History of the Hollywood Part 1: From the Grand Opening to the Soggy Closing

Preservation Design Works has recently been working with a prospective developer interested in the Hollywood Theater, located at 2815 Johnson St. NE in Minneapolis. Several attempts have been made to redevelop the building in the past 25 years; thus far all have been unsuccessful. To help learn where things have gone wrong in the past, and to avoid problems encountered by previous redevelopment efforts, I have been researching both the history of the theater and associated redevelopment efforts. I plan to outline my findings in a series of posts on the history of the Hollywood Theater.*

The Hollywood Theater was commissioned in 1934 by Charles Rubenstein. Rubenstein was born in Northeast Minneapolis, and learned about the theater business from his father Louis, who operated the Faust and Dale theaters in St. Paul, and the Arion Theater on Central Avenue. Charles hired the firm Liebenberg and Kaplan Architects and Engineers to design the new theater. Liebenberg and Kaplan were responsible for the design and/or redesign of numerous local movie theaters throughout the Midwest in the '20s and '30s. 

In 1935, the Hollywood Theater, a single-screen movie house with a lavishly detailed Streamline Moderne design was constructed at a cost of $100,000 according to a 1935 newspaper article in the Minneapolis Tribune (which is over $1.6 million adjusted for inflation in 2012, a princely sum during the Great Depression). It incorporated amenities including air conditioning (using an evaporative cooling system that drew water from a basement well), modern sound, a beautiful lobby with a fountain, and an auditorium that seated over 750 people. The theater was built on a streetcar line near a neighborhood commercial node at 29th and Johnson St. NE that included a pharmacy, a bakery, two groceries, and an automobile service station at the time it was opened. An advertisement for the Saturday, October 26, 1935 grand opening of the theater in the East Minneapolis Argus enticed people to view “The Irish in Us” starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien. Admission for children was 10 cents, and for adults it was 20 cents before 5 PM and 25 cents after 5 PM.

An article in the Minneapolis Tribune on October 20, 1935 described the lavish amenities of the theater when it was opened:

The structure is of what is known as the stadium type, the balcony joining the main floor of the auditorium at the first floor level. Instead of the usual center aisles, entrance is gained over carpeted ramps on both sides of the building. This arrangement prevents interference with the vision of those persons already seated. … The front lobby scheme is carried out with metallic effect, indirect lighting being featured. Three tones of silver constitute the general color scheme, while the doors have blue trim. The lounge holds furniture of chromium metal and leather, and the projection room has mechanism which virtually is silent. … The building is to be illumined by indirect neon tubing, providing multiple color effects through use of a flasher system. … There is a minimum of ornament, broad fields of color supplying the decorative effect.

In 1948, the original marquee of the building was removed and replaced with the triangular marquee that is currently on the building (accounts of the year the replacement marquee was installed vary in the articles and reports that I’ve found, but the evidence strongly supports the replacement of the marquee in 1948). The replacement marquee and associated changes to the façade to support it were also designed and supervised by Liebenberg and Kaplan.

Charles Rubenstein remained the owner until 1970, when he sold the theater to Harry V. Mahoney. Mahoney’s purchase stirred considerable controversy with neighborhood residents and city officials, who were concerned by a rumor or possibility that the new operator Guy Weir was planning on showing pornographic films. Apparently, Mahoney or a man with the same name owned a pornographic book publishing business in Michigan. A Minneapolis Star article from May 6, 1970 described that the Minneapolis City Council indirectly addressed this concern by denying the new operator’s license because he did not purchase the theater’s accompanying parking lot across the street (which is now occupied by a convenience store). A 1963 ordinance required a certain number of off-street parking spaces based on the capacity of seating. Mahoney was not pleased with this denial and sued the city, contending that it was a violation of First Amendment rights. A July 16, 1970 Minneapolis Star article reported that the Council’s refusal was upheld in the Hennepin County District Court. Two council members testified that a “principal concern” of the Council Committee on Licenses was the fear that “nudie” films might be shown.

After a series of new owners, Bev Fine and her son Robert purchased the Hollywood Theater in 1983 with the intention of restoring it. By the time the Fines bought the building, it had fallen into disrepair and hard times, yet it retained much of its character. A 1985 study by the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) staff found the basement floor covered by six to eight inches of water, and other water damage issues related to a leaking roof. Despite these issues, the HPC staff found much of the character defining elements of the theater were intact. 

Personal circumstances and dwindling ticket revenues attributed to the rise of video rentals and suburban multiplexes stymied Bev Fine’s efforts to operate and restore the theater. As a result, the Hollywood Theater closed in 1987. In a January 10, 1988 Star Tribune article, Bev Fine (who changed her name to Bev Johnson) expressed her frustration that she didn’t get more support from local moviegoers and people interested in historic preservation.

When the Hollywood Theater closed its doors in 1987, its future remained uncertain. The next few years saw a flurry of efforts to save the building from demolition and redevelop it, which I will cover in the next post.

*Note regarding nomenclature: I have encountered “Hollywood Theater” and “Hollywood Theatre” used interchangeably in reference to the building. The original drawings and advertisements for the building called it the “Hollywood Theatre,” however the majority of the material I have found about the building called it the “Hollywood Theater.” For the sake of simplicity, and in accordance with the most conventional American English spelling, I will refer to the building as the “Hollywood Theater.”

Sources

“Theater Will Open Saturday,” Minneapolis Tribune, October 20, 1935.

“Theater license refusal upheld,” Minneapolis Star, July 16, 1970.

Margo Ashmore, “Hoofers to help celebrate Hollywood Theatre’s history and – maybe – future,” Northeaster, February 24, 1993.

Warren Bruland, “The Preservation of the Hollywood Theater,” report for Arch 5141, University of Minnesota, December 3, 1993. A copy of the report is located in Special Collections, Hennepin County Library.

Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission, “Neighborhood Movie Theater Thematic District Guidelines for Rehabilitation,” July 1991.

Jim Shoop, “’Dirty’ movie fears stir license debate,” Minneapolis Star, May 5, 1970.

Jeff Strickler, “’Historic’ honor can’t save the Hollywood Theater,” Star Tribune, January 10, 1988.

Hollywood TheaterPVN Staff