

SouthernMeanwhile, down the street about 15 blocks , the 1911 Southern Theater is struggling to stay afloat due to mismanagement of funds. After its early life as a vaudeville type stage, when it often presented Swedish productions of traveling performers and had a “sister” theater in Sweden, it became a movie house. Then it spent several decades as a garage. Its interior was all but gutted, and its decorative facade was removed. Finally, in the 1970s it returned to its rightful place as a performance venue. The space has been a mainstay in dance, theater and even music performance since then, but has struggled with its management in the past few years. They’ve put out a desperate cry for help to the community (artists and arts-lovers alike) to raise an enormous sum in only a little over a week.

This request for money has been critiqued and questioned by some people. The question has been posed, “If you’re in trouble over financial mismanagement, what are you going to do with my donation to make sure it doesn’t all fall apart again?” They’ve tried to answer it, but frankly I’m not sure it’s an answerable question.

But will it become one of these 75 (or 74) others?

No one questions the value of the space, the need for a venue plausible for dance and theatre ranging from experimental to classic. The arts community is strong and vibrant, and this place has played an important role. I’ve seen a number of fascinating pieces on this stage, and the space itself is hard to compare to other things. It’s an open, raw space with exposed brick and its history showing in faded paint chips, while its cracked proscenium presents a unique backdrop to any performance. It’s booked year round with shows, and every weekend plays host to Balls – a midnight cabaret of sorts, featuring bits and pieces of myriad performers from different disciplines.

Proscenium of The Southern Theater, Minneapolis (copyright: The Man in the Yellow Hat)

Personally one of my own projects (work I’m most proud of) was produced there a few years ago. The historic true story of The William Williams Effect found a perfectly lovely home on the Southern’s stage, where things felt remote and distant while intimate, raw and real all at the same time. The backdrop perfectly echoed the time of our story. It was only serendipitous that the show was in that space, but looking back I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

It would be a shame if this stage went dark, if the things it presents lose their home. It would be a difficult venue to replace, and I wonder where those shows would end up. The Southern Theater is worth saving because of the part it plays in the cultural community of this city, a city that’s sadly too often known for not preserving its architectural history. The organization running it needs some serious re-working, and I hope they’re looking as hard for the talent and know-how to do the job as they are seeking the funds to stay afloat.

Take a look at these abandoned theaters, and then keep an eye out for them in your neighborhood.

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